1. the chrysalis

1. the chrysalis

I turned my head toward my son’s voice as he walked slowly across the field toward me.

“Mom, look what I found! It’s a monarch caterpillar!” Shielding my eyes from the sun, I spied my son holding several stalks of milkweed, and on one of them crawled a glorious yellow-and-black caterpillar, seemingly perfect in every way.  “Can we keep it and watch it become a chrysalis?” he asked. The hope in his voice mirrored the longing on his face.

“Yeah, I definitely think we should!” I answered, a sense of adventure rising within me. I had long wished to witness firsthand the metamorphosis from caterpillar to monarch butterfly. Our family began concocting a plan as we watched the caterpillar move about and devour milkweed leaves. My four boys and I collected a supply of milkweed for its food source, while my husband BJ engineered a makeshift vessel from a coffee cup, complete with some natural furnishings. My mother-in-law Susan, who is a warm and integral part of our family, purchased a large glass vase for its temporary home on our kitchen counter. Carefully, it was all arranged: a family project that absorbed our energies.

We checked on our new charge constantly. In less than 24 hours, it had begun its metamorphosis, arranging its body into the telltale hook shape that all monarch caterpillars assume for several hours before shedding their final skins. By complete coincidence, I was sketching it the following morning when it began the brief transformation from caterpillar to cocoon. Our internet sources had warned, “Blink and you’ll miss it!” I could see how.

Fortunately, because I was right there to see the first wiggles, I was able to corral the entire family in time to witness the miracle of nature. In less than five jaw-dropping moments, our caterpillar had wildly transformed into a tight, secure cocoon with a beautiful, bright-green finish. As expected, golden beads began developing on its surface just afterward in gorgeous rows and patterns. A ring of brilliant sprinkles formed near the top, resembling some glimmering version of a dissent collar.

“Its golden necklace,” observed our six-year-old son in wonderment.

For one long October week, I feared our chrysalis would not survive. My nervous eyes darted excessively toward our little treasure as it grew. I found myself spending long, uneasy minutes looking through the glass, earnestly searching for the smallest changes. BJ would sometimes come stand beside me and watch too, putting his arm around my shoulders. At times, his presence was reassurance. He knew I was nervous; October generally is difficult and worrisome for me as I tend to dwell on past sorrows.

It was an October afternoon five years prior when the bleeding started, and I feared with the crush of my soul that I had begun to lose my baby. Sometimes our hopeful nature wins out for a while though, so even though there was definitely blood, I steadied my breathing and pleaded as we drove to the hospital. I wanted this baby badly. Maybe he was okay.

For reasons I still can’t explain, I had worried about losing him the entire pregnancy. I had three healthy boys already, had never miscarried before, and had not experienced indications that anything was wrong. Still, I had half-expected to see harbingers of death for weeks--blood and cramping that had never come. Perhaps my soul felt the fallout long before my body did. Foolheartedly, just days before, I had concluded that worry was no longer rational. But as the bleeding intensified at the hospital, my outlook grew increasingly bleak. Sitting with BJ in the emergency department waiting area, I felt a gush of blood---the surest sign to me yet things were not going to be okay. I trudged to the desk, openly sobbing.

“I need a maxi pad, please.” I paused. “I’m having a miscarriage!” The words felt foreign coming from my mouth, as though someone else should be speaking them. The desk attendant had sympathetic eyes, but she was busy with tasks; this was a normal day for her, and my pain was unremarkable.

Ultimately, the ultrasound would confirm what we already had begun to accept: one lonesome heartbeat, and it belonged to me. The tune of our gleeful pitter-pattering duet had become a solo so mournful, I could practically hear the ache reverberating through the room. We were left with a permanent hole that our son was never allowed to fill. His life was extinguished before his actualization, his metamorphosis forever incomplete. He was a chrysalis frozen in time.

Brokenhearted, BJ and I began grappling with these horrible, new truths as we gathered our coats to leave. We both felt years older since I discovered the blood just hours before. We would always be different now, and we knew it.

I was sent home to pass our baby on my own. Events beyond my control were all wrong though. The rush of blood began in earnest before midnight the following night, and I sent BJ to bed despite his protests, knowing I would need him rested for later.

“Promise me you’ll shout when you need me,” he implored.

The blood seemed like it was everywhere; I sat on the toilet, losing my life steadily at three drips per second. When I grew desperate to change position after two hours, I crouched on the shower floor until long after the water ran cold, and returned to the toilet. By the time I passed my tiny son into my hand, I had lost enough blood to alter my sensibility. I studied him in deep grief, said goodbye, and did what now feels unthinkable: I flushed him down the blood-stained toilet. I have regretted it ever since.

The nightmare continued, but BJ was there every step of the way. We suspected medical intervention was necessary, so I talked to BJ on the phone as I drove myself at 3:00 a.m. to the emergency room; we felt it best for him to stay with the kids and not disrupt their sleep. Neither of us can recall a single thing about our conversation. We were disheartened when the physician dismissed my concerns and quickly discharged me, even as I continued to heavily bleed. BJ roused the boys and came to get me.

We neared home at sunrise. BJ momentarily left me in the car with our sleeping children while he dashed into the pharmacy to get me adult diapers, in the hopes that I could finally rest in bed. In his absence, I violently dry-heaved and suddenly felt overwhelmingly hot. Fear for my life felt like it washed over me. I rolled down the window and thought, "Maybe I can scream for help." But in that early hour there was no one to scream to, and my mouth didn’t work anyway. I looked at the phone in my hand and realized I needed to call BJ, but I couldn't figure how to push the buttons. I dumbly stared at the screen as it turned to nothing but stars.

BJ found me slumped over and unresponsive when he returned one minute later. Terrified, he drove to the nearest hospital, holding my forehead steady against the seat with his right hand and talking soothingly to me. He remembers looking for a pulse at a red light and not finding one, but not really believing I was dead either. I remember none of this.

As the day wore on and I was transferred from one hospital to another, I regained consciousness and then lost it again. I went temporarily blind for long minutes and eventually lost the ability to move at all. Even the basics of lifting my head were more than my body could manage to do after so much blood loss. When my blood pressure dropped too low, I lost consciousness, and it became increasingly harder to reawaken. My monitor readings became my obsession while I was cognizant. Each time the cuff tightened on my arm, I sent a hawk-eye to BJ, who religiously read me the numbers. He never left my side.

“It’s okay, Lucy,” he said, calling me by my pet name. “You’re going to be fine.”

“Tell the boys I love all three of them so much,” I whispered. I wasn’t sure I would survive.

“No,” he emphatically replied. “You tell them yourself when we get home.”

In the end, he was right. The surgery to fix my problem was simple and painless, albeit quite belated. An additional transfusion helped me regain some of the blood I had lost. In the middle of the following night, BJ gently carried me into the front door of our home; it was time to begin the long road of physical and emotional recovery.

I wasn’t thinking about any of this past pain, though, as I studied the chrysalis on the eighth morning--the morning it died. All I could gather was that it had a long strip of goo descending from it, and a maggot was crawling around the floor of the tank. My heart tightened with despair as I puzzled.

‘Does this mean it’s dead?’ I fretted, increasingly feeling ill with dread. ‘But it was doing so well! It was hitting its milestones!’ I argued with myself. Indeed, as the chrysalis had become transparent the day before, revealing its lovely wings through a clear cocoon just as it should, I had finally exhaled the last of my tension away. The first flutters of anticipation had stirred within me. I had mistakenly believed the course forward was safe, that we would soon be witnessing the birth of a monarch.

A quick internet search told me what had happened: an unseen fly larvae had burrowed itself into our caterpillar, which had unknowingly cocooned itself up with a deadly problem. As the caterpillar became a chrysalis and developed, so did the parasite, which would eventually eat the caterpillar alive and then burst out of the chrysalis as a maggot. Suddenly I wanted to go back five minutes in time, back before I knew what lay ahead. I wanted to be the person I was before I walked into the kitchen that morning.

Rationally, I could see there was little reason to continue believing in the possibility of life for our chrysalis, but--like the bleeding woman I was on her way to the hospital five years before--I scrambled for fragments of hope. Maybe, in spite of the evidence of everything falling apart in front of me, this coveted creature was strong enough to survive the attack of a single maggot? I had loved my son to the utmost capacity, but my love alone had not been able to save him. Something beyond my control had wrested his life. Maybe, this time, love could be enough?

But it wasn’t. I wept as another maggot wiggled itself out of our lovely chrysalis three hours later. It was confirmation through and through, like an ultrasound verifying the worst: “There is no heartbeat.” Panicked, I turned to BJ as he ate lunch.

“I have to bury it. Now! I can’t stand to see this anymore!" BJ moved with understanding, leaving his lunch to go cold while he went to the shed to get a hand shovel. I stayed in with the chrysalis, carefully working through my tears to detach it from the milkweed stem from which it hung. One small snap and then it rested snugly in my hand. Only in that moment did I truly see the parallels between these two tiny, doomed lives. In the palm of my right hand, nearly identical in size to my cherished son five years before, lay my chance for redemption.

BJ and I both cried as I used a hand shovel to carefully bury our chrysalis in the large pot overflowing with pink gerbera daisies. While we worked, I imagined it was my son, his body beautifully swaddled by a bright-green chrysalis, dotted with golden beads of light. Somehow, I felt its warm glimmers envelop me too.