Illustration by Clara Nicoll

Long life: Lessons from a butterfly

A recent encounter with an incandescent yellow brimstone made me reflect on beauty
May 10, 2023

Today, I met a butterfly. The garden centre was full of seductive summer plants that had winter-weary gardeners licking their lips. Then the radiant star made its entrance and stopped them in their tracks. Incandescent yellow wings diving and weaving, then landing on a leaf. Wings closed, it perfectly resembled its green landing stage. It virtually disappeared. A flawless disguise.

“Look how clever I am. As well as beautiful. But you can’t buy me like a flower and trap me in your earthbound lives. That old creature over there, gawping at me, has been around for 90 years—I will only have one if I’m lucky, but I will spend it dancing and flashing my wonderfully yellow wings, making the daffodils and primulas look dull and faded.”

I’ve been in and out of hospital for the past two months, coping with the ravages of age. I’ve had every test under the sun. I suspect there are laboratories all over London with saucers lined with blotting paper, where scientists are trying not to grow mustard and cress, as they might have done as children, but to conjure a response from drops of my blood. If they can identify the alien nastiness nestling in my lungs then they can clobber it with an appropriate antibiotic. So far, my blood is infertile, and we cannot locate the clever virus that is avoiding all their killer medicines. It makes me quite proud that my body is so bolshy. But also, quite poorly. And glum.

I am not well cast as an invalid. I do not do brave suffering well. My body feeling weak makes me frustrated and angry with myself and everyone who tries to help: “No, I don’t need a bloody carer… no, I’m not going into a home… yes, I bloody well do still drive.” I will not play this part as society dictates. If I fall flat on my face, rather than sit in an armchair with a rug over my knees, that is my choice. I don’t want to “take it easy”.

And, like the butterfly, I want things to be beautiful.

I watched a new chat show last night, featuring a comedian whom I like, but the biggest laughs were for stories about porn, genitalia and defecation. To me, it seemed so ugly. To my grandchildren, it is apparently their norm. In fairness, in his rude bits, I suppose Shakespeare would’ve found it funny; but he also said, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”—so he’s allowed. 

How will it end? How wonderful if, for my exit, I could evolve into a yellow butterfly and somersault and whirl and dance my way into the sun, leaving behind my earthbound existence.