“Looking for Sulphers”
© Gordon Thomas Ward, September 5, 2023
When I was a young boy of four or five years of age, I met the members of the Feldmann family who lived next door to my family in Bernardsville, NJ. Over the years, the three Feldmann children and I became very close, and their parents became my godparents. Within a short amount of time, we grew to love each other, considering each other nothing short of brothers and sisters. To those of you who have read my book A Bit of Earth, you know what I mean through those stories. We shared all of those adventures of childhood together. Richard, Gretchen, and Christyann are my roots, my connection to my childhood through our shared pasts.
And so you can imagine how painful it is to say goodbye to Gretchen who, two years my junior, passed away after a lengthy battle with cancer on August 22, 2023. The news, although expected, has left me struggling for stability, for I find myself now with only two of my three roots left that bind me to my formative years.
Gretchen called me on July 17 to tell me she was dying. All treatment options were exhausted, and I could hear in her voice that she was tired from her journey. We spent almost twenty minutes on the phone sharing both tears and laughter. In the weeks that followed, we shared a few texts, but this call was the last time I heard her voice. She ended the call saying, “I’ll talk to you again. I love you.”
In the weeks that followed that phone call, the memories I have of Gretchen filled both my dreams and my waking moments. I remembered games of Mother May I and Red Light-Green Light, baseball, and frisbee in our yards. There were recollections of eating melting popsicles on patio steps on hot, July afternoons, sledding and skating on frozen, winter days, exploring steams near our homes, and navigating “secret” tunnels under forsythia bushes that connected our two yards. My mother taught Gretchen to decorate cakes, and I learned to ride a bike on the right-of-way in front of her house. We were each other’s first kiss. Don’t get too excited. She was seven, and I was nine, and we were playing grown-up house. Our immediate evaluation was that kissing after coming home from work was yucky and highly overrated.
The four of us went to school and church together, and we had a glorious neighborhood to explore filled with woods, ponds, meadows, and brooks. The Charlie Brown comic strip was extremely popular when we were kids, and we all showed similarities to one of the characters. For some reason, Gretchen was always Lucy: a bit bossy with a heart of gold.
Out of all the memories I have of my dear sister, one particular event has risen to the top. As wonderful as our childhoods were, there were also struggles. Our parents loved us but were often very strict. On one particular day when we had both been scolded for separate childhood infractions, Gretchen and I unexpectedly found each other on a walk and sought refuge and commiseration in each other’s company.
She was perhaps nine years old, and I was eleven. My parents’ property was a mix of grass and woods, and my father always let the grass grow to extraordinary heights before cutting it. The lawns literally became meadows, and, being children, the grass easily came up to our waists or higher, so, it was easy to find a place to lie in the grass where the adults couldn’t see us. Within those meadows, we escaped from reality, lying on our backs, picking the wildflowers, watching puffy clouds drift by in azure skies, and taking note of the butterflies around us.
Gretchen’s brother Richard and I shared the hobby of collecting butterflies, and we were pretty serious about it. Owing to the fact that the four of us hung out together quite often, a good deal of the fascination that Rich and I had with butterflies rubbed off on Gretchen and Christyann. So, on this one day when Gretchen and I were laying in the grass, we started to watch for butterflies. There was quite a variety to see in our neighborhood. There were Tiger Swallowtails, Common Blue Azures, Hairstreaks, Fritillaries, Black Swallowtails, Cabbage Whites, Wood Nymphs, Wood Satyrs, Spicebush Swallowtails, and even an occasional Monarch.
We all had our favorites. Mine was, and remains, the Mourning Cloak. Its wings are mostly maroon-brown with ragged, pale-yellow edges. Inside of this are iridescent blue spots that separate the yellow edges from the maroon-brown. It has a wingspan of about 3.5 inches. The butterfly got its name because the pattern on the wings was likened to a girl who, disliking having to be in mourning, defiantly let a few inches of her bright dress show below her mourning cloak.
Gretchen’s favorite butterfly was the Clouded Sulphur. Their wings are yellow with black edges. Its wingspan is between 1.5 and 2 inches, and they were easy to spot due to their bright coloring. She and I often remarked about how beautiful both of these species were, and we’d keep watch for them all the time. When we saw a Sulphur or a Mourning Cloak, we would shout with joy and point it out. We were always on the lookout, always watching. Lying on our backs in the grass that particular day, we watched the butterflies flit from flower to flower or spiral up above our heads. They seemed so free, and they allowed us to forget about any problems we had.
Out of the blue, Gretchen turned to me and said, “When I die, I think I want to be a butterfly and fly around our yards.”
I agreed how peaceful that would be, gliding above the grass, carried on the breeze, and landing on flowers.
“What kind would you be?” I asked.
“A Sulphur, of course,” she said. “Would you be a Mourning Cloak?”
I nodded and said, “We could fly together, wherever we wanted.”
“That would be great,” she said and added, “Someday, we’ll do that.”
Fast forward some 52 years after that day in the meadow. As I sat in the pew at Gretchen’s funeral, I thought about how she wasn’t in her body anymore, how that wasn’t really her lying there. She moved on.
I’ve heard it said that heaven can be anything you want it to be, and I couldn’t help but imagine my sister spreading her bright yellow wings above a meadow near the place where we grew up, a meadow full of tall grass and flowers, and floating on a slight breeze on an endless, warm, and sunny summer day. She’s flying from bloom to bloom, and I’d like to think she’s watching and waiting – waiting for a Mourning Cloak.
I’m now wrapped in my own cloak of mourning, for I will miss Gretchen more than I can describe. However, much like the butterfly, there are happy edges showing beneath my cloak because I know she’s free and finally out of pain. She can fly.
I went back to Gretchen’s grave at the end of the day after her funeral. I guess I just wanted to see what it looked like with everyone gone. Being that I was in Missouri for the funeral, I also doubted I would ever have an opportunity to return. I felt the need to have some quiet reflection. I just sat on the grass next to the newly seeded earth – thinking, remembering, and perhaps wishing a bit that it was all a dream, for maybe that’s what life is after all. I wasn’t alone for my visit. Richard, Christyann, and her husband were with me. We finally got up to leave with the setting sun. Patting Gretchen’s grave for one last goodbye, I told her softly, “Okay darlin’. I’ll see you.”
While I know I won’t see her in this life, in time I know I will. When I do, I expect Gretchen to keep her promise to me on our phone call when she said, “I’ll talk to you again.” Until then, fly free, my dear. I love you, too, and I promise, wherever I am, I’ll always be looking for Sulphurs.