I found a butterfly in a parking lot on a hot day in October.
I’d just dropped my mail-in ballot off at the post office in the Union and was walking to my car. The sunshine was unrelenting. Sweat gathered between my backpack and my shirt, but I still wore a cloth mask over my nose in case anyone walked near me.
There was no one in the parking lot but the butterfly, though.
It was a monarch butterfly with wings of rich orange and black, but they were broken and ribbed with scars.
The monarch fluttered with panicked futility on the smoldering asphalt, and its wings scraped the ground with a sad sound like paper ruffled by wind.
Nature can be cruel, I thought, which was not a new idea because I’d been jaded by the pandemic. My senior year had been completely derailed by shutdowns, mask orders, gathering bans, reduced capacities, health screenings, social distancing, and every other precaution necessary to keep people safe.
I mourned the broken butterfly and all of the opportunities I’d missed. I’d planned for my senior years to be special and unfettered. I’d wanted late-night trips to Braum’s and to be at every football game. I’d wanted to walk into my classrooms with the swagger of an undergraduate about to be free. I’d wanted to spend hours with my friends in the Bizz, drinking too much coffee and pretending to get work done.
Instead, I’d been trapped in my apartment for months just like the butterfly was trapped on the ground.
I hate bugs, but I couldn’t leave the monarch to be trampled by someone walking through the parking lot. I used a notebook to herd it onto the nearby grass and figured that was the only kindness I could give it before it died of exhaustion sometime in the night.
Then, sticky with sweat, annoyed at the world, and tired of pretending that the pandemic hadn’t filled me with anxiety and grief, I went to my car and continued my day.
The next day, I was back in the parking lot. My friends Noah and Brandon, masks on, were playing football in the lawn next to the lot.
“Have you seen the butterfly?” I asked, my voice muffled by my mask. I stepped onto the lawn and walked carefully through the fallen autumn leaves.
Noah tossed the football over my head. “You mean the one in the parking lot yesterday?” he responded. “It’s got to be gone by now.”
Except it wasn’t. I found the monarch in the grass and nudged it gently with my shoe. It moved weakly, but it was definitely alive.
I was shocked. How had it not given up sometime in the night? It had no food or shelter. It couldn’t even fly. It was completely hopeless, but it had refused to yield.
Emotion broke in my chest. I could see how I was like the butterfly. It had emerged from its chrysalis expecting a life of sunshine, sugar, and flight, but instead it had been hobbled by a terrible circumstance.
I’d expected my senior year to be free and wild. I’d expected to graduate with my wings spread wide. Instead, many of my dreams had been snatched from me by a global pandemic.
Yet this butterfly had survived the night. Could I do the same?”
I addressed the boys. “Don’t step on it,” I commanded. They didn’t understand why I cared so much, but I rushed back to my car to start a vain but necessary mission: I was going to nurse the butterfly back to health.
I watched a half-dozen YouTube videos about injured monarchs, built a comfortable habitat in a spare shoebox, and made a nectar solution with honey and water.
I drove back to the parking lot, herded the sluggish butterfly into the shoebox, and brought it back to my apartment..
My roommate Claire was inside. She glanced up when she saw my bright orange box. “New Nikes?” she asked.
“No, it’s a butterfly.”
I opened the lid carefully and showed her the malformed monarch.
I set the box on the table and like the videos had suggested, used a straightened paperclip to guide the butterfly’s proboscis into the honey water.
“It’s drinking!” Claire exclaimed when it took to the nectar.
I wanted to cry from joy. The sugary water would strengthen it, and even though it would never survive in the wild, I wanted to make its last days comfortable. It wouldn’t die trampled on asphalt.
I cared for it for three days. On the third day, it started to flutter its wings again, and it crawled hopefully toward the sunlight from my window. It still dreamed of flight.
It would have been cruel to keep the butterfly until it died, so I decided to instead return it to nature. I released it into the blooming mums on the South Oval. It seemed like a fitting place for the butterfly to make its home. The campus mums have always been one of my favorite things to look at in the fall.
I watched the monarch crawl across the yellow flowers and gently taste their fresh nectar, and I knew that I had gotten to participate in a beautiful tragedy that would bolster me through the rest of my senior year.
It was hard to leave the butterfly behind in the end.
I wasn’t able to give the monarch flight, but it taught me a lot about graduating in the middle of a global pandemic. Even though this graduation is nothing like the triumphant conclusion I’d imagined for myself, it still marks an enormous improvement from where we were a year ago.
Each member of the Class of 2021 has succeeded in spite of great darkness and adversity. Our wings might be battered and scarred at this point, but we’ve held on through the night.
Now, as spring touches campus once again and butterflies flit among the new flowers, I feel a sense of hope. That is what graduating in a pandemic means to me. It’s a butterfly in the mums on a sunny day. It’s reaching out with love to pull our friends from darkness. It’s holding on through fear knowing that one day, we’ll finally fly.
Erin Bullock is an Honors senior from Bossier City, Louisiana, graduating with a bachelor's degree in Library Information Studies.