When my mother became very ill years ago, her insurance provided home healthcare. However, my sister and I were very much involved. We frequently took over on weekends and evenings during the week. The illness was quite prolonged, and caregivers came and went along with good days and bad. She had a hospital bed in her family room. There were sliding glass doors that looked out upon the back yard in which she loved to putter about on better days. Mom enjoyed the butterflies most of all; particularly the large, yellow Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly.
The Sunday before she died, I sat with her, talking. I was hoping I could somehow reach her. Warm sunshine filled the room. I had opened the sliding doors to let in the warmth. A butterfly drifted close to her bed for a brief heart-wrenching moment. I began to tell her a story about an incident that occurred when I was a teacher in the early 60’s. Late in the fall of that school year, one of my second graders brought a large green caterpillar into class. We decided to see if we could provide it with an area in which to make a cocoon.
After some research, on my part, we used a good-sized rectangular aquarium. We filled it with twigs, grass, and soft leaves. Then we added moist cotton balls. We covered the opening allowing for air but retaining some moisture. My second graders were enchanted with the project. On the weekends, I carted home the whole habitat, continuing maintenance of moisture and temperature. It was quite a good-sized caterpillar. I was determined that we would provide it what it needed to complete its special cycle. Within a week or two we had a large chrysalis attached to a substantial twig. I felt we had recreated “nature” as well as we could.
Together, my students and I created a large chart and each day we observed our “friend.” Winter came and spring. Every school day we recorded “no change” and every weekend the large glass habitat occupied a shelf in my laundry room. Summer came and I promised my kids that I wouldn’t let anything happen to our little “buddy.” One day in late July, I went into the laundry room and there on the edge of the aquarium was a gorgeous butterfly. I grabbed my camera and took several photos. I was awed by its amazing beauty! Then ever so carefully I carried habitat and butterfly into our backyard. A few moments later it flew as though it had never been a large ungainly green caterpillar. For a few days it stayed in our yard.
When school resumed in the fall, I made sure to share my photos and the story with my kids. We all agreed it had been a rare and wonderful experience. I imagined my mother’s lips formed a tiny smile if only for an instant. Since then, Tiger Swallowtail Butterflies have remained near and dear to my heart. They remind me of Mom and my amazing second grade class and our very special science project.
Recently, after a rocky weekend of low blood pressure due to my heart condition, I drove my little dog Pearl to the veterinary clinic for a re-check. On the way home, with Pearl in her carrier beside me, I began to feel a bit dizzy. I had to keep going as there were no shoulders to pull off on. As I talked to Pearl to keep myself focused a Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly landed for the briefest moment on the car window. I thought of my mother. I have often felt that she watches over me. When I could pull over and relax, I offered a little prayer to Mom.
Later that night, as I reflected on the day, I thanked God for putting into our world a wonderful creature such as the largest green caterpillar I had ever seen and giving my little students the chance to help it toward its lovely destiny. My memories of teaching, my memories of Mom and my own children – they are all the greatest gifts and the best medicine.