It was a vanilla sheet cake with cream cheese frosting. I added sprinkles at the last moment before I packed up the cakes. I wasn't sure if it was appropriate to add sprinkles. But I decided to just go with it. Because sprinkles make people smile. And we could all use a little cheer from time to time. At least that was my reasoning, my attempt to convince myself as I carefully loaded the cakes into my car. I had made two of them.
Why two sheet cakes? Because I didn't have time nor the ingredients on hand to make a casserole. A casserole would've been more appropriate. But I wasn't sure it would survive the six hours drive. It'd be cold by the time I arrived. And anyway, dessert was also acceptable, given the circumstances.
And these were exceptional circumstances. I had gotten a call after work from one of my friends. She relayed the sad news that her father-in-law had just passed away. I knew that he was in the hospital. He had just been transferred there a week before for special treatment. He didn't survive. I felt heartbroken for my friend, because I know the pain and sorrow that comes from losing a father.
I thought of my friend. He was the tallest friend that I had, towering over six feet plus several inches. He was also one of my oldest friends, as in one of the kids I'd been friends with the longest. We grew up in the same neighborhood, went to the same church, and attended the same schools. Our families were fairly well acquainted with each other. And while our families weren't the best of friends, we held tremendous respect and courtesy for each other, and we counted each other as allies.
My family was the first to move into the remote valley; we settled there and cultivated the land. We were isolated for many years and two generations in the wilderness. Then other families, seeking better opportunities and better lives, started to move into the neighboring lower flood plains. And among those arriving settlers came my friend's family.
My parents recalled when this first group started showing up. And by the time my generation was born, our wilderness had borne a small village, the tiniest of isolated, rural towns. We were too small to have a market. We delivered and sold our goods down at the main market many miles away, far from our valley.
And it would be over a decade before the community saved enough money to build a paved road, to link us to the main highway. The local government only paved the highway so far, and they stopped paving the highway at least two miles outside the borders of our village. It was up to us to find the funds and the means to build a road to connect our small town to the lone highway.
Over time, we built a church and had a general store. Within ten years, I remember we grew big enough to support a second church and a second general store. Truth be told, there was a split in the church. Local politics. It came down to the new members versus the old guard. The locals were considered the old guard. And we weren't going to subject ourselves to suffering the idiocy and foolishness of the new arrivals, no matter how much money they waved in our faces.
The new members were recent additions to the community. They came only after we had paved the road. And when they realized that we weren't going to kowtow and bow down to their whims, they relocated across the main highway and set up their own small town. It was a poor imitation of ours. For all its bigger, newer buildings, and fancy, oversized homes, their town seemed fake, for it lacked the genuine character and distinct culture that defined and refined our small town.
By the time these new migrants arrived to our remote area, our small town had developed and established a culture, one based on respect and reciprocity. We looked out for each other, because for a long time, for many generations, all we had was each other. If there was an emergency or a dangerous development, we dealt with it ourselves. We were too far out to get any timely assistance from the police and fire and emergency services.
So we lent our neighbors a hand when they needed it. We shared the work that went into improving the community, which included building the road to the main highway; draining the flood plains to get rid of the mosquito infested swamps; and rerouting and redistributing the creeks to better serve the farms and needs of the small town.
The basis of our customs and culture were respect, kindness, and cooperation. We tried to treat people the way we wanted to be treated. We took care of each other. We stood up for each other. And we came together to celebrate the good times, and we helped each other get through the bad times.
And one way we supported each other was coming together when someone passed away. When a family loses someone, the custom was that the villagers would show up at the mourning family's home, to relay our condolences, and to bring a dish of food. The idea was that the affected family would be too distraught and stressed over the loss. We would bring food, so that the grieving family would have something to eat, without worrying about making a meal.
Food was comforting. And the truth was, part of the reason why we brought food was because even a sad event like a death in the family was considered a community affair. People would come to the mourning family's home to show their support. And the rules of a good host meant that these visitors had to be fed. So we brought dishes to share, a potluck like all other community events, where we shared food and support, freeing the affected family to grieve and take care of matters with the least amount of stress.
The expected dish for the potluck was usually a casserole. Something delicious and filling, easily served to the crowd, and could be stored in the fridge or freezer with no problems. Most people brought piping hot meat and vegetable dishes, because they were delicious and nutritious. And they could be served in one bowl or a small plate with no fuss. But custom also allowed for desserts. We can't all just feed on casseroles. And sweets bring a comfort all their own.
So I embraced the thought of comforting sweets as I made the long drive north. It was dark, well past midnight when I arrived. My friends were still up. It had been a stressful day. But their young son and my friend's mother, the Widow, had gone to sleep. I parked the car on the street, grabbed the cakes, and made my way to the front door.
I knocked lightly, my friend's wife opened the door. She greeted me warmly, tried to hug me, and expressed surprise that I had brought sheet cakes. My friend came out, and we hugged each other. I expressed my condolences, which he accepted, then followed me back to the car where I retrieved my overnight bag.
We sat in the kitchen for a short while and talked. I explained to the Wife why I brought the sheet cakes. It was a custom from back home. That made my friend, the Husband, smile. Soon we went to sleep.
The next day, I greeted their Son, a healthy, vibrant six year old. I'd just visited him a few months before, and we enjoyed playing in the yard and swimming at the local pool. He was happy to see me. I felt happy to see him.
But as I hugged him, I couldn't help but wonder, did he know what was going on? Was he aware of why his family seemed sad? Surely he must've picked something up, especially when my friend's two sisters came to the house, eyes red with tears, mourning the loss of their father. There were things that the family needed to care of, especially the return of their father's body back home for the funeral.
When the Widow finally came down, she seemed distant, disconnected; she had a faraway look on her face. It wasn't until I got up to greet her that she finally seemed present. She recognized me, accepted my condolences, and thanked me for coming. Her eyes lit up for just a minute when her grandson exclaimed that I had brought them cake. She looked at me, smiled, and said, "Your Mama would be proud. She done raised her son right."
That unexpected compliment made me think of my Mom. Her smiling face came to mind, and I could hear her laughter. Suddenly, I felt the overwhelming urge to cry, for I was sharply reminded that my beloved mother had passed away a few years ago. But I held back the tears, and I thanked the Widow for her high praise.
The Widow went to the birdcage that held a small canary. It was the last gift from her husband. She removed the cover, cleaned out the cage, washed her hands, and fed the bird. She took a glass of water out to the porch. Then she came back in, picked up the cage, and headed out to the back porch to sit. All ready, the canary started its cheerful singing.
Meanwhile, her daughters and son planned out the day. As soon as they were ready to leave the house to take care of matters, they'd collect the Widow and handle their father's affairs. There were many tasks to be done, things that needed coordination. They had all ready made plans for their father's funeral. They knew that he would die soon. Now it was just a matter of putting plans into action.
In the meantime, the Son had finished his breakfast. He wanted to go outside and play. I volunteered to watch him, to let his mom, the Wife, get the house ready for visitors who'd be stopping by to offer their condolences. Before we went out to the yard, the sisters and my friends, Husband and Wife, expressed dismay that the Widow still hadn't eaten anything since breakfast yesterday, before her husband had passed away. All she had since was water. And she was sipping a glass as she sat on the porch and looked out onto the garden. She had refused all offers to eat. And for now, her family didn't want to push her any further.
Outside, the morning sun was just rising. The Son climbed on the swing, and I pushed him. His joyful laughter rang cheerfully in the air. Then we played hide and seek, before we kicked around a ball, and I chased him around the yard. When he got tired and stopped to catch his breath, we sat down by the flowers to rest. He laid on my lap and beamed a beautiful smile at me that I returned to him.
Oh, the joyful innocence of children! How I longed to keep him in this happy, worry free state. I wistfully wondered, would the passing of his grandfather end this innocence? And was it selfish of me to want to keep him ignorant of the painful realities of loss and death?
I took a deep breath and suddenly, I noticed a sweet, subtle fragrance wafting in the air. It was familiar. And quickly, it all came back to me. I knew this scent! It was lilacs! That gorgeous, purple blossoming, sensationally scented plant.
I raised my head and followed the scent. And then I spotted them. Lilacs! Full blooming lilacs! But it couldn't be. Not now. But there they were. I picked up the Son and made my way into the flower garden. He noticed me bending down to study the lilacs. It looked like lilacs--stunning shades of purple on full, thriving blossoms. I took a whiff. Yup. It was the rich, pleasing fragrance of lilacs. But still, how could this be?
The Son spoke up, "That's Mommy's favorite flower. Lilacs."
So it was true. And yet, I still couldn't believe it. Lilacs? In fall? These flowers only bloomed for a few weeks in spring. Fall was the season to prune them.
My thoughts were interrupted when the Wife came out to the porch and commented, "Oh, so you found my lilacs! They're pretty, are they?"
"Pretty impressive," I said, "How did you get them to bloom in the fall?"
She said, "Oh, these are the new variety. It's the kind that blooms in spring, summer, and fall. Isn't it wonderful?"
"It sure is," I agreed, "Lilacs that bloom in three seasons! And they smell terrific!"
I noticed the Son was getting distracted. I didn't blame him. Conversations about flowers are not something small children are usually interested in. Truthfully, I probably should've led him back to the grass to play more games. But for some reason, seeing those lilacs; watching the Widow daydreaming in the chair; and being reminded that we were so far from the places where we grew up, a long, long way from home, I was suddenly moved to tell a story.
So I said in my storytelling voice, "You know, my Mom used to grow lilacs. These flowers are special."
I had said it in a way that seemed to convey to the Son that I was telling him something very important, that I was letting him in on a great secret. It worked. He looked at me with interest.
So I said, "Lilacs are special. They're beautiful and they smell amazing. More importantly, they're really nutritious, and they feed a lot of dazzling butterflies, giving them energy to make long trips to faraway places. When I was growing up, lilacs only bloomed for a few weeks in the spring. And as the spring started heading north, the lilacs would start blooming up there, too. And the butterflies would follow the spring, going from south up to the north."
He looked at me confused, so I explained, "When the spring comes, the sun starts to warm up the land. It starts in the south," I pointed south, "That's where I live, far down there. The sun warms up the land, and when it's warm enough, the lilacs bloom. And when the lilacs bloom, the butterflies come out to eat."
I paused to make sure he understood, "The sun slowly warms up the land, starting from the south to the north, from my home to your home. And as the sun warms up the land, the lilacs start to bloom from the south to the north, and the butterflies follow the sun's warmth, eating the lilacs that bloom on the way up here."
I went on, "And when winter comes, the cold moves from north to the south, going the opposite way. Now the butterflies go back down from your home to my home. And along the way, they eat special flowers like these lilacs, to give them energy to make the long trip down south."
I looked at the Son. He nodded his understanding. So I continued, "Butterflies are special. Like bees and other animals, they help plants grow, helping to create seeds from the flowers, so new plants can grow."
I could've stopped there, but I couldn't resist adding lore from back home, "Back where I grew up, in a place far, far away by the sea, we believe that butterflies are really special. Butterflies are special in a way that some people respect and honor. Butterflies are the souls of the dead."
I paused, wondering if I was overstepping my boundaries. Was it my place to explain life and death to one so young? I didn't think so. But by now, the rest of the family had filtered out onto the porch, listening to my story. They weren't objecting to the turn of my lesson, so I tentatively continued, "Do you what a soul is?"
The Son shook his head, not understanding. So I explained, "Every living thing has a soul. A soul is a special part of you that you can't see, but you can feel. It's who you are. It's more than your body. It's all your thoughts, your dreams, that feeling that makes you happy, that feeling that makes you feel loved, that's your soul. Whenever you feel something that makes you happy or even sad, that's your soul. Whenever you feel love, that's your soul."
I paused to gauge his interest, and think carefully about my next words, "The soul lives forever. When the body dies, the soul lives on. Like when this flower or some other animal stops breathing, stops living, stops growing, their souls keep on living. We can't see the soul, but the soul can turn into something else. And where I grew up, far, far away by the sea, when a person stops living, when a person stops breathing, when a person dies, their soul turns into a butterfly. And that butterfly will go to a special place, a wonderful place, a paradise, where the soul will live forever."
I stopped to see if he understood. He still listened, so I continued, "Some people call this magical, wonderful place Heaven. But I know it as paradise. And in this beautiful, magical paradise, the butterfly soul will turn back into the person that it was, with a brand new, younger body, with no aches, no pain, no more suffering. And in paradise, everyone is happy, and nothing bad or sad ever happens. And in paradise, you see all your loved ones who have passed away. And in paradise, all your family and friends and loved ones will gather and live happily ever after."
Again, I could've stopped there, but there was more of the lore that I wanted to share. And the Son still looked captivated, so I spoke on, "Now this is the special and amazing thing about butterfly souls. Sometimes, the soul would leave paradise to come back to this world, to visit their loved ones. And they usually come back in the spring. So when you see a butterfly in your garden or hovering by your side, that's someone you love who came back to see you. That's a loved one who came over from paradise to visit you, letting you know that they still care for you, and they love you very, very much."
I stressed the 'very, very much' part, adding emphasis to each syllable. The Son smiled at that, so I continued, "In the fall, the souls return to paradise, before the coming of winter. That's when butterflies head south or to the places where they cross back to paradise. There, in paradise, they watch over us during the winter, like guardian angels. They protect us. And come spring, they put on their butterfly forms and visit us once more, until we're all together in paradise, living in joy and peace, enjoying everlasting love and bliss."
The Son was still smiling. I felt that I had told a good story. And so far, my friends and his family had yet to voice any opposition or objections. Suddenly, before the Son and I got up to leave the flower garden, a glorious monarch butterfly, with huge orange wings, speckled with black and white dots landed on the lilacs and started to feed.
Before I could say anything, the Son exclaimed, "Look! It's a butterfly! It's Grandpa! He came to see us! He wants us to know that he loves us!"
I held my breath at the same time that I heard the gasps from the porch. The family looked stunned. The Son got up and I followed him to the porch. He climbed up his father's lap and pointed to the magnificent monarch still feeding on the lilacs. "Dad," he said, "Grandpa came back to tell us that he loves us!"
My friend swallowed, struggling to control his emotions. He asked, "Are you sure?"
The Son replied, "Oh, yes. Grandpa loves us very much. And see," he pointed to the marvelous monarch, "he came back to tell us that he cares for us, and he loves us very, very much."
And that was that. My friend hugged his son. His sisters and wife tried to hide the silent tears that fell from their eyes. But it was his mother, the Widow, who had the most important reaction.
She looked out at the vibrant monarch butterfly, perched on the bright purple lilac blossoms and said, "So it is, baby. So it is. That's Grandpa come back to tell us that he loves us very, very much. And we love Grandpa very, very much, too."
Tears were shimmering in the Widow's eyes. But they didn't fall like I thought they would. Rather, she let out a brief, wistful, sad smile, no doubt thinking about the lost love of her life.
The moment ended when the Son spoke up, "Dad, I want some cake. Can we have some, please?"
His father smiled and said, "Yes, we can have some cake."
And with that, the moment had changed. And in some ways, for the better. We went to get the cake, cut out some pieces and enjoyed it on the porch. By then, the Widow had a piece. It was the first piece of food she had eaten since yesterday morning, before her husband passed away. She said it tasted wonderful. The others agreed, and that made me smile.
My friend looked at me. In a glance, I understood what he was feeling. He was grateful for what I had done, for spending time with his son, for bringing cake that his mother could eat, and for showing support in this most difficult of times.
He was my friend. How could I not support him? And these were my people. How could I not bring a sheet cake? Everyone has to eat, so why not eat something sweet and comforting? Though we were far away from home, we still had each other; we still had our customs to help guide us in the most challenging of times. It may not be much. It may not even make sense. But they did give us comfort. They showed that we care, that we love, that we hope.
Sometimes, we forget that the world is beautiful, that life is wonderful. Sometimes, we need to be reminded that the world is full of spectacular butterflies, vivacious lilacs, and delightful sheet cakes. And the wonders and marvels of this world are made greater and more magnificent when we share them with the people we love.
So long as we have love, so long as we have hope, we can go on living. We can go on with life until the time comes for us to turn into soul butterflies, and find our way to paradise. And in paradise, we would forever watch over our friends and loved ones. And from time to time, we would come back to this world in butterfly form, to let our friends and loved ones know that we care for them deeply, and we love them very, very much.
So long as we remember to care for each other, and be kind to one another, the world becomes a more amazing, more beautiful, and more wondrous place to live and share with the people we love. So live freely, love fully, and embrace and cherish your friends and loved ones. Life is what you make it. So make it beautiful, make it wonderful, and make it amazing and full of joy and love.
A sailor in the fields, a treasure in the trees
The Boys of Summer
Brothers and Sisters
A good jacket keeps you warm
Hope is a yellow dump truck
Are you there, Santa? It's me
It's the Most Stressful Time of the Year
Finding the way
The thing about fathers
Veterans Day Reflection
Best Laid Plans
That offal taste
The Fisherman & the Lucky Cat
The Spirit of the Day