It’s a stunning autumn evening, and the last few days have been bluebird skies and butterflies, as the largest Painted Lady migration in decades is underway in Colorado. There are so many millions of insects it showed up on weather satellites. I am one of the lucky ones who happens to be in the path of a 70-mile-wide kaleidoscope.
Over the last ten days I have spent at least a dozen hours standing in front of my house watching these beautiful, delicate insects fly over my roof from the north, down in a stream to land on the sunflowers I planted almost-too-late in the season to bloom. But bloom they did, and it has been a Butterfly Buffet in my sunflowers.
In late June, after coming home from a week of especially brutal treatments that left burns on my skin which required treatment, I threw some seeds from 2 different packets of sunflowers into 3 larger-sized pots. Planting those flowers was an act of faith that I would live to see them bloom. Back then it seemed inconceivable to me that no doctor would be able to put a name to the disease that had been systematically attacking my lungs, teeth, stomach, bones, muscles, joints and skin for the last 5 years.
More of the sunflowers sprouted and took hold than I expected. The pots became overcrowded – I watered them twice a day through the heat of the summer and bought some miracle grow to make up for the lack of soil for the roots. They became top-heavy, and I tied them to the rain gutters and the porch. Watering their roots to appease the drooping leaves and buds, and making sure the nascent stalks were supported and protected from grass hoppers gave me something to take care of. It was therapeutic and got me out of my own head about my illness.
When we returned from (literally) howling at the total eclipse of the sun for two-and-a-half minutes in a fallow field in the middle of Wyoming in late August, I was delighted to find one single sunflower had bloomed – dark and full of beauty I was unprepared for, like the amazing solar event we had just witnessed with our son.
It was a week before another flower unfurled its petals – a Mammoth Sunflower that was bright yellow, with a head larger across than a dinner plate. I was certain it was too late in the season for the rest to bloom, but kept diligently watering in my own act of faith for them. Flowers bloomed intermittently, but the majority of buds refused to open.
In the middle of September my sunflowers blazed to life, as if someone had thrown a switch.
I was reluctantly walking to my car one morning, on the way to my first treatment of the week, when a riot of color met my eyes: 3 kinds of yellow, orange, peach, burnt umber, and red. The sight of those flowers felt like a triumph: I was still able to nurture something, to be useful.
A few days later Richard called excitedly from the front yard and I walked out into the glorious sunshine of a late summer day to find a flurry of butterflies in my flowers. I stood transfixed, delighted at their delicate flitting and bold coloring. It was a tonic to my soul, and for a little while I forgot the long hallway of pain the last few months had been. All my work had been worth it.
Eleven days later I found myself sitting in my car in my driveway, hands on the wheel and utterly lacking the energy I needed to walk into the house. I had just finished my third ultraviolet radiation treatment for the week – number 40-something since May – and I stared at the garage until it seemed the right thing to do to shuffle inside.
Three times a week I step into what I call The Wayback Machine. (Google Mr. Peabody and Sherman, those of you under 40)
The Wayback Machine administers a prescribed dose of UVB radiation via a contraption that is god’s own tanning booth. The light box stands about 7 feet high and is circular with 25 or so vertical lights lining the inside. The machine swings open on hinges, and you go in naked – but for goggles to protect your eyes from blindness – and step up onto a box. You close the door as the nurse dons protective gear, and grab a bar above your head to keep steady, and prevent you from falling into the lights and getring burned.
You take a breath, steel yourself and give the okay.
Lights that look like giant florescent tubes come to life with a literal *POP!* that makes you flinch, and you see a flash of white light through eyes pressed closed and hiding under the red goggles I prefer over the yellow. A giant fan kicks to life a quarter of a second later to make the heat bearable, and the machine grinds and whirs.
Instead of weak, annoying florescent lighting, these bulbs bake you with the literal heat of the sun: Cancer-causing UVB rays scorch deep into your skin, burning off the top layer. You smell yourself burning – the actual smell of your skin burning off begins to nauseate you, but the fan wafts the stench away. You feel hours worth of direct sunlight beamed onto your unprotected skin in a matter of seconds. Deeper down below where the skin’s cellular DNA is being damaged and cancer might develop, the radiation suppresses your immune system, further reducing your ability to fight off your invisible enemy.
You begin to feel the tightness in your face as the burn starts anew – and the machine stops. But you’re not done. You’re only halfway through. Put your hands down, hang on to the grab bar by your index finger and thumb and try to expose as much of your hands to the UVB as possible.
You give the okay. *POP!!* Flash, grind, hum, whir, burn.
Wash, rinse repeat.
Each week my exposure time has to be turned up to keep my skin free of the mystery rash and disease that has stumped 35 doctors and nearly took my eyesight in June. My exposure time is 7 times greater than my first treatment. I am quickly approaching my threshold of pain and exhaustion, and the sensibility to keep exposing myself to a cancer causing agent.
Imagine getting sunburned 3 times a week every week into forever – until you develop melanoma.
THAT is my reality and my treatment plan.
I literally have NO DOCTOR supervising my UVB treatments – I’m the one calling the shots on The Wayback Machine. I have a nurse who administers the treatments, but I am the one setting the schedule of treatments, and telling them when I need more. If anyone reviews my orders and realizes the doctor who gave them ‘fired’ me in June when he decided he had no clue what was wrong with me and didn’t want a goose-egg case on his load, I would no longer be able to go into the Wayback Machine. He had the office manager call me on a day I was trying to get an appointment, and tell me I was no longer a patient because he couldn’t help me. She told me I should go to the Emergency Room if I needed care, but my best bet was to try the University of Colorado Medical Center’s Dermatology Department – a facility that had a 6 week waiting list and refused to take me as a patient, too. Right now I have a compassionate dermatologist who is monitoring my skin for the inevitable melanoma, hoping to excise it quickly. That’s hardly a treatment plan and leaves me feeling hopeless some days.
That’s where I was a week ago… Burned and burned out from fighting a nameless disease that is the thief of joy.
Just walking into the house seemed too much of an effort, and I was feeling sorry for myself in a powerful fashion. Using my cane I hoisted myself from the car and began to shuffle into the house like a caricature of myself.
As I brushed against the sun flowers along the front walk they seemed to explode in front of my eyes – a swirl of color around my head that startled me – I flinched and let out a surprised, ‘Hunh!’
It was butterflies: Dozens of butterflies.
I looked around and there was a stream of butterflies flying over the top of my roof, and toward me, dropping to land on the sun flowers that reached toward the autumn sky. Turning southwest I could see the Painted Ladies who had finished at the buffet flitting off down the cul-de-sac and out of sight. Turning back I realized there were even more butterflies than I thought – they were camouflaged beautifully by my sunflowers!
The sky was alive with color and beauty and somehow I’d nearly missed it by staring down.
The rest of that day I came out to stand amongst the Painted Ladies for as long as I had the strength. I would stand for 10 or 15 minutes, and then go rest, and come back out. The fall sunlight didn’t seem nearly so nefarious as The Wayback Machine, and I even enjoyed the feel of it on my too-burned face.
I took pictures – dozens and dozens of pictures. It was a feast of images. If I stood still near the flowers the butterflies would land around me, allowing me close up shots of their brilliant patterns and feather-like scales.
I had never seen anything like it, and posted a 90 second video of the migration on Youtube and Facebook. Many local friends said they’d seen them, too, and we worried it was too late in the season for such delicate creatures to be migrating.
The next day the rain moved in, cold and windy. The nasty weather held for several days, and during last afternoon I made the first pot of bean soup for the season. I resigned myself to the fact the migration was over. I wished them well on their journey and was grateful for the unexpected beauty of the Butterfly Buffet.
Two days ago the sun came back in full force, and with it a mighty cloud of travelers 70- miles wide. The migration was so large it initially stumped the folks at the Weather Service.
Coming home from my second treatment of the week I could hardly believe my eyes at the sight before me: Butterflies hanging from every bloom, gorging themselves on nectar before they heading on down to Mexico.
Moving slowly I pulled out my phone and snapped a close-up of 3 Painted Ladies gossiping at the salad bar. I thought to take a video, but instead put my phone in my back pocket. It’s not like I could capture what I was seeing, as hundreds of butterflies flew past and into me, swirling around my flowers, and on to their next destination. I was damned if I was going to watch this spectacle through a smart-phone screen.
I stayed as long as I could, soaking up this ephemeral beauty, laughing like a child as a butterfly briefly landed on my head.
I dipped back into the transitory show as I could, taking a snap now and again, sometimes sitting on my front step until the weariness won out. As the country mourned and asked itself questions about Las Vegas that it already knew the answer to, I soothed my ragged soul with a sight I’m not sure I will ever see again.
Who knows? Maybe next year will bring another spectacular migration – a smorgasbord of color that transports me to a childlike place where beauty is enough. I’m not sure if I’ll be here to see it. I’ll be ready, though, if we all happen to be in the same place next year.
I have carefully clipped and saved the Eclipse flower and it’s immediate friends – you can see the clean cut in the picture above on the stalk at the far left of the frame. I have saved the Mammoth sunflower head that has at least 200 seeds. I rescued the plant that had both orange AND yellow flowers when the stalk broke the same morning the cold spell did.
I am carefully drying them, and will do the same with all of the rest I can that are still in the front yard.
I am harvesting the seeds of my garden in an act of faith that I will plant again next year and live to see them bloom. The Butterfly Buffet *will* be open, no matter how many patrons show up.
The only way I can stay sane in the face of living with this hateful, nameless disease and stepping into the grueling Wayback Machine again and again and again with no end in sight is to plan ahead and live my life as if there is more to come.
The only choice I have is to move forward like I still have time with my beloved husband and son. Not an unlimited amount of time, mind you, but a hopeful amount of time to see more of this astounding world with those I love, and to try to make a difference through meaningful resistance to purposeful ignorance and hate.
Really, what good are any of our lives – sick or no – if we don’t make time to howl at eclipses, laugh deeply with our friends, and plant Butterfly Buffets?
A man has made at least a start on discovering the meaning of human life when he plants shade trees under which he knows full well he will never sit. — D. Elton Trueblood