My mother buries flies. The ones that make it to greet the approach of winter and then end up dead in the corners of windowsills. I’ve never seen her do it, but I imagine her careful hands. Her quiet. There is something my mother understands about the fly’s last breath, its struggle against the cold, its futile attempt to outlive winter. My mother has lived through the unimaginable loss of a child. She has survived breast cancer. And she buries flies because she believes that no one’s struggle, not even that of the smallest sort of someone, should go unnoticed.
One of my best memories of growing up is snuggling with my mother in bed watching Little House on the Prairie. Sharing the same pillow, her arm around me. There simply wasn’t a safer place for me to be. And I remember her face, many years later, after the first of a few breakups with my high school boyfriend, a little sad and a little angry. And I understood, even then, that she wanted to save me from the world—from growing up and losing the things and people I loved, from pain in general. And she knew she couldn’t. After the final breakup with this same boyfriend, it was my mother who drove a thousand miles to help me pack up my things and move on (both literally and figuratively), because I wasn’t able to pull it together and do it on my own. This care that my mother offered me when I was growing up created the roots of my own ability to sympathize and empathize.
Long before I discovered my mother’s fly burial grounds, I was conducting my own rituals intended to ease the lives of these small beings. My friend Jenny and I used to rescue flies from little-boy prisons of knot-tied thread. How those boys were able to tie thread around such tiny bodies so that they could still fly, leashed, in circles, is something I never knew or have since forgotten. But I do remember collecting them at the end of the day, taking them home, putting them in slide-out matchboxes lined with tissues—a regular fly hospital. None of them were nursed back to health. All of them died despite our attentive care. I hated those boys.
You could say it’s about the helplessness of the fly—that I rescued them, and my mother buries them, simply because we feel sorry for them. But if you said that, you’d miss the finer point, which is that I have learned from my mother that compassion has a place in this world. I believe that nothing and no one is inconsequential. I believe that every little thing deserves a fair chance, that all struggle screams out for some kind of notice, and that although we probably can’t save anyone from pain and loss, we should doggone well try.