The Butterfly Pavilion

A trip to the natural history museum brings unexpected solace after a miscarriage

Outside the Butterfly Pavilion at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, we see a 20-million-year-old butterfly preserved in amber. My five-year-old is captivated by the translucent shell, the winged creature inside, and the story of how it became trapped for all of eternity. As we near the ticket booth for the Pavilion, we follow along the wall of the exhibit. There’s a zebra longwing, a tiger butterfly, and a luna moth on display. I read the descriptions aloud as my daughter touches and gazes into each window case, enthralled.

We get our tickets and queue up at the Pavilion’s glass door. I can just make out the blurred movement of wings in the clear vaulted enclosure we are about to enter. I tell my daughter how we might feel the flutterings close to us, and she is full of questions. “What’s it feel like? Does it tickle?” I press my thumbs together and mimic the flapping of wings across her face. “You’ll see,” I say.

I recall what a different kind of fluttering felt like. How, during my first pregnancy, with my daughter, it took months to identify the mysterious feeling of her movements inside me. The second time, I felt a distinct stirring deep within and a light-headedness, and knew, even before the test confirmed it, that I was expecting. Then two days later, I lost it.

I shift my weight and read about the Pavilion in the museum’s brochure. I try to gauge how long we will be here and if there is time to see the rest of the exhibits. With my dinosaur-loving girl, we are certain to make a stop for the fossils, but there are also exhibits on sea life, elephants, predators, and even the Hope Diamond. We are on this outing while my husband is traveling; I want the two of us to enjoy all we can together on our mother-daughter tour of natural history.

There are two middle school girls in line behind us, wearing matching T-shirts, their hair draped across their faces as they lean toward each other in conversation over their phones. I notice my daughter eyeing them, straining to hear what they’re saying. When they smile at her, she beams at me and looks back at them shyly. Minutes later, she spots some younger kids down the line and peers at them as well. It is all too clear how intensely my daughter longs for the companionship of siblings.

My husband and I kept trying for another baby for a couple of years, with varying degrees of hope and ambivalence, and, at times, despair. We could not achieve the elusive formula of timing, effort, and luck. It was long after we had given up that I realized I was pregnant for the third time. Seven weeks along, it was already changing from embryo to fetus, on its way to becoming a little brother or sister.

I turn back to the brochure, which says the Pavilion holds up to four hundred pairs of beating wings at a time. I imagine the efforts this must have taken, to pluck cocooned caterpillars from their habitats in the tropics of the Americas, Africa, and Asia, and transport them to the museum. What coordination it had required to get the timing and conditions right to ensure each metamorphosis from chrysalis to butterfly to first flight.

This I knew from the start: even getting to seven weeks along, without really trying, especially at my advanced age of forty-three, was by any measure an act of serendipity. And this: one more week, and I should be able to hear its heartbeat.

“Can I go touch it again?” My daughter is pointing to the glass case holding the 20-million-year-old butterfly we passed by the entrance. I nod and tell her to come right back—it will be our turn soon. I watch her sneakered feet race back to the windowpane, and see how she delights in placing her hands over that life ensconced in amber for one moment longer.

If only, if only, if only, I kept thinking. If only I could have held on long enough.

People say you need something tangible to mark a miscarriage. Some cultures use clay pots as symbolic vessels, while some insist on a formal ritual, like a funeral. We didn’t do anything for that first one; it was so early and abstract to us. When I lost my third and final pregnancy at eight weeks, we contemplated how to mourn its passing. In the weeks that followed, we were still stuck in indecision. I did not want to bury it or anything in the ground; too much silt-like matter had passed through my body like a dark tide. But I did want something to honor that brief flicker of life, a way to send it skyward, watch it fly.

I had bought a paper garland of little butterflies to decorate the nursery when the new baby came. I knew it still sat in its packaging, in a shopping bag somewhere. I unearthed it and decided to string it across the sunniest window I had, in the kitchen. All spring, I watched those butterflies flapping their wings and twisting in the breeze, and felt the dual ache of longing and loss.

Now the slanted light of a November evening is setting this wing of the museum aglow as we wait. We are getting close to our entry time, so I call my daughter back to the line. She leans heavily against my legs, trying to see what lies beyond the Pavilion door. I stroke her hair and tuck some of her soft golden strands behind her ear, and she burrows closer.

We will be one of the last groups of visitors tonight, and I look around to see who is joining us. A man with a silver ponytail is ahead of us, muttering to someone ahead of him, though I can’t make out his words. The girls behind us have begun making snarky comments on the physiques of other girls passing by. A baby fusses. I feel we are all growing weary. At last, the staff appears, and we move forward. My daughter revives, and by the time we present our tickets and pass through the threshold, she is jumping up and down.

We enter the damp warmth of the Pavilion, following a tile pathway through a veritable jungle, which towers over our heads, with vibrant blossoms and foliage on both sides. As the butterflies float through air and touch down on lush plants, everyone seems transfixed, transformed. Children run and squeal, swooping with their arms. Older folks gaze upward toward the bright arched ceiling. Parents hold their babies in the air to reach and swat at elusive flutters. We are radiant in the mist.

There’s the silver-haired man, standing Buddha-like at the center now, a brilliant blue butterfly—a giant morpho—on his nose. I feel a flapping of wings on my cheeks and see a flash of orange. Monarchs, clippers, and tree nymphs mingle in the air, and a few swallowtails dart from plant to plant. The older girls immerse their hands in a spray of water from the misters then stand like statues to entice a butterfly to land. I see my daughter scamper past happily, oblivious to a quivering mass of wings in her hair. The other girls chase after her, and soon, all three of them are running in circles, howling in laughter, arms outstretched. It is all too beautiful and hilarious for words. I want to hold it close and not let it end.

During my brief pregnancies and the grieving that came afterward, I forgot how to live in the here and now. I longed to hold on to all I had lost; I was fearful of what more loss would come. Even in wondrous moments like this, I want to stop time and cling to everything I love and cannot bear to lose.
I imagine the scene before me, bathed in this pale golden sunlight, as a moment to capture in amber. Who wouldn’t want to preserve this very instant, make it solid and translucent, for the remainder of time? Who wouldn’t find a certain soothing seduction in that viscous, treacly resin, to lie in rest for all of eternity? This could be a one-in-a-20-million-year moment, after all.

But no, I think, watching my daughter chase the butterflies that flutter and dart around her. There is surely more than turning our lives into stone. As D. H. Lawrence said, “The living moment is everything.” I like to think these words give us permission—even marching orders—to go on and revel in the procession of life despite its inevitable losses, despite the impulse we may have to occupy a static space of what is known and certain.

If joy can float like a tiny winged creature, then I feel it here now. Maybe it abounds all around us, in movements both random and divine, in a soaring arc of flight, in a relentless pursuit of life and the living, in the present moment, just like this. Here in this pavilion, we are only to let it touch us and transform us, and then to let it go.

Amidst the tropical plants, the staff has left a platter of halved melons and pineapples, and I spot a cluster of butterflies gathered on them. I lean in and inhale the sweet aroma and watch the wings open, close, and open, close, in flashes of color. Each time the dull undersides of the wings flip down, I’m dazzled by the detail of stripes and dots, the array of vivid hues they reveal.

There’s a stirring among us, a gentle push as the staff herds us along. It’s time to let the next group enter, so my daughter and I find our way to the door at the far end of the Pavilion. Our giggles echo off the chamber walls as we take turns twirling and sweeping each other’s backs for any clinging butterflies. The silver-haired man frees one from his companion’s hair, and together, they wave it back toward the jungle greenery, where it belongs. “Is everyone ready? No stragglers?” a staff member asks one last time.

I clasp my daughter’s hand in mine and whisper, “Here we go.” She is all smiles and mist, gleaming with her new knowledge. There is so much left for us to see, I think. Everything in this living moment, ours. The door swooshes open with a gust of cool air as we step forward, pulsing toward what comes next.

About the Author

Laura Haugen

Laura Haugen is a writer and former diplomat living in Dubai. Her essays have appeared in Brain, Child, and River Teeth’s “Beautiful Things” column, as well as in the anthology Mothering Through the Darkness.

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