When a Man Becomes a Butterfly

Posted 2018-08-10

Richard had a disability. A childhood fall from a horse had long-term repercussions. Whenever he walked, he leaned slightly to the side, as though he were always about to gather flowers along his path. As it happened, Richard possessed an intimate understanding of flowers and plants, calling each one of them by name. He knew their gifts and fragility, as well as how to take care of them.

He also had what we might call intellectual limitations. His were not the kind that led him to retain the carefree happiness of childhood, as is the case for some people whose intellectual development ceased at an early stage of life. 

Rather, Richard was blessed with a vivacious intelligence and thirst for life, and the spry curiosity of a young man.

And perhaps this was the root of his greatest suffering: his inability to achieve or obtain the innate aspirations of his head and his heart.

An unfathomable blue, his eyes seemed to say, “Tell me, why can’t I have the right to the same dreams and hopes as other people?” The truth was that like most of us, what Richard wanted more than anything was to be loved.

There’s no doubt that Richard was truly loved, and the number of people who came from all over to pay their last respects is proof. With all his disability, he left a profound mark on those around him.

He knew that he was well liked by those close to him. But his dreams led him further, and much higher.

Richard was a big romantic, and quite naturally he dreamed of living a great romance.

He aspired to the romantic love that thousands of movies and novels have idealized, to the point that they render love mundane and make us believe that this is where we find the ultimate purpose in life: in successfully attaining love that inspires the desired person to devote her entire life to us, or at least transform us into the central object of her attention and affection.

And this may be what makes having a disability so deeply painful: the impression that we have become someone with an eternal disability and that human love is left behind; that we are excluded from this big romantic encounter which lies at the heart of our culture’s aspirations. No one can deny that our major industries continue to sustain and perpetuate this inaccessible dream.

Experienced by many people with disabilities, this double disability remains a taboo topic. As though not possessing all of our intellectual and physical capacities automatically excludes us from the game of love. Our cultural values implicitly suggest that romantic adventures are first and foremost reserved for people who are desirable because they are completely able-bodied and preferably young and beautiful.

My friend Richard was a romantic through and through, and he fell deeply in love. The suffering that emerged from not experiencing the desired reciprocity caused another type of “disability,” one that many of us on this earth have shared: our fantasy that by pure force of imagination, by allowing ourselves to give others a main part in our wildest dreams, that they will inevitably share our dreams and aspirations. So many of us fall into this debilitating trap of unhappiness all our lives, fueling ourselves with reveries, and the bitterness that arises from the fact that our dreams do not manifest according to our wishes.

I was privileged to have Richard as my roommate. Naturally, he confided in me about his suffering and particularly his disbelief: why did his dreams, faithfully traced out of Hollywood’s best films, fail to come true, like all the happy endings in the the high-budget productions?

And yet, in reality, Richard didn’t ask for much. The moment he felt the least bit recognized and loved, his butterfly wings would spread and he’d soar joyfully into the sky.

The rest of the time, he’d carve wooden butterflies, with multi-coloured wings.

He also carved the names of women, gathering magnificent pearl necklaces just for them, or drawing their faces.

Richard was not just a romantic, he was also exceptionally helpful and caring. How many people did he accompany as they walked, played, gardened or worked on their projects?

He was extremely faithful in his friendships and perservering in his endeavours. One outstanding example of this perserverence always comes back to me.

We were both involved in an outreach and solidarity citizen’s initiative. Though Richard sometimes attended team meetings, he wasn’t always able to grasp all of the topics. During one meeting, Richard understood that we had a problem: we did not have proper flooring in the large community hall. Sheets of damaged plywood covered the concrete floor; at any time, children could get splinters as they played.

A friend from the dépanneur tried to help us by gathering hardwood planks from a house that had been flooded. But we were quickly disillusioned, because all the boards, essentially torn from the ground, were pierced by large metal pins, so deeply anchored to the hardwood that none of us was able to detach them.

Several weeks after this meeting, we noticed that without saying a word, Richard was spending the bulk of his time seated under the faint light of a single lightbulb, working to pull out each pin one by one. Don’t ask me how, but armed with tiny pliers, Richard worked away at the metal pins until he was able to successfully remove them. Thanks to our friend Richard’s extraordinary exercise in patience, we were able to install hardwood flooring into our community hall.

As we have observed time and again throughout this community initiative, the people who society sometimes writes off as “dysfunctional” or “disabled” actually offer us unexpected gifts and abilities.

Richard was an example of such a person, and everyone who met him acknowledged that he taught them a great deal

One morning, Richard fell out of his chair, just as he fell from his horse so many years ago. His heart simply ceased to beat on this earth.

But this is merely how it appears, because in truth, Richard’s heart continues to beat in the hearts of those he loved and in those he knew loved him. And most of all, now that he is released from the limitations that hindered his life on earth, I am certain that his butterfly wings are now spread wide and that, elated with his newfound freedom, Richard is preparing for the great migration, just like the splendid monarchs he so admired!




Do you know any wonderful stories that highlight the impact of people with physical or intellectual disabilities, or some other type of vulnerability? In this column, we’d like to focus on their extraordinary but often unrecognized contributions to the flourishing of an inclusive, equitable and human society.

Write to us:

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