Updated: Jun 14, 2020
Dear Mom, Love, Matt
I went for a run today—I’m still training for Grandma’s Marathon, even though it’s been cancelled now for nine or so weeks. Pretty silly, I know, but the schedule helps keep me sane. And, when it comes down to it, there’s really no reason to run in the first place, so run or not run amount to about the same thing anymore. Also I like to keep the word “grandma” in my life, even though I haven’t had any live ones for more than a decade.
We’re up north at a cabin a friend rented. His family was going to come up here for his birthday, but then he decided to stay to help clean up Minneapolis after all the, you know, everything. He also thought it would be good for us to get away from all the sirens and the helicopters and the National Guard, given the year we’ve had. And it is nice to be here, but it also feels like a betrayal to both be anywhere but back home in St. Paul, and also to leave Jenae and Emory in their hammocks to go on this ridiculous run.
I was supposed to run 16 miles today, so I drove from the cabin to St. Croix State Park and set off on a trail. At first it was just a wide horse and snowmobile path in the middle of miles and miles of flat muskeg—a fancy word for a plain northern bog—no wildlife or scenery other than random critter scat and horse apples every now and then, some anonymous trees and inscrutable shrubbery, but then I ran through a valley where suddenly the ground beneath my feet broke into blossom with little butterflies.
Ten, twenty, a hundred, then a thousand—uncountable really—Dakota skippers, I believe they were, an endangered species—and together they were so beautiful it almost made me stop so I could soak up their glory—it’s so preposterous that butterflies can fly at all—they’re just two little whisps of hymnal paper stuck together with hope. They somehow flap and take flight.
But I was nervous about the heat and the lack of shade and the many miles ahead and Jenae and Emory behind—really no way to find me if I turned an ankle or got really lost—and then the black flies found me.
Their number was not legion, but they were insidious. Unstoppable. Relentless. Hungry for my flesh, sweat, and blood. They circled me for miles, mocking my sloth, zipping haloes around me, divebombing my ears, my eyes, any exposed skin. After a few more miles of this I paused to assess my situation, and I found more than a dozen ticks fixed on my legs.
I knew in my rational mind that it was far from life threatening, but I was likely the only human being for a few square miles, and ever since I was stung by the greater part of a hive of bees who made their home in my sandbox when I was a boy, my fear of things that bite and sting has been pathological. It was time to turn back.
I realized too late, despite my heart rate spiking and my arms flailing to fend off the endlessly circling flies, that I have never really been chased. Never been prey. I have run nearly my entire life. But I have never known what it means to be run down. It hardly counted now, no matter how many flies pursued me. But still. I was panicked and terrified and genuinely afraid that I would run out of water and have an allergic reaction and wouldn’t make it back to my truck.
When I came again to the valley of the Dakota skippers, those lines from that Andrew Hudgins’ poem came to mind: “We have grown used to beauty without horror, we have grown used to useless beauty.”
We lost you a year ago today, Mom. Tyler died almost three months ago. Jenae’s dad four months ago.
There have been many, many more losses since, but when your mother, your brother, your father dies, there must be a reckoning. You have to pause.
It’s made me think over and over again of the line from Hamlet: “Tis unmanly, grief.” Sure, that was Claudius talking, telling his stepson née nephew to snap out of it. But the words carry more than rebuke. I have come to think of them as not simply saying that it isn’t manly to grieve, but rather that grief un-mans us. It disables us. It disembodies us. Even though we’re not the ones who have died or been killed, we become ghosts of ourselves.
Since you died, my vision has gotten worse. I’ve had bouts of vertigo and nausea. I am listless. I am agitated. I am completely unmotivated. I am manic to create as much as possible. I want to skateboard with my son. I want to walk around the lake with my wife. I want us to relax in our hammocks and not worry about anything other than the breeze. I also want to be alone. I just want to sleep. Almost everyday since you died, I have run again.
Today, when I wasn’t sure I was actually going to make it back in one piece to my truck, a single butterfly—different from the thousands of little ones—orange and black, a monarch, danaus plexippus—parried with me for over a mile, usually coaxing me on, distracting me from the flies and the ticks, but sometimes tailing me from behind because of the occasional breeze. Her beauty did not seem like a metaphor, nor did it seem useless. It just seemed beautiful, and I was grateful for it.
When I got back to the cabin, I looked up the poem just to make sure I was remembering it right. I don’t know where it was originally published, but I found it on slate.com. When I got to the last line, I was so distraught. It ended with “we have grown used to beauty without horror.” I am sure of few things these days, but of those two lines of Hudgins’ poem I was certain.
I checked the website again. The real last line of the poem was thrust below an ad for something called Noracora—almost as though that was the poet’s intent. The picture of the ad includes cute—I guess—shoes, and a woman playing with her hair, wearing a T-shirt with a sunflower on it, and on that sunflower, almost imperceptible at first, is a butterfly.
That shirt, I think Hudgins would think, is completely useless beauty.
The one in the park, however, I would wager, saved my life.
The next day, I went for another run. As I was finishing, something caught my eye. An oriole. The first one I’ve seen in years. It looked like a giant finch, or a technicolor robin, or, I realized, that monarch, but metamorphosed into full bird form. It was more agile, more nimble than any butterfly I’ve ever seen, but also more practical, and therefore less whimsical. Just as I thought this, the oriole lit upon a branch and let itself fall upside down to pick a berry or a bug.
It hung there for several clicks of time—more than were necessary in order for it to eat what it wanted. It hung there by its little feet, invisible to me from where I stood, and it looked to me like it was laying in an invisible hammock.
So much of what creatures of the air do looks like fun to us terrestrial beings, but they don’t always appear to be enjoying their abilities. This oriole, on the other hand, despite his lack of lips, was clearly smiling.
I just wanted to tell you about these things, Mom. Even in your last days, I think you would’ve liked them.
Other than, “I love you, honey,” and “see you tomorrow,” your last words were “wow, wow, wow.”
The more I think about it, Hudgins might have been wrong. For right now, anyway, I don’t think there is such a thing as useless beauty.