They fell for it again, and mailed sixteen Monarch caterpillars to me, no bigger than a pencil’s eraser. They’re packed in a box and overnighted to my front door with a cold pack to keep them drugged with chilly sluggishness. They arrive in little plastic condiment cups, atop a grayish green gel of “feeding medium”. Me and my credit card trusted to raise these helpless fragile beings to glorious adulthood, to teach rambunctious preschoolers all about the miracle of metamorphosis. It sometimes is a different lesson. I have their aquarium habitat ready, and I’m in charge of feeding them. I unconsciously scan the roadside for milkweed all year long. I commit the locations to memory. Their survival depends on me, and that weighs me down. The butterfly people don’t know their efforts to conserve and preserve Danaus plexippus are no more than a crap shoot when they mail that package off to me.
All my life I’ve taken care. Of pets. Of homework. Of my books and record albums. Later, of my husband, my friends, my house, my children. My children like those little caterpillars, needing constant tending and feeding. Attached to me with their sticky silky threads of need and love and touch. The primal attachment born with each one of them, seconds old, placed on my soft welcoming stomach, crying, wet, and slippery. Their blue eyes first looking into my blue eyes. Instinctively grasping my finger to reconnect the severed umbilical cord. An infinitely elastic unbreakable band that binds us to each other for life. Nursed and soothed. Cleaned and wiped. Cajoled and scolded. Limits and largesse. I have three children, and I love them to the dark unplumbed desperate depths of my soul every moment of my life, even while sometimes hating what they did, as they also at times hated me. It was, and is, inexplicably complex and nuanced. The whole time they are growing in my house, even though I am fulfilled, occupied, and stretched to exhaustion, part of me is waiting. Asleep. And I don’t even know it.
My job – I’m a preschool teacher – is odd. It is part-time, but all-consuming. Technically, I work two and one-half hours per day in that classroom filled with miniature furniture and miniature people. Two hundred ten furiously paced minutes that drain me completely. Sixteen 4-year olds never let you rest. They ask, demand, laugh, ignore, challenge, and delight and want me involved in it all, all at the same time. Despite what most parents think, teaching them to write their names, recognize letters and numbers, teaching them to read, is all a distant second to teaching them compassion, consideration, independence and compromise. Teaching them to be caring friends. It is often an uphill battle, and sometimes feels futile. These little people are in my care, preparing for their next step into the world. I need to convince them, and their sometimes reluctant parents, that they can trust me to do that. Any emotional detachment I have for my preschoolers that might relieve some of the exhaustion is negated by their sheer number. There are just so many of them, and in the end, I come to care deeply about them anyway. It is my curse while also my blessing.
The little caterpillars eat and eat and eat. Miraculous machines with an irresistible drive to grow. And they don’t even know it. They just do it. They get bigger by the day and split their old skins and reveal vibrant new bodies; brilliant green, black, yellow, and white stripes. My routine during those weeks is simple. Leave for school early, and drive out into the country to cut sticky dripping stalks of the poisonous milkweed they need to eat. It takes 30 minutes to wash the stems, remove the old chewed stalks and push the new ones into the holes in the lid of the container that holds them upright. I examine both sides of each old leaf, making sure that I move every little caterpillar onto green juicy leaves before discarding the old ones. They settle in seamlessly, and get right to work. If you look closely, you can see their mouths mowing off row upon row of milkweed, like corn on the cob. They never stop. There are times when some have inexplicably disappeared, with no trace remaining. I suspect cannibalism. I try not to think about it.
My children were busy. Intricate imaginative games, craft projects, made-up dramatic play, and construction projects in the back yard that besides hammers, nails, and scraps of lumber, usually involved help from me. Forts. Tree houses. Tents. Bicycle repairs. Endless snacks and drinks. Occasionally small forbidden fires. They loved ferociously and they battled ferociously, sometimes to blood. In turn, I fought too many battles for them, to try to spare them pain and darkness, and intertwined myself with them until we were indivisible, our separate roots indistinguishable in the black loamy soil of our lives. The inevitable separation is exquisitely painful, and the surgeon is utterly unskilled. I bear the fresh scars, as do they, and I hope they fade to silvery white in time. I hope that I can forget, or at least absorb, and push to the background, the grinding pain.
One amazing day, the caterpillars are hanging upside down from the screen covering the aquarium. And then, again, all at once, there’s nothing to do but wait. In seconds, they turn from striped caterpillar to a brilliant green luminous chrysalis with a glittering thread of gold necklacing the top. As much time as I have spent peering into their world, I have never witnessed that secret moment of transformation. Little jewels with a wonder inside them waiting to be realized. I am in awe every time. Some years, if I’ve been diligent and careful, we have 12 or 14 chrysalises. There are so many variables. Have I let the milkweed get too dry? Have they gotten too warm in the sun? Has the milkweed been sprayed with a pesticide by determined road crews? Have I unwittingly poisoned them, the grim reaper in a blue plastic cup with a scythe swinging a wide murderous arc? Last year, and one other year, I fear I did. They all died before achieving their chrysalis stage. We spirit the aquarium to the supply closet, the last body lying on its side in the bottom on the clean paper towel. He hadn’t eaten in days. We talk about death and dying at Circle Time. Everyone knows a cat or a dog or a grandmother who has died. You can see the pain in their open little faces. Sometimes I have to dam up my own tears when face to face with their stark losses and their struggle to understand this permanent absence.
I tried to socialize my children, to keep them presentable and well-behaved, but I know I’ve been too cautious. Too conscious of what others will think of my children’s behavior, and thus, mostly, of myself. Why do I not realize this until it is too late for them? I fear I have smothered vital parts of their spirit, crushed their drive, limited them and hemmed them in, and incrementally, unintentionally dimmed their flame. Do they feel that way too? And when they morph into their adolescence, I fuss around on the periphery, begging for clues to how they are faring. I peer in countless times a day while they lead their own now secret lives in their darkening chrysalises, covered in clothing and friends of their own choosing. I am left to wonder just what they are doing, thinking, feeling. They share none of it. They talk with friends on cell phones, instead of with me at the bedtime kiss and snuggle. They seem to no longer want it, though perhaps they still need it. It feels sinister and shifty to me, and it is solely theirs, and dear God, did I do enough with this sacred trust? To have failed them doesn’t bear thinking. Suddenly cut loose, I slowly stop spinning and haltingly reflect on myself, creaky, painful, and unaccustomed. I am losing something huge and substantial, and in the bloody gap I see something vaporous forming. Indistinct. Eerie. Frightening. And it is irresistible.
Over time, the chrysalises darken to black, as if a bloody struggle is staining and obscuring the translucent walls of soft green. And then one day, the mud clears, the chrysalis is transparent, and I see the compacted orange and black wings of a Monarch butterfly. If I look closely, they pulse and vibrate with transformed life. The next day I arrive in the classroom and out of habit, glance at the aquarium. An empty chrysalis is a papery scrap attached to the ceiling of the aquarium with a sticky patch of silk. The damp and crumpled butterfly lies motionless in the bottom of the glassy hatchery, on a wet brown spot. The detritus of birth. It looks like it was painful. And as if the butterfly might want to go through this in private, without the shouting of 4-year olds and the boom of excited tapping fingers. Slowly the wet wings stretch out and slowly they dry, and the brilliant harlequin wings, orange and black and white, fan up and down, drying and strengthening and straightening and getting ready.
One by one the butterflies hatch out of their chrysalises and they are hungry. The menu changes from milkweed to nectar. I mix sugar and water and soak cotton balls in the solution. They flutter to their dinner, and with their impossibly delicate legs and long curling tongues, suck up the sweetness. I place the aquarium in the sun, and they fan their wings, warming and strengthening for flight. We all like the opportunity to examine these butterflies, forced to hold still and contained for our inspection. We talk about migration and find Mexico on a globe. We read story books about butterflies. We practice saying the hard words like “metamorphosis” and “chrysalis”. We sing songs about butterflies and caterpillars. They fascinate and absorb us. And day after day, until a nice day arrives for release, I mix sugar and water, and tend them in their hatchery. They are beautiful. And they are safe. Nothing can hurt them in there. After the children go home, I kneel and watch them in their gorgeous elemental silence.
When I packed my children up for college, it was with excitement, dread, laughter, and tears. Huge hope. Huge faith. The final release, realizing they would never be wholly mine again. With each successive child’s flight I gain another ounce of freedom, and an emptier house. The departure of my second child is less exciting, and more sad. I see now how their release is also my irrevocable loss. My own chrysalis darkens with the struggle. The departure of the third child, my daughter, my own heartbeat, guts me, and leaves me gasping. It takes me months to remind myself that this is good and right, and even while I enjoy uninterrupted time and freedom, there is also an emptiness that begs for filling. I feel the struggle of separation and transformation in my bones. I ache in every muscle. I have to learn to live calmly again. Again? Really for the first time. Someone asks me, ‘What are your dreams?’ I have no dreams of my own. I dreamt of a marriage that was deep and substantial. I dreamt of babies; children to love and raise. My dreams were those I harbored and nourished for them. I have not thought about what I am beyond mother, wife, and friend. It all is churning and I start to feel my own faint vibrating. I poke at it and I wonder at it; what form it will take when it comes out. It grows and beats and becomes stronger and soon I hear it all the time. It is no longer distant. It is myself, in myself, and it is calling me.
We look ahead to the weather, and a cool sunny day approaches. It’s time to let the butterflies go. We line up to file outside, me in the front of the line, with the aquarium full of butterflies. The Pied Piper of Lepidoptera. I have my class sit down on the sidewalk so they can all see, and so no little feet, milling around, step on a butterfly. We take the lid off the aquarium and the butterflies are stunned to stillness. Dismayed and frozen at their sudden freedom. I’m holding my breath. I reach in and coax one onto my finger. It is a singular gift to hold a butterfly in its weightless beauty, and pure fragile perfection. Its thread-like legs grasp my finger as I lift it up. Now they are all fluttering around and restless, and one by one, released from my finger up into the blue sky. My class watches them go with enormous excitement, calling goodbyes. I watch them fly away with tears clouding my eyes, saying my silent farewells, and I have to swallow hard to keep the lump of a sob down. How to explain to my 4-year olds the utter sadness of this departure for me. They all are sure they will fly on to Mexico to beget more Monarch butterflies like the story books promised. How to explain the harms that wait for them. How to know all that and still have faith that they will fulfill what they are meant to do. Safe in the hatchery, they remain protected, and beautiful to look at and I can keep them safe. Fluttering erratically away, seemingly directionless and buffeted by the wind, falling, then catching a draft and soaring upward, how will they manage? No one can know, but they have to go.
As they fly from our sight, climbing and spiraling smaller and smaller against that brilliant bluebird sky, rare quiet from my class of little people who stand and watch. Now free, they are more fleetingly beautiful than they ever could be in their glass house. And with a moment of stunning clarity, the darkness of my own chrysalis falls away in papery shreds and it’s like a dream I sometimes have where I am flying. The wind shushes by my ears and my heart seizes, pounds, and thrills to the fear and excitement and the sudden expansive seeing of everything. I soar up and, suddenly falling, dip and dive and soar again. I try out my wings and slowly sense the control that I have, but it’s not much. And I so like that, completely different from when my feet were so solid and so rooted to the ground. It’s terrifying and new and risky, but I want more and more. This new vision, my eye seeing the curve of the world in the distance, is rushing at me on the wind and I turn my face into it to feel it cold and cleansing. It’s not safe. It’s unknowable. I have to take it – whatever “it” is – as it comes, and it’s a celebration. I go on climbing, afraid of the unpredictable, and doubting my own strength. I go on climbing in the face of others’ judgements, still so rooted. My chrysalis is gone. And now, fulfilling its own exquisite timing, I rise, reaching, looking out onto the world with new eyes. My skin and my hair and my fingers and my heart testing the air, sensing the way, following the pulse that began in the chrysalis. Those butterflies know the beauty of it all, and now I will know it too.