Blue Butterfly

by Susan Palwick

Every week when I sign in for my volunteer shift at the hospital, there’s a census sheet waiting for me in the chaplain’s office; the Spiritual Care Department likes to keep track of how many patients we visit. The woman who schedules volunteers sometimes decorates each sheet with a small sticker. One day, quite a while back now; my sheet featured a large sticker: a shiny blue butterfly.

Not thinking anything of it, I dove into the shift. The ER was busy that day, but my census was lower than usual, because I spent about half the shift with one patient.

A nurse had asked me to visit her. She’d fled to the hospital, drunk, for reasons she could no longer remember, but which surely included mortal fear of the man who beat her. She’d begged the nurses not to let him in, begged to know how many locked doors the ER had. Terrified of being alone, she begged me to stay with her. She was covered with welts and bruises.

She had been systematically abused since she was a child; she could only remember one relative who had ever defended her. Past middle age now, she’d been with her current abuser for several decades. He forbade her to have friends, to give out Christmas cards, to go to movies. He demeaned and insulted her. She told me, “I drink so it won’t hurt as much when he hits me, but I know I have an alcohol problem now.” Sometimes, she told me, he was nice: sometimes he’d buy her strawberries or oranges, if they were cheap enough.

He had promised her that if she ever tried to leave or went to the police, he’d kill her. It quickly became clear to me and to the nurses and doctor that she wouldn’t agree to go to a shelter or press charges. The ER manager told me sadly that because this patient’s injuries weren’t immediately life-threatening (at least in medical terms), we couldn’t call in the police without her permission.

Chaplains are trained to help patients marshal their own supplies of strength and hope. This woman was terrified, despairing, convinced that she deserved the abuse. But when I asked her, “What makes you happy?” her face lit up.

“Oh, lots of things! I love butterflies. I love drawing and music.”

“Butterflies? I have a butterfly on this sheet of paper. I’m going to give it to you.”

She smiled when I tore off that corner of my census sheet and handed it to her. “Oh, look, it’s blue! Blue is my favorite color.”

I don’t think it was a coincidence that the volunteer coordinator put a blue butterfly on my census sheet that day and I don’t think it was a coincidence that butterflies are symbols of resurrection.

“Can I tell you more things I like?” the patient asked. She told me how much she loved art, how she spent three months on a painting her abuser sold in a garage sale. She described the painting, and the story it told, in great detail.

“If I bring you some crayons and paper,” I asked her, “will you draw something for me? I’d really like that.”

She cocked her head. “It won’t be very good.” But when I asked again, she agreed.

The drawing is a rough sketch of a woman’s profile. I think maybe it’s a self-portrait, although she didn’t say.

When she finished it, I said, “I’m going to take this home and put it up where I can see it and every time I look at it, I’ll pray for you.”

She left the hospital, against medical advice. She left with the butterfly and also with a list of shelters from our social workers. None of us doubted that she was going back to her abuser.

I left the hospital with the drawing she gave me.

The drawing hangs on my file cabinet now. It reminds me to pray for the woman who made it, who was so talented and articulate and kind despite the torture she’d suffered. It reminds me to pray for hope and transformation for her. It reminds me to pray that she still has the butterfly, or remembers it. I pray for her to carry the butterfly in her heart, even if she’s lost the scrap of paper I gave her, or even if her abuser has taken it away from her. I pray that whenever she sees or thinks of a butterfly now, she’ll remember that people in the hospital wanted her to be happy and reminded her that she could be. I pray for her to feel the butterfly’s wing beats, to come to believe that freedom is possible.


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