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Learning to Trust an Unseen Guide

He worried that his son lacked direction, but an old friend gave him a new way of looking at life.

A butterfly flutters near Quito, Ecuador.
Credit: Getty Images/Flickr RF

Out of nowhere the butterfly flitted across the path, lingered on a flower, darted up into the sky, then came back down to us. Iridescent wings catching the sunshine, dazzling with color. Ally followed it and we followed Ally.

We were in the Botanical Gardens in Quito, Ecuador, 9,350 feet above sea level, the snow-dusted Andes encircling us. Clouds hung over the mountains and a brilliant rainbow pierced the canopy.

I should have been happy, here on vacation with my wife, Carol. We had flown in to visit our oldest son, Sam, and his friend Ally, but an uneasiness hovered over me.

Why was Sam here? Why couldn’t he get on with his life and go to medical school as we had planned? Why this aimless choice by a kid who normally kept his nose to the grindstone? I had always trusted him. Now I wasn’t so sure.

On our flight from Virginia I shared my feelings with Carol. “Why does Sam need to backpack through the Andes for months, ‘finding himself,’ when he never seemed lost in the first place?” He’d aced his pre-med curriculum and graduated near the top of his class. He was a shoo-in for med school.

“Think about what you were like at his age,” Carol had said.

Well, yes, but Sam wasn’t me. My buddies and I at the University of Virginia partied hard, but kids did in those days, didn’t they? The class of ’66 had Vietnam hanging over our heads. We had to let off steam. Some nights we tore a hole in the morning and crawled right through.

The wildest of us, our crazy leader, was Chuck. He was studying to be a doctor, but you wouldn’t know it watching him drive his Harley along the campus sidewalks, laughing and shouting as if he hadn’t a care in the world. That was Chuck.

“Times were different,” I said. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do.” I went straight into the military after school. Served for four years, went to grad school, got busy with marriage, kids, work.

As for Chuck, I thought of him as a cautionary tale–he’d dropped off the face of the earth. Sam seemed headed for great things. I didn’t want him to get lost, to blow his chances like Chuck and others had.

“I’ve been praying for the right words to say to him,” I told Carol.

Sam met us at the airport with Ally. She was a free spirit, the one who had encouraged his newfound wanderlust. I had suspected that she was a bad influence, but I liked her right away–polite and self-possessed.

And Sam, he’d changed, grown. I could tell immediately. He was more sure of himself, confident but not rebellious. His Spanish was good enough to get us through the throng of taxi drivers and safely to our hotel.

The next morning we visited the local market, toured the old colonial quarter, straddled the equator, ate excellent ceviche. No chance for a heart-to-heart with my son.

Today, at the Botanical Gardens, I hoped there’d be a moment when I could talk some sense into him. He’d had his fun. Now it was time to get serious.

We wandered along the garden paths, admiring a tree here, a cactus there. Sam took a picture of the rainbow. “Look!” Ally gasped. I saw that vibration of color, the butterfly, almost as if it had been spun off by the rainbow. Ally dashed after it.

We followed her zigzag path. It seemed as aimless as this trip of Sam’s. Chasing after butterflies. Chasing after vague notions of the future. I lagged several paces behind, feeling light-headed in the thin atmosphere.

The butterfly led us to a bridge over a koi pond, then vanished into the sky. Catching my breath, I barely noticed the man sitting at a table there, book in hand. But he and Carol began to talk.

“Where are you from?” I heard him ask in English. “Charlottesville, Virginia,” Carol answered. He put down his book. “I went to school at the University of Virginia,” he said. “Class of sixty-six.”

I stared at him. In an instant the years dropped away. The same crooked grin, the piercing eyes…. I could picture him raising Cain on his old Harley. “Chuck?” I exclaimed.

“Woody?” he said.

We hugged, pounding each other on the back. “Sam, this is my old buddy Chuck, from college,” I said. I fought off my sense of disbelief. Chuck? Here? In Quito, of all places?

The five of us sat down. There was so much catching up to do. We laughed at the things we had done back in the day, shook our heads as if we still couldn’t believe it.

“You know,” Chuck said, “I wasn’t as carefree back then as I wanted everyone to think. I was a pretty unhappy kid.”

I thought of that conversation I wanted to have with Sam. “Did you end up going to med school?” I asked.

“Nope,” Chuck said. “I finally realized it wasn’t really what I wanted to do. It was my father’s plan. So I traveled and tried to find out what I did want. Met a beautiful woman and we settled here. Life has been good to me.”

I stayed silent. “I was planning on going to med school too,” Sam said, “but I don’t think I’d be happy being a doctor.”

Not happy? What did being happy have to do with it? Chuck looked at him. “Only you can decide what’s right for you, the path that is most likely to make you happy. I’m glad I finally found mine.”

All at once I knew. I too had found my path. I was happy with the way my life had turned out and suddenly very proud of my adventurous son. I knew what I needed to say to Sam, not right now, but soon enough: “I love you. I only want you to be happy. Whatever you choose to do.”

Three years have flown by since the day a butterfly led me to that reunion in the least likely of places. Chuck and I still keep in touch, telling old stories and new ones.

Sam returned to the States and found another career–developing software. He’s doing very well. He’s happy, even if I don’t understand a thing about computers or what he does. I trust him.

I trust something else too, now more than ever. No matter where our paths in life take us, our steps are guided, even by a butterfly that seems to emerge from a rainbow.


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