Please Don't Be Dead

A close-up photo of a Painted Lady butterfly hanging upside down from a twig.

"Vanessa cardui" by Marab71 (CC-BY-SA 4.0)

“On Earth, everyone loved butterflies, but I trusted the caterpillars more. I trusted the ones who knew they were not done growing.”
“What Sucks About The Afterlife” by Andrea Gibson


Day 1 : Jostle

Before they’re painted ladies, they’re curled stalactites, nestled in ensuing metamorphosis.

They emulate bats and kids on playground monkey bars. It’s weird and elegant to view science in progress like this. I’ve never seen it up close before. Eric Carle’s version of caterpillar to butterfly was a bit more colorful. The palette these caterpillars inhabit is sewer-colored: deep browns and blacks and olive greens. I am thirty-eight years old and genuinely smitten with this mess of shape-shifting hues.

Employees at the library where I work put them here: four or five per jar in a glass display case, a kit they got from an online science equipment supply. Originally, the plan was to host a butterfly release party, bursts of orange  escaping from their artificial prisons.

The calendar entry on our website now reads, “We unfortunately need to cancel this event due to matters outside our control.” Matters outside our control means a new carpet is going in the children’s department. One change overrides the celebration of another.

We’re going to make a video instead. For the next couple weeks, I’ll check on the wing-sculpting denizens daily and document their progress until the postponed big reveal.

Most of the in-process creatures hang motionless. Two whip about like sheared power lines. Is the dance ecstasy or agony? Both? Another’s entire body shudders in a metronome rhythm. You could set it to David Bowie’s “Under Pressure.” It is the same pace as a relatively healthy person’s heart rate after a brisk walk.

I set up my camera. It feels good to be here, overseeing something simple. Life has not been simple lately. My dad has been fighting cancer for five years now, a vicious mesothelioma that went into remission after radiation and immunotherapy. A recent MRI showed it’s back, a shooter marble–size deposit that lit up the scan like a lighter in a dark room. The whiplash would be enough to give anyone a concussion.

But caterpillars! And all I need to do is point a camera at them a few times. Can do. Manageable. A chimp couldn’t mess this up.

I mess this up.

The caterpillar jars are perched on a flat sheet of thick glass inside the display case that I accidentally strike with my elbow. It jostles the delicate platform, and the caterpillars inside the metamorphosis chambers all shudder as if they are trying to match the rhythm of the Bowie caterpillar. I catch the shelf before it falls to the floor. Instead of shattering and sending the caterpillar jars flying, another collective tremor shimmers through the space.

Stillness. Quiet.

I set the glass back on its shelf and stare at the shaken caterpillars. They’re all motionless, more headstone than butterfly-sans-wings.

“Please don’t be dead,” I murmur in my best library voice.

Did the tremors I caused short-circuit the metamorphosis? Are they stuck now, forever in-between? Do caterpillars have sensitive dispositions and easily die from fright?

After finishing my shoot and packing up my gear, I venture back down about ten minutes later to check on them. Bowie is indeed wiggling again, and the Powerline Brothers have resumed their snaps. One of the chrysalises has dropped from its hanging spot to the ground. Just one, but still.

Dead? Pessimistic Ryan whispers, “Probably.”

This changes things. The next few days won’t just be charming little film shoots. I’ll be looking for proof of life. I can’t save my dad, so I’ll save them instead.

Day 2 — Imaginal

It’s early. No one here. My boss opens the children’s department doors with a pilfered key. My steps are quicker, and my heart rate is up; both only calm when I see the chrysalises. There are a lot more than yesterday. Three caterpillars are still working on zipping up their metamorphosis bags. The scene is still. Even Bowie and the Powerline Brothers are motionless.

“Did you sleep here all night?” a children’s librarian asks.

“No,” I say, “but I could have.”

Later, I read a Scientific American article on what’s happening inside the chrysalises. It is a violent, R-rated romp of wanton gore.

“First, the caterpillar digests itself, releasing enzymes to dissolve all of its tissues,” the piece reads, adding that “caterpillar soup” would ooze out if someone opened the sack at just the right time.

The only non-liquid chunks that remain are called “imaginal discs.” Think of them as key building blocks. Post self-inflicted acid bath, the discs use “the protein-rich soup all around them to fuel the rapid cell division to form the wings, antennae, legs, eyes, genitals and all the other features of an adult butterfly or moth.”

I wonder what my dad would make of this. Would he make a joke, or would he be secretly sorrowful he can’t melt himself down and smelt the stirring tumor into oblivion, then be reborn in a flutter of color and light?

Day 3 — Confession

All the chrysalises are complete. I think of the caterpillar soup metamorphosis that’s ongoing inside each one, the imaginal discs biding their time. There’s comfort in the uniformity. Everything in its right place. It’s strange to see bits of caterpillar remaining outside the enclosures, pieces of themselves, reminders of who they used to be.

“They said one fell down, but that it’s probably okay,” another children’s librarian, Monica, says as I set up my tripod.

“Yeah,” I say. “That was probably me. I accidentally jostled the shelf.”

She shrugs at my confession. It’s nice to feel forgiven. I don’t know if I am in other spaces. I remember how I cursed God after my dad got sick, how I referred to him as a cruel deity who desires pain. How I said existence was just a joke, a glitch, that we all are here for so short a time before dissolving. I remember my dad saying he hopes I get these feelings under control, because he wants to see me again someday after he’s hit the existential exit.

Day 4 — Control

“Did you see your butterfly cabinet is moving?” my coworker Kyna asks.

“No,” I say. “What? What happened?”

The new carpeting that nixed the butterfly release party is going in soon. The cabinet — and everything else on the floor — must go. I think about how I jostled the shelf by mistake and imagine grunting carpet installers tremor-flaying the caterpillars to death.

I pass on my concern to Monica, who explains the cocoons need to be moved anyway. After three or four days, the lids have to be gently pulled from the jar and laid vertically in plastic stands. It’s supposed to make emergence easier: more support and what have you.

Later, Kyna tells me her daughter’s school tried to take on this experiment, and the caterpillars never hatched, remaining chrysalis coffins full of half-formed nightmares. My nephew’s class, by comparison, had a 100 percent success rate with theirs. Coin flip.

Dad’s told me so many times how he is among the longest-surviving patients of mesothelioma. Like, all-time top five or something. They gave him six months. Now he’s closing in on a decade. He says it’s a miracle. God let him get hurt and sick so he could heal him, reveal his divine, perfect power. Most times I’m not ready to believe that, because of how cruel it sounds. Science did this, and luck, a coin flip that went in my dad’s favor. But sometimes I feel ready to believe him. I want to.

Hell, I don’t know.


Day 5 — Vulnerable

Coworker Anna pries the lid off one of the small jars where some of the chrysalis-shrouded caterpillars reside. They swing like seed pods as Anna holds the just-cracked lid at an angle. Monica extends some tweezers and starts pulling away the thin, silk-like netting smothering the chrysalises.

The butterflies, Monica explains, can get stuck in the netting. It’s meant to be trap predators, but too much can hold them hostage them when they emerge. A small crowd gathers ,  children mostly. They watch and learn, instructed by delicate, precise movements.

Monica and Anna set the cleared jar lid upright in one of the stands so the chrysalises hang at the desired angle. Then they set it inside a larger receptacle, net-lined and gentle and roomy.

Another chrysalis becomes a victim of gravity, landing next to the one I knocked off. Anna and Monica get paper towels to cushion the two fallen brethren. They are right next to each other, seeming to relish the company despite the fall.

A parent asks when they are supposed to hatch. A few days, we tell them.

I hope.

When my dad said his cancer was waking up again, getting a second wind, it wasn’t like before. The first time was new, painful; this time there’s worry, but also a strange calm. Do I believe he will be OK? Is this faith in miracles or acceptance of the logical, inevitable conclusion?


Day 6 — Harbinger

At home, I see a painted lady butterfly as I’m walking to the mailbox.

She—she?—alights on our patch of goldenrod that shimmers adjacent to the sidewalk. Her wings churn, powering down. I stare, and I think she stares back.

“Hi,” I say.

She says nothing. Her proboscis flicks out a few times, feeding, delicate feet dancing on the delicate surface. Then she flies away in a stutter of tangerine and licorice wings.

Sometimes I still hate God for what he’s let happen to my dad. Sometimes I all but don’t believe in God at all.

But occasionally, there are moments like this one: butterflies that pause in mid-flower kiss and seem to smile at you before flying away, making you want to appeal to the sky they dissolve into and know someone will hear you.

Day 8 — Quiet

The library will be closed for the next three days. Installation of the new carpet is underway. The relocated shelf, now in the main lobby instead of the children’s department, is surrounded, boxed in: shelving, book carts, et cetera. IKEA vomit. I have to duck under some shelving to access the cabinet and film. 

No movement yet. They are all still just sleeping, encircled by mess within and without.

I can’t help but think about hitting the six-month mark after my dad’s diagnosis. Then a year. Then two. How he just kept staying. How, sometimes, I forgot he was sick.


Day 9 — Hatch

Kafka—I named the debut butterfly Kafka—grasps the plastic stand inside the sizable mesh bag, its now-empty husk of chrysalis open and abandoned.

Kakfa stands still. I jostle the mesh bag cage a little to see if wings will open and carry the transformed in a flutter of panic. No response. Stoic, silent, graceful. The traits of a butterfly, lived out in innate splendor. I wonder if Kafka is — was — one of the Powerline Brothers. Or Bowie.

I hope it’s Bowie. There’d be poetry in that.

Later, I show my coworker Val a photo. Val was the first to hear about my panic when I thought I’d accidentally killed one of butterflies with my unintentional hockey check to the shelf.

“You didn’t…” Val starts.

“I didn’t kill at least one of them,” I say, laughing. “This is wonderful.”

“You’re doing great,” Val says. “You’re doing great.”


Day 11 — Caboose

All the butterflies have hatched. Painted ladies flit about in a dance of celebration and confusion.

“Excellent,” Val says later when I relay the news. “Way to go, Mom.”

I mix a new cup of sugar water and refill the plastic flowers at the bottom of the cages, amid excrement and smushed orange pieces.

One butterfly’s wings are still bunched up and soggy. It huddles next to one of the plastic stands where the husks of now-empty chrysalises hang. The last one, bringing up the rear.

Hi, Caboose.

When I think of victory, I’ll always think of running, of racing. Of my dad.

“Good, Ry!” he would always yell during college and high school races when I kicked it into fifth gear in that last 150 meters or so. “Good! Good!”

Not to brag, but that was my wheelhouse, summoning and refining the remaining fumes I had left in the tank. Fire in my veins, lightning in my muscles. Punch it, Chewie.

Dad’s remission felt like that last brief stretch: watching him hit warp nine and win a race everyone said he had no shot at winning.


Day 12 — Eager

The butterflies are eager for sustenance. Two climb the netting on the cage sides as I break up oranges. Previously, they had taken nourishment without much anticipation. This morning, they’re eager.

Anna and I consider whether we should let them go today. No, we reason. The weather isn’t quite up to snuff. Rain. Chilly. The last hurrah of a wet, cool spring. After the weekend, the forecast calls for partly cloudy skies and temperatures in the low 80s, June when it’s acting like June.

I impart the sugar water and the peeled oranges to Anna, who will tend to the painted ladies over the long weekend.


Day 16 — Fly

They’re tentative at first, shy. They approach the openings in their cages with a timid walk akin to a 2:00 a.m. tiptoe. The exodus begins. It unfurls in collected stutters of color that are greeted by squeals of delight from the younger members of the crowd gathered in our main courtyard. 

My ecstasy is tempered.

Two of the twenty or so butterflies—Dent and Scar—are unable to make the trip, wing corners damaged by culprits unknown. They spin in tight, gravity-soaked circles that make them look like old dreidels. They will stay with us and live out their short remaining lives in limited, air-conditioned comfort and purposeful quiet.

So two chrysalises fell, and two butterflies later tried to soar on broken wings. Am I responsible? Did falling chrysalises actually make broken butterflies? Is this a coincidence? Did they hatch whole and then hurt themselves? Am I neurotic for even weighing these options?

It’s hard not to think of my dad. All this panic started with him. I believed being part of something lovely and full of life would offer balance to the loitering cancer that broke him plenty and is back for round two.  

It helped. Pursuit of new life helped me forget about my fear of death for a bit, that death even existed. But now, here, brokenness just reminds me of brokenness, wrought in horrific splendor by two beautiful creatures who will never feel the sky’s embrace.

My father is sick. I chose to forget that he was. But he is, with something that keeps trying to kill him.

I wonder how it feels to think you will finally fly but be left behind as others catch updrafts and soar so high that you shrink and eventually disappear, tethered and bound by what’s shattered? I think it must be lonely.

Day 17 — Stay

Dent and Scar hang on the netting of the remaining cage back in the lobby display case. They are still, their tattered wings folded in deft surrender, ornamental relics, tucked away.

I leave after a few more seconds and head back upstairs to my office. I’ll check on them again tomorrow, and the day after that, and again every day until their stillness takes them to the bottom of the cage when they cannot even try to fly.

Outside is where the sunlight is, where birds and unforgiving windshields and wasps and dragonflies live. But it’s also where the flowers bloom, where pollen is abundant, where other butterflies endure the same shared risks and treasure the same shared beauty.

In here, it’s quiet—the kind of quiet where it’s easy to think too hard about too many things. Where you can eventually have an epiphany that guilt and worry over something like this is ludicrous but has a purpose. Where you can realize broken butterflies are scapegoats for tougher truths about death that just isn’t fair. Where you can know that guilt — no matter how silly or inconsequential — is just easier than mourning.


Day 19 — Wrong

One of the butterflies is missing.

There were two this morning on my normal check. Now there’s one. Anna tells Monica and me this over an online work chat.

“Did the one with the small wings pass away or get out?” Anna asks.

That can’t be right. I check. Just one. I can’t tell if it’s Dent or Scar, but it is solo, living alone. How?

Later, Monica tells us. After I saw them, she took the cage out to the courtyard. She opened it to see if they were strong enough to fly now. One made it out. One stayed behind.

I was so sure they’d both live out their remaining days here. Their fate seemed ironclad, written in the stars.

But I’ve been wrong before.


Death and Dying, Family, Nature, animals


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