David and the Butterfly Net


I could feel an icicle freezing around my heart. The doctor had sent my eleven-year-old son on a contrived errand to get him out of the office, and I braced myself for his prognosis.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “There is nothing more we can do. David may as well be happy. Keep him home, but let him do anything he feels like.”

“He feels fine,” I reminded him.

“I know,” he said. “That’s the way nephritis is, at first.”

“For how long?” I asked.

“I can’t say. It may be quite a while. Maybe not.”

“And then?”

“Downhill.”

“All the way?” I asked.

He nodded. “As David’s kidney functions fail, he will be able to do less and less until. …” He did not finish.

“Will it happen fast or slowly?” I wanted to know.

“I don’t know.”

The last thing the doctor said to me that day was “Merry Christmas.” I thought numbly, Our son is going to die, but Merry Christmas.

Possibly I should have been better prepared for that death sentence—David had contracted nephritis from a strep infection nearly two years before, in 1958. But I wasn’t. We had lived with hope instead.

“The only way we know to treat this disease,” the doctor had told us then, “is with rest. We hope it will heal the kidneys. He will have to be in bed at least a year, maybe longer.”

A boy’s tenth year is for biking and hiking and Little League ball, for swimming holes and fishing poles and Cub Scouts. And it would have been David’s first really healthy year. An unrelated illness had plagued his early childhood, delayed his schooling, and brought him to the point of death twice. He had paid for health with years of medication, hospital visits, and check-ups. Life, at last, was an apple on his palm, and now the first bite was sour. It did not seem fair.

We dealt with school first. David was already sensitive about being a grade behind other children his age. Another year might destroy his confidence. The school system would furnish a home teacher for one hour a day, and David would have more time for studies. This was the year to feed him knowledge.

I applied for the home teacher’s job myself. We lived close to the school; I kept in touch with the teacher, and David kept up with his class. His classroom conditions, however, were somewhat different.

“Your carriage awaits, sir,” I said with a bow and a flourish, and David slid from his bed into the homemade wheelbarrow that rolled him, grinning, outside.

“Not everyone can have school out-of-doors,” I pointed out. The orange monarch butterflies flitted from one heavy zinnia to another.

“When I get well,” he said, “the first thing I am going to do is catch butterflies. Will you make me a net?”

“Of course I will,” I said. “Now read to me about the California missions while I pull a few weeds.”

When winter came, the eucalyptus logs sizzled and spit in the fireplace while we learned how gold was discovered at Sutter’s mill. By the time we’d read and discussed a chapter, my husband’s shirts were hanging in a starched line.

David taught me as much as I taught him that year. While he learned about fractions and grammar and California history, I learned about patience and courage and unquestioning faith. He did not wonder why he was ill. Because it was so, he accepted it.

Our other children took turns eating with him, playing games, sharing experiences. Petty annoyances seemed small, somehow, compared to the common enemy we all were fighting.

Sometimes, after everyone else was in bed, I picked up David’s shoes and my tears splashed on the shiny leather. Somehow this was the saddest thing of all that year: a pair of boy’s shoes with no scuff marks. I would never again complain about how quickly children needed new shoes.

The magnetic spring air pulled us outside again for school, Primary, and Sunday School. Under the apricot tree, to the tune of the meadowlark, we took an imaginary plane ride across the United States, learned long division, and memorized the Articles of Faith.

Before David settled on the chaise for school, we took a daily tour of the garden. I pushed him in the wheelbarrow slowly around the circle walk that separated the lawn from the flowers while he studied the pansy faces.

“There is a happy one,” he said of a sunny, yellow bloom with smile lines. “And that one has chocolate blotches. Must have been in the cake.”

David worried that his missionary savings account was not growing fast enough so he began his “blooming business,” selling pansy plants. He advertised in the local paper, sent out hand-painted brochures; and took orders. His sister delivered the plants. Later we took over a small newspaper agency and divided the profits. His bank account grew.

By the second fall of David’s illness, he was up and cautiously active. He felt better than ever, but he took penicillin daily as insurance. Because a strep infection could be fatal, school, church, and any kind of crowd were off-limits.

We tried to balance these safeguards with as much normalcy as possible, as much preparation for the future when he would be well. We resisted the temptation to indulge him. When he could play, we also gave him home responsibility. He developed an interest in cooking and soon became chief breakfast assistant. Sometimes he watched with longing as the neighborhood boys scuffled at football or whizzed past on their bikes, but he did not complain. He was glad to do what he had to do. He wanted to get well.

Then, almost Christmas, I learned he could not do enough. He would not get well. After two years, the disease was still destroying his kidneys.

“Keep him happy,” the doctor had said. Yes, keep him happy. Inside me the dreadful knowledge swelled like a balloon, making me rigid and tight on the outside, but achingly empty.

I was not afraid that David would die. I was afraid that we would have to watch him become incapacited bit by bit until he could do nothing. And neither could we.

My brother had died at fourteen, when I was ten. For as long as I could remember, he had lain helpless on a cot in the bedroom. Diphtheria had done this to my parents’ happy, singing son. Now nephritis was going to do it to mine, and I realized for the first time the price of my mother’s heartbreak.

As I did, I felt a love for her more tender than any I had ever known. Somehow she had been able to hide her grief and keep it from shadowing our carefree childhoods. I felt a great need, now, to protect her from reliving this experience through me. Because of her, I would have to be strong enough to see this thing through without going to pieces.

There was plenty to do. I had David’s schooling, four children, the calling of Relief Society president, a large house and yard, and our newspaper agency. I worked myself to complete exhaustion so I could sleep. Still, I usually woke before dawn, heart pounding with dread, and tiptoed softly into David’s room to listen to his quiet breathing.

I made David’s butterfly net that “merry” Christmas of 1959 and we bought him a bike. I wondered how much he would ride that shiny red bicycle, bright with promise. He leaped excitedly around the sunny yard waving the new butterfly net into a crisp cone. Even in California there are no butterflies in December. Would he live to see them in April? Or the tulips bloom in March? Or the new baby that summer? “It will be a girl!” he predicted with delight.

He lived to see them all, each in its turn. Every day of his life was like a gift of hope, the hope that medical research would discover something in time to save him.

David turned twelve in March and we took him back to church. He was ordained a deacon. Because of the ever-present danger of strep, he was literally risking his life to serve God; but in the eternal perspective, there could be only one choice. His face radiated humility and pride as he performed his priesthood duties.

The liquid rays of spring melted into one another. Summer was a golden chain of sunny hours linked by love and blessed with a baby—yes, a girl. By fall David was back in school and up with his grade. Oral reading had trained his voice, and he was given a leading role in his class assembly. He represented his room in the spelling bee. His attendance was perfect.

The next summer he learned to swim. In the fall he became a Boy Scout. He took piano lessons and paid for them by babysitting. He sang with the school chorus and a cappella choir.

He had been forbidden strenuous exercise, but sometimes he came in red-faced and glowing from a backyard game or a bicycle race around the block. On the balance scale of his life, I wondered, does adding more pleasure take away a little time? And if there were a choice, which would it be?

David’s rapid recovery from an appendectomy the summer he was fourteen surprised the doctors and gave us a sense of security. By now the first successful kidney transplants had been performed. Our hearts were full of hope instead of fear.

But the following Christmas time the tests were bad. His kidneys were not functioning properly. Because his body could not get rid of the waste products it was actually poisoning itself. The only measures we could take would be temporary.

“How long does he have?” my husband asked.

“Maybe months, maybe weeks,” the doctor told us.

Even as he said this, I was thinking, “God will not let him die. He will save him with a miracle. He has done it twice before.”

“Will he have much pain?” I wanted to know.

“No.”

From earliest childhood David had been very brave about pain. Doctors who stitched his wounds without anaesthetic were amazed when he did not cry. He did not flinch when he had a shot. His appendicitis was hard to diagnose because he was only complaining, not screaming. His doctor knew as well as I did that when he mentioned pain, it was already severe.

When the ache began in his head, very late one night, the pills I had did nothing. By the time the doctor arrived, his blood pressure was 260—a height almost unheard of in children. He was beginning to feel twitchings in his muscles. They turned into jerks, shooting daggers through him. Then came the agonizing, terrifying convulsions.

“Oh, Mother,” he cried. “Help me!”

I held him as tightly as I could, trying with all my strength so stop the spasms. I could not do it. My body shook with his.

The sixty-mile ride to the hospital was torture. Every bump was a bomb exploding in his head.

Just before he lapsed into unconsciousness, he said, “Get me lots of flowers.” It was Valentine’s Day.

New drugs brought his blood pressure down but not soon enough, and there had been hemorrhaging in his brain. He could not move or speak or see, but he could hear.

I was sure, now, about the miracle. God would not have let him live through this dreadful day if he had wanted him to die.

David started his struggle to gain control of his body immediately. First he started humming. We knew it was a conscious effort because he was making a tune, not just a noise. The first words came with enormous difficulty—a slight movement of his shoulders, then a slow, laborious pushing out the words, one or two at a time. Few and forced though they were, they indicated the alertness of his mind.

Slowly, with the same effort, he began to move his legs, his shoulders, his head. His speech was coming easier. He was getting food by mouth.

But for every step he fought forward, his body slipped back two. He developed a painful staph infection from one of the injections in his leg; he had severe stomach pains and indications of internal bleeding; his eyes were puffy with edema.

How much, I wondered, does he have to suffer before he can get well—before the miracle?

On March 14th, two Weeks before David’s fifteenth birthday, I was at the hospital by nine A.M. David was resting comfortably after an injection for pain.

“How are you today?” I asked.

“Fine,” he said.

“I can tell you feel tired,” I told him, “so rest awhile. I’ll sit right here by you.”

He began to choke a little.

“David, do you feel sick?” the nurse asked.

“No.”

He choked again, and she hurried to his side and told me to press the emergency button. The doctor rushed in with oxygen. The nurse massaged his chest. In panic I left the room to call my husband. When I came back, the doctor was standing outside.

“Is he gone?” I asked.

“Yes, he’s gone.” It was 9:15.

I could not believe we had come to the bottom of the hill. No preparation makes a mother ready to give up a life she helped create.

After the nurse had taken care of the equipment and straightened David’s room, I went back in. He looked as if he were asleep. I could almost imagine the sound of his quiet breathing. I could nearly see a slight rise and fall of the sheet over his chest.

“Goodbye, David,” I whispered and leaned to kiss his forehead. He was cold. The miracle had happened. The God who loved our son had called him back.

When I went home, I walked into David’s room. There was his unrumpled bed, the Christmas desk he would never use. His books were still in the headboard; his clothes hung in the closet. It seemed strange to me that everything that was David’s was still here, while everything that was David was gone.

I picked up the sagging butterfly net. I remembered the sunny December day when it was new and David was running, swinging it wildly. His delight was not dimmed by the empty air. Was it not better to have lived well than to have lived long?

David would always be alive in my heart—as a chubby baby grabbing sunbeams in a dimpled fist, as a delighted boy pulling a wiggling fish from the water, as a beaming deacon passing the sacrament. The memory would never die of his quiet assurance of God’s purpose, his uncomplaining acceptance of things as they had to be, and his courage. He had not lost the battle. He had won.

And we share his triumph, too, secure in the knowledge that he will continue to grow and learn and that we will one day be reunited with him.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Mike Eagle

Joy Nelson Hulme, mother of five children, serves as a seminary teacher in the Los Gatos First Ward, Saratoga California Stake.