First Person: A Broken Wing

Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

It was May and I had just passed through the most painful period of my life. I was 51 years old and living alone in the same city I had lived with my family for the past twenty years. On warm evenings, I sat in a lawn chair and enjoyed the setting sun. One evening, I sat in rapt silence as the yard filled with swarms of butterflies, dancing in the shafts of lowering sun. To my great pleasure, they were present every evening for the next two months.

My personal decline began two years earlier. It was a winter weeknight, and I was home recovering from knee surgery. I was engaged in my favorite activity – reading aloud to my daughters, when I experienced a sharp pain in my gut. I chalked it up to acid indigestion, since I was now of the age where using Zantac had become routine.

I had been married to Laura for nearly 20 years. She knew me well, and when I told Laura about the pain, she persuaded me to go to the emergency room, which on a cold night in Minnesota was not the least bit appealing. We gathered up the girls and headed out.

At the hospital, the doctor was puzzled by the cause of my pain. I had a multitude of tests. After a CAT scan, the doctor returned to the room, looking rather grave, and to our shock informed us I had developed a post-surgical blood clot in my leg which passed through my heart and settled into both lungs, a pulmonary embolism (“PE”). We learned a PE is very difficult to diagnose and nearly 25% of the patients do not survive the night. I spent nine days in intensive care — a frightening incident which resulted in the death of 20% of my lung.

Traumatic experiences can be difficult to shake. After I left the hospital, I was emotionally off balance for some time. Yet despite my fear and growing depression, no comfort came from my wife, for reasons I did not yet understand. I skidded into a dark place, and the narcotics I used to treat my physical pain began to comfort my emotional pain as well. After three months of convalescence, I was able to return to my job. I was grateful for the distraction.

I believe a poor attitude attracts negative energy and then, negative energy attracts misfortune. This seemed to apply, and despite my return to work, I was struggling to maintain any semblance of good fortune. I was awash in self-pity.

My father had worked at the same company for 42 years and retired the first year I began working there. It didn’t work that way for me. As so many companies were, mine was in the midst of a contraction unlike any before. Shortly after my return, I received notice my job was being eliminated. After 15 years, I was released from employment, my last day of work on my 49th birthday. Unemployment at middle age was not in my life plan.

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Laura and I were distant partners at this point. She could not bring herself to comfort me, and it would be much later that I would learn why — she was terrified by my continued use of narcotics. She blamed me for my job loss and believed she was seeing a familiar pattern develop, one which would take me to the depths of addiction. She was right.

Two episodes of post-surgical opioid use in the past ten years had led to serious addiction, during which I shirked responsibilities while Laura held our young family together. Both episodes ended with me going to treatment, and she was not prepared to do it again.

Eventually, I healed, but it ended badly. My psychic wounds were deep and my depression worsened. I found myself again in treatment, unable to stop using the pain medication without intervention.

Scared and confused, I reached out to Laura, but in my heart I knew our connection was gone. She made it clear she did not want me to come home. She sent a letter to the treatment team telling them of her plan to end our 25-year relationship and with it, my treasured role as daily Dad to my beautiful daughters. I was devastated. At age 50, I was now unemployed and without my family.

Life became an exercise in endurance, and even feeding myself became a monumental task. While in treatment, I lost weight, found it impossible to sleep and never smiled. I frequently thought about ending my life.

It is my belief that to experience joy in life, all men reach a time where they must face their fears head on. This was my time. I was broken, but not beaten, and I was not prepared to die. My children did not deserve that legacy. Instead, I turned outward and asked for help. I began a daily routine of prayer and meditation. I listened to what my counselors and peers told me. I took my medicine, real and spiritual, and began to exercise. In my heart I knew I’d always been a survivor and to do so now, I had to change.

I took full advantage of everything the experts said I needed, moving from treatment to a halfway house and then on to a sober boarding house. Income was scarce, save a few dollars from my part-time job. I learned to cope. Using contacts from my corporate work, I landed a modest job in the same field as before. I began to grow up.

One more terrific blow came shortly after I left treatment. My Mom, Mary, was a woman who had her share of problems in life, but also a woman who engaged a beautiful smile and showed tremendous devotion to her family. Sadly, she had an unhealthy relationship with alcohol throughout her life and in time, her kidneys and mind began to fail. Shortly before my divorce, we moved her to a local nursing home.

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It was deeply painful to watch Mom lose her memory and with it, her dignity. It was difficult to have her ask me each time I visited how my wife and children were doing, but she knew no better.

Mother declined rapidly. She was suffering and we debated pulling the plug, but in the end, we did nothing, until the nursing home stepped forward and demanded we address the issue. They felt it was time to stop her suffering. We chose to stop her dialysis, an incredibly hard choice to make, though we were fortunate to bring her home for the end. Seven months after I separated from my family, Mom passed, seemingly with very little pain, her children and husband at her side.

After Mother’s funeral, I returned to my backyard butterfly watching, and it was there I had an experience which best symbolized the changes in my life over the past year. On one of those evenings, I held out my left hand on a whim. Within 30 seconds, a beautiful Monarch landed on it. She was unique, with a broken left wing which glistened in the sunlight. She stayed perched for a minute and then flew off.

Intrigued, I returned the following evening, and again held out my hand. Immediately, the same butterfly landed, this time staying until my arm tired. I dubbed her “Mary” after my Mom. Nearly every evening over the ensuing couple of months, I would come out near sunset, hold my hand up and Mary would land within seconds. She would stay until my arm let go, flying in an awkward arc attributable to that broken wing. Her presence filled me with wonder.

One evening in late August I raised my hand for Mary to come, and she did not. It was then I noticed all the butterflies were gone. They had flown for Mexico, a long and arduous trip. I thought of Mary, and what a challenge that flight would be with a broken wing.

And in that instant, I knew my life would be fine, for if Mary could move on to meet her destiny with a broken wing, then so could I.

Note: At age 52, I went to Graduate School and obtained two Master’s Degrees. I am now employed as a Drug and Alcohol Counselor in an effort to bring some hope to those who suffer this terrible disease. 

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