Saying good-bye to the Butterfly Queen

Normally, I write about travel–worldly adventures and destinations. But today, I feel compelled to write about a different sort of journey, because I want, I need, to honor my friend Michelle Taylor Shutzer. She passed away in San Francisco yesterday, April 9, 2014, after battling Stage 4 cancer for nearly four years.

Michelle in the middle, with my friend Kelley and myself.

Michelle in the middle, with my friend Kelley and myself.

Yes. Stage 4. That’s the “last” stage of cancer, meaning it has spread to more than one organ. That was the state of things when she was diagnosed…yet she lived with it for nearly four more years.

When I say lived, I mean lived, and through her incredible bravery, determination and humor, she showed her friends how to live by example.

I’d known Michelle since high school. She was the girl with the big red hair, the big bold laugh, at the center of our big group of friends. She was larger than life, even then.

Michelle (right) with our friend Katie in high school

Michelle (right) with our friend Katie in high school

But I don’t think I really got to know her until her diagnoses. That’s when she emerged as the Butterfly Queen, head of a devoted butterfly nation, whom she called upon to lift her up.

In an e-mail to her friends on July 30, 2010, Michelle broke the news and announced her battle plan. She would eventually undergo surgery and special diets, chemo and radiation, availing herself of every medical option available, but she recognized from the beginning that this war would also be waged on another plain. Here’s what she wrote:

“I need your thoughts, prayers and for you to shine your light and love on me…It is in the spiritual realm that we will alter this reality and change the course to eradicating this disease from my body. Together, you will make up my ‘MIRACLE NETWORK.’”

She had always been a “giver,” she said. “Giving brings joy and love in my life,” she explained. And she actually apologized for asking for our help and for worrying us. (That’s Michelle for you!)

“It breaks my heart to be the source of concern for you, but I don’t know any other way to face this than just to ask. I am working to make the hopeful positive battle strategy real. The healing vision is monarch butterflies gently landing together on my body and ‘ping!’ making every poison cell disappear. The Color for this new journey is ORANGE so bold and vibrant. I’m naming the poison cells the ‘Blue Meanies.’ Who wants to use the word cancer every day?”

That’s how it began. We became Michelle’s butterfly soldiers, contributing however we could, in ways big and small. Some of our old high school friends traveled from all around the country to organize a fund-raising triathlon for her in Florida, and our friend Kelley flew her to Nevada and arranged for a hair and make-up artist to pamper her before they headed to the Electric Daisy music festival together. Those are just two examples. The list is endless.

Team Butterfly at their triathlon

Team Butterfly at their triathlon

Michelle was a remarkable woman, and her outsized heart, her giant personality, and her pure energy drew the most loyal and dedicated friends anyone could hope for.

“Your love carries me and I feel like the luckiest girl in the world that our hearts are connected,” she wrote on a website that chronicled her journey (http://michelleisamiracle.tumblr.com).

But whatever any of us tried to do for her, she paid us back a hundred-fold. As much as Michelle relied upon her fellow butterflies for strength, it’s the greatest testament to her that in her darkest hours, she illuminated our hearts. Every message from her spoke of her love, her gratitude, her hope. 

Michelle may not have “beaten” cancer—but she did not let it beat her, either. She fought this disease and lived with this disease with more grace and courage than I would have thought humanly imaginable.

She has become, in my mind, a kind of superhero—the Butterfly Queen. Whatever life throws at me in the future, I’m going to try to think of the Butterfly Queen, to try to behave as she has.

When Michelle finally left this world yesterday, she had done everything she could to fight cancer. She had done everything she could for us, too, to show us such a fine example of fierceness and grace.

House of Love album cover, which Michelle posted on my Facebook page

House of Love album cover, which Michelle posted on my Facebook page

Here are a few lines from a poem by Mary Oliver which she posted to her tumblr site:

For years and years I struggled

just to love my life. And then

the butterfly

rose, weightless, in the wind.

“Don’t love your life

too much,” it said,

and vanished

into the world.

Michelle is weightless now. It’s we who are left behind that are feeling the incredible weight of her loss. I grieve for her family, for those of us who were lucky enough to count her as a friend, and for those who never had the privilege to meet her.

The Queen Butterfly, third from left, in her element, at a party organized by our amazing friend Becky.

The Queen Butterfly, third from left, in her element, at a party organized by our amazing friend Becky.

She inspired everyone who knew her–made us want to lift her up, lift each other up, embrace life, embrace each other. I’ve never encountered anyone who moved me so much with their strength, their optimism, their attitude. That is what ultimately made Michelle a miracle.

This is what she wrote to me when she heard about the passing of my sister, Kimberly, nearly five years ago—a year before Michelle’s own diagnoses. “We go about life planning, accomplishing, effecting, contributing, producing, enjoying…as we are meant to do, but we are plagued with enduring and ultimately accepting that it ends, it goes away…There is comfort that she is home.”

I have no doubt that Michelle has gone home now, too, to a place where she can shed her battered body and spread her beautiful wings and soar, flying higher and farther and faster than ever before.

Her final words to us, on her tumblr site? “Feeling your love and at peace.”

All I know is, I’ll never see another butterfly again without thinking of Michelle.

Posted by Michelle's friend Laxmi to call the Queen's butterflies into action

Posted by Michelle’s dear friend Laxmi, who was with her at the end.

NOW HEAR THIS: WRHS 88.0 Iron Butterfly Radio, created for Michelle’s triathlon and the Butterfly Nation by our fantastically talented friend, professional voice-over actress Kelley Carruthers Buttrick. (Her commentary is as awesome as the retro tunes). http://vimeo.com/84778599

WHAT YOU CAN DO

If there is someone in your life for whom you have a kind word, tell them today. No one can ever hear enough kind words.

Michelle at The Flag Foundation, taken by her friend Susan Morosoli

Michelle at The Flag Foundation, taken by her friend Susan Morosoli

Donate to a charity that will enrich—or even save—a life.

Michelle spent some of her happiest moments in her last year or so among the horses at www.theflagfoundation.org.

Memorial contributions can also be made to the Cancer Center at CPMC: http://cpmcf.org/

Additional Cancer Sites:

American Cancer Society: http://www.cancer.org

Marie Curie Cancer Cure (UK): https://www.mariecurie.org.uk

Cancer research UK: http://www.cancerresearchuk.org

Become an organ donor. (Not right now, you know…but when you’re done with them!) I don’t think a transplant would have saved Michelle’s life, but this HAS saved the life of another of my very dearest friends. When we leave this world, we have no need of our bodies anymore, but by allowing others to make use of our organs, we can give them a second lease on life. I can think of no greater gift.

In the US: http://www.organdonor.gov/index.html

In the UK: http://www.organdonation.nhs.uk/how_to_become_a_donor/index.asp

 

From Michelle's tumblr website

From Michelle’s tumblr website

 

33 Comments

  1. Amy Jenkins says:

    Good grief, Ames. I’m a blubbering mess after reading this; it is just so beautiful. A wonderful tribute to the Queen Butterfly and those left in her wake.

  2. Jane Kidd says:

    Thank you, Amy. One of many in the Butterfly Nation!

  3. Stacy Archer says:

    I’ve always thought that one’s “gift” meant her innate, natural ability or strength. Now I think of your “gift” in the literal sense. The gift TO US, of putting our most intimate, private thoughts and feelings into beautifully stated words that sooth our sorrow-filled hearts. Thinking of you and all of her Butterfly Nation today.

  4. Katie says:

    She brought out the best in each of us, and as a group. We will always be the Butterfly Nation.

  5. Melanie Hollifield says:

    Beautiful Amy! What a great tribute.

  6. Thank all of YOU for your beautiful words. Stacy, your spray tan story on FB made me laugh, despite everything! (That is one of YOUR amazing gifts–to bring a smile to someone’s face, no matter what the circumstance). Other Amy, I wish I could be there to give you a hug; after all, we perfected the “prom dance” clutch in those TNAC photos, didn’t we? Katie, Rick, Melanie, Jane–how lucky we were to have known Michelle. We’re all united now, citizens of a Butterfly Nation that knows no geographical boundaries–Michelle’s legacy to us all.

  7. Richard (Rick) Averitt says:

    Thank you Amy for doing what few of us are capable of and offering a fitting tribute to an amazing woman.

  8. Christy says:

    Thanks for this post, Amy. While I knew Michelle, I didn’t know her as well as many of my other high school friends, some of whom have posted here. Please know I am praying for peace for those of you who are suffering the sadness of the loss of Michelle.

  9. Angela (Busbee) Swaney says:

    I didn’t know Michelle, but I know all of you.. and I am so disappointed that I didn’t get to know her. You have painted an amazing picture of her. My deepest sympathies are with all of you, but if I know you all the way I think I do, I know that you will celebrate her life, not mourn her passing. I wish you all peace.

  10. LAXMI HALL says:

    Thank you Amy for such a touching tribute to our beautiful butterfly…..have so much to say but not able to express it even remotely close to how you said it.
    Laxmi

  11. Thank you all again for taking the time to read about Michelle. Because of the way she opened our hearts, her light will never truly be extinguished from this world. I intend to try to embrace her positive, sunny attitude and to “pay it forward” however I can. Laxmi, I do want to say a very special thank you to you for being steadfastly at her side, throughout your long friendship, and especially in her last days. I know you reminded her of how much her friends loved her, and how she inspired us. Big hugs all around!

  12. Jeff Steele says:

    Great words, Amy. Thank you. I wanted to add one more small thing:

    When I learned of Michelle’s advanced condition some time ago, well after she had known and accepted the news and had been downplaying it to some of us, I started to see the real Michelle bloom. She certainly had her moments and days, many likely hidden from her “nation,” but after that point I never saw or talked to Michelle when she didn’t have her trademark smile glowing, her infectuous giggle, her happy demeanor. She has literally hundreds of photos that capture only her gorgeous smile and personality despite what we all (and she) knew was coming. SHE was the one who kept OUR spirits up throughout this process. SHE refused to let us suffer with her, rather she demanded we celebrate the days she had. People that met her had no idea she was anything other than her goofy, fun self.

    This was her strength, or one of them anyhow. She carried the burden and kept US smiling around her. She remained always an example of how to fight, and although in the end she lost, she fought enough to allow all her loved ones to share many moments of the life she had left.

  13. Lois Bukowski says:

    Thanks, Amy. I’m a friend of Michelle’s as well and yesterday I was skiing and was visited by a beautiful butterfly while on the lift. That never happens! That was our girl’s spirit I am sure… Your words are soothing and beautiful.

  14. Lois, thank you for sharing your butterfly story! Our friend Stacy got a visit last night, too, and I spotted a lone white flutterer while on a walk yesterday afternoon. I agree with you absolutely. I think they’re symbolic of Michelle’s spirit, and a sign that she has taken flight and wants to let us know she’s all right.

    Jeff, you are 100 percent spot on. The thing that impressed me most about Michelle was how she kept right on glowing and laughing through it all, kicking up her heels and partying like the good-time girl she had been all her life. She must have had her moments of despair, but she didn’t let them overtake her. I believe it was her incredibly positive attitude, along with all the prayers and good thoughts everyone sent her way, that kept her afloat those four years, as much as her excellent medical care. She created a circle of love that flowed through all of us, and right back to her.

  15. Thank you Amy for this wonderful tribute. We were all lucky to have known Michelle and to have experienced her positive presence in our lives. She loved the horses at The Flag Foundation, run by our colleague at CPMC Foundation, Kimberly Carlisle. She also was extremely appreciative of the care she received by he doctors at CPMC, Michael Abel, MD (her surgeon) and Art Baron, MD (her oncologist). In fact her last text to me was about how great Dr. Baron had been. Memorial gifts to the Cancer Center at CPMC could be made at: http://cpmcf.org/
    We are hurting and missing Michelle a lot here at work. So sad…

    • Hi Helen. Thank you so much for your message. I know Michelle was dedicated to helping her doctors, whom she so respected, to secure the funds to continue their vital work. I greatly appreciate the link for the Cancer Center. I’m going to add it to my post for people who might want to make a contribution in Michelle’s honor; I’m sure she would appreciate that! I’ll be thinking of you and all of her wonderful colleagues. Michelle’s absence must feel like a huge void among those of you who enjoyed her presence, her beautiful energy, on a daily basis.

  16. Shareen Newman says:

    Ames-
    I couldn’t get through this in one sitting because my eyes are so tear-filled and my heart is broken for your loss. You’ve always had a way with words and this tribute is SO beautiful and worthy of your friend.

    My heart goes out to you and all of the Butterfly Nation for your loss. Michelle was a gift to everyone and it’s clear that her influence and presence will be felt by all of you forever. Thank you for sharing her story.

    And I want YOU to know how much YOU Are LOVED and respected and I’m so very honored to be your friend. <3
    I wish I could reach thru the screen and give you a BIG LONG HUG followed by a tall stiff drink. CHEERS to You, Michelle and all of her beautiful butterfly friends for being such an inspiration- in life and death. xoxoxo

  17. Amy,

    Thank you for this beautiful tribute to a beautiful spirit.

    I watched as many of you came with Michelle to The Flag Foundation (I am on the Board there, as was Michelle) over the past year and was blown away by the beautiful friendships Michelle had in her life. She was loved dearly and loved you all so much back. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who had so many friends and who just loved to bring people together in celebration. What a joy she was.

    Michelle cared so much for our herd of 30 horses. It was amazing to watch her spend quiet, peaceful time among them. It was clearly healing in so many ways, as it is for all of us. We will miss her deeply and she will always be a part of our herd.

  18. Tova says:

    Beautifully written by both you and your dear friend. I am truely sorry for your loss. I too will look at butterflies differently now.

  19. Kari says:

    What a beautiful tribute to an extraordinary and beautiful woman. She lives in your words, our hearts, our thoughts.

  20. Thanks to all of you for your kind words, for sharing your own memories of Michelle, and for keeping an eye out for those butterflies! To Michele at the Flag Foundation, a special thanks for introducing Michelle to your horses. She wrote so often of the peace and joy they brought her; it seemed there was no place else she would rather be. To Shareen…lots of love, my friend. I’m so glad you and Krissy were able to get together; I wish I had been there with you two crazy ladies. The next time I see you, I’ll happily take you up on that hug…and the drink. In the meantime, raising a glass and a virtual toast to the Butterfly Queen.

  21. Susan Morosoli says:

    Amy.

    I have seen your name is so many emails. I am not sure if we have met in person..I am so touched with what you wrote I feel like we all shared in her same beautiful spirit and life. She never made anyone feel like they weren’t part of her life… part of her laughter and love! As butterflies we will carry on … sadly without Michelle. Her profile photo (the one you have above) was one I snapped on the day we were at Flagg…such a beautiful memory…=another world she exposed us all to with open arms!!! Thanks for your beautiful writing. Sue

  22. Susan, your photo of Michelle is one of my absolute favorites. Her feisty, sassy spirit shines through in it so clearly. I’m glad she had so many fabulous friends on the West Coast to lift her up on this journey and carry her with your love and laughter. She will always shine on, in our memories and through this beautifully supportive Butterfly Network she created. Whereas we were once there for her, we’re now there for each other, and that is one more thing for which I’ll be eternally grateful–a final, enduring gift from Michelle. Hugs to all y’all in Cali!

  23. Fellow Butterflies, I’ve just added a link to WRHS 88.0 Iron Butterfly Radio, created for the Iron Butterfly triathlon by our fantastically talented friend, professional voice-over actress Kelley Carruthers Buttrick. (Her commentary is as awesome as the retro tunes). http://vimeo.com/84778599

  24. Brigitte (Taylor) Clayton says:

    There is a LOT of love in this room <3 Amy this is a heartfelt and moving tribute, thank you. All of the love, prayers, and good wishes are appreciated. Please know, each of you, that when you come together like this and share your love and memories, relate how Michelle touched your life, when you put it out in the universe how you plan to honor her in some thought or deed, each of you are re-energizing the spirit of Michelle that we all now carry in us. Michelle was the pebble and now each of us are the ripples that can ride on her love to be a pebble for someone else. Michelle is not done, she will continue as that amazing inspiration and force in each of you. You are all welcome, just like in high school, to come to Michelle's house, Lisa (Mom) is waiting to give you a big hug. We will be gathering all of you butterflies together soon, Mom and I look forward to seeing you all and remembering Michelle together.

    Much love to all of you 🙂
    ~Brigitte (Michelle's little sister)

    • Brigitte, I haven’t known how to reach you and your Mom, but I wanted to tell you how much my heart goes out to you both. You have written so beautifully and eloquently about the legacy Michelle leaves, and you are absolutely right. I’ve found myself thinking of her and trying to honor her with even small kindnesses to others, because I feel that she so amply proved that all the sunshine you put out in the world comes back to you one hundred fold. We had so many great times at your house as teenagers; you definitely had an amazingly cool Mom, and I can’t think of a better place to gather the butterflies who knew Michelle then than Lisa’s ever-welcoming cocoon. I wish I weren’t so far away, as I’d love to be there with you to celebrate your big sister’s life. I lost my big sis, too, nearly five years ago, and I know she will always be a huge part of you. Big hugs to you and Lisa! If only I could deliver them in person…

  25. Brigitte (Taylor) Clayton says:

    Thank you Amy, I’m sorry about your sister also. I will message you Moms contact info. Next time you are on this side of the pond you be sure to come join us for coffee, cake, and lots of laughs, and #1 man in Michelle, moms and my life, my son James 🙂

  26. mary elzey says:

    Seriously late to the game here. Sorry about the loss of your friend. Your tribute was fantastic. Sounds like my kind of girl!

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