For a week this summer, the boys and I watched a black swallowtail caterpillar consume carrot leaves from our garden and poop in a jar. We ceremoniously emptied the tiny round turds in the trash, washed out the glass, placed fresh greens inside, and waited for the caterpillar to transform.
One afternoon we watched the swallowtail squeeze a giant pile of excrement from its fat body before going perfectly still. A change was coming. The next morning, we found the caterpillar’s avocado, yellow, and black skin had split and rolled into a ball at the bottom of the jar. In its place, a horned green armor was fastened to a twig with two barely visible white threads. Over the next week and a half, the boys lost interest in the chrysalis. I haven’t mastered explaining to a 4-year-old that sometimes the most important changes in life you can’t see.
I still studied the chrysalis looking for something that might indicate the rearrangement of DNA had commenced. At one point I thought the cocoon was shrinking and began researching how long it would take to become a butterfly. One butterfly farm said the species can over winter in its shell or climb out after a few weeks. You just have to wait.
The next morning I awoke to the news by my husband that something had happened.
I ran to the jar and saw that the butterfly was not stretching its wings preparing for its first flight. Something had gone wrong. The butterfly was on its back in the bottom of the jar wiggling in a puddle of murky black fluid. I used a pencil to fish it out of the jar as its legs scrambled for something to hold onto. One wing looked like a wet bedsheet twisted in the washing machine. The other wing had holes fringing the bottom edge.
I read it could take hours for the wings to dry so I put the butterfly out on the front porch in a patch of warm sun. I checked on it every hour or so. At one point I found the swallowtail had wandered into the shade of a bush. It didn’t look much closer to flying. One wing was still badly twisted. I may have imagined improvements in the other. The next time I checked the butterfly was gone.
There is a chance it lived. That the damaged to its wings was mostly cosmetic. But I don’t think so. I don’t think it ever flew. I think the butterfly crawled into a corner and died. Or it was eaten by the wasps living underneath our deck.
These days I find my capacity for joy and hope diminished. Sometimes I find myself holding my breath for no reason in particular. I go running just to force myself back into a normal breathing pattern.
Since March, an apartment downtown has draped a handmade sign over its balcony reading We Can Do Hard Things. I used to tear up every time my eyes caught the white sheet on the hillside. I want to believe this sentiment. I used to believe it. But over the months, so many things that are easy we have collectively failed at. Like wearing masks.
And over the last few years, it seems our capacity for kindness has waned, too. Lies travel six times as far as truth. How can the truth ever compete? How does one even muster the effort to try? We are not wired to win against algorithms developed to appeal to our anger and fear. Why would someone go searching for facts when what you want to believe and makes you feel safe arrives at your digital doorstep?
After years inundated with disinformation spouted from the highest levels, I’m exhausted. But I still think truth is worth the effort. Even when it’s hard to hear. Cocoons are to help us change. Not to protect us from it.
Later that afternoon, my 4-year-old eventually remembered the butterfly. Together we searched under the bushes and grass around the deck for evidence.
“I hope it flew it away, but it most likely died,” I told him. “Butterflies can’t fly with broken wings.”
“Maybe we can find another caterpillar,” he said.
“Maybe,” I agreed.
We headed back to the garden and began flipping over leaves. Hoping.