April 12, 2013 – Instar: Stages of Growth or Life as a Caterpillar
The caterpillars hatch the day I leave the Hill Country. It’s Easter Sunday. I’m sitting at the dining room table sipping coffee and checking email when Marie comes in. “The caterpillars hatched!” she says.
“What?!” I exclaim. I jump up and follow her outside.
In the weeks she’d lived under the patio roof, our Giant Silk Moth friend had laid tiny pearl necklace lines of eggs on the ground and on the table. She’d done her evolutionary duty and passed away silently one day when I wasn’t there to hold her tiny little tarsal claw.
The uneducated grief I’d felt at what I’d seen as her unfair life had been replaced with an appreciative awe of the lifespan of the Cecropia Moths. In short, the adult female moth lays eggs, the eggs hatch, the little tiny caterpillars munch on leaves and then go through five total instars (which is lepidopterist talk for growth stages or molts). When they’ve eaten up to 86,000 times their weight they cocoon up for the winter, and then in the spring they emerge as glorious giant moths that mate and start the whole cycle over again.
With all this in mind, Phinehas and I had carefully transferred all the eggs that we could from where Moth had laid them to the safe confines of a wooden box. The information my mom had forwarded to me about Cecropias had gotten me worried that there would be nothing for the little guys to eat when they gnawed their way out of their egg shells. Even though I wasn’t really sure I’d be able to identify them, Phinehas and I took a long walk around town searching for maple, willow, apple, alder, wild cherry or birch trees. We didn’t find any of those and ended up stealing oak branches from someone’s yard because the leaves looked big and juicy and I didn’t want to go home empty handed. Also we have an oak tree in the backyard.
Not that this would do baby caterpillars any good. But we put the leaves in the box next to the eggs anyway.
Days went by. Caterpillar eggs usually hatch ten to fourteen days after being laid and we’d already passed two weeks’ time. I’d lost hope that they’d ever hatch.
This lack of hope had shadowed me over. Not just with regard to the caterpillars. I’d slipped into a low and dangerous mood. The independence I both love and crave felt unattainable without money to make it possible. Canada was a pipe dream. The trips beyond that were unimaginable. I just wasn’t making enough money. I wasn’t making money quick enough. I felt out of control. I felt like a victim. My pep talks and chiding to snap out of it weren’t working. I hated who it seemed I was; someone unable to adapt to the ever-changing world of life with a two year old, someone so socially introverted that weekends wore me out and made me desire small, closed off spaces where I could be alone, someone needy and weak, someone unable to move forward. The short term joy I’d felt being pain free after my shots diminished when some inflammation returned, and I begin to associate myself with arthritis.
“You have got to get a grip!” I said. “This has got to stop. You don’t like what’s going on? Then change it. You are not a victim. You’ve never been one. Stop sniveling. If you’re worried about money go get a job. If you can’t adapt to this environment than find one that works a little better for your neurotic self. You’ve got a roof over your head. You’ve got food to eat. You’ve got people around who love you. There’s even sunshine on a regular basis. What’s your problem?”
The problem was I used to enjoy my own company and here I was trying my own patience. I felt as if I had hatched from some dark egg and didn’t have the right kind of leaves to eat. Also I was afraid that if I left this place, this house, and this family earlier than scheduled that I’d be admitting failure, that I’d be taking the easy way out. That I’d miss out on something; my niece’s silliness, my brothers’ companionship, the dual nature of peace and gossip found in small town America, the conversations over fresh rosemary tea with my sister-in-law, all the interesting wildlife that passes through this backyard—vultures, bats, beetles, lizards, Giant Silk Moths.
But there is always something to miss no matter where I am. There is also always good in every situation. There is also always forward momentum to ride on. As my dad often says, “Where there’s life, there’s hope.”
Now here is life and here they are, tiny little black fuzzy backed caterpillars hardly the length of my littlest fingernail. I fall in love with all of them. “Oh good job, Moth!” I say out loud to the lifeless mother moth who is taking up corner space in the wooden box until Marie can find the right things to preserve her with. “Look at all these little guys!”
The oak leaves Phinehas and I had hopelessly placed in the box have wilted. Marie takes the young leaves off her newly planted apple tree and she and I trade new leaves for old, careful to avoid throwing out any of the caterpillars as we make the exchange.
Let this be a lesson to you, I tell myself. Sometimes you just have to wait a little bit longer.
I’d lost sight of the big picture, I’d forgotten about the surprising beautiful miracle of life while fretting over my present and over my future. Wondering where I wanted to go and what I was willing to do in order to get there. I had some vague ideas, but I kept expecting something to drop into my lap. The perfect thing. From out of nowhere. And I waited. And waited. Eventually, remembering that taking action is a good way to put things into motion I’d made the decision to leave, taken responsibility for myself, packed my bags and stacked them under the dining room window, thinking that a lower stress environment would aid me in finishing my novel-work-in-progress and give me better opportunity to plan my next step. I was still fretting a little about my future.
Give it a little bit of time. Wait just a little bit longer. Eat some leaves.
“Good job abandoning them and me,” Phinehas says later from the patio rocking chair while I’m gazing in at the squirming, exploring, apple-leaf eating caterpillars.
“I’m good at loving things and leaving them,” I say. This is easier than saying how much I’ve enjoyed Phinehas’s company, how I’ve been touched by his thoughtfulness, how I wish that we had gone against reason and just taken off for Canada—who needs money? who needs a dependable car? —how proud I am of him and how I hope that whatever he does brings him happiness.
The sun gleams down. Birds sing. A bee buzzes by. Ben walks out.
“It seems fitting that the caterpillars hatched on resurrection Sunday,” I tell him.
“It seems fitting that they hatched before you left,” he says. He’d tried to talk me out of leaving. “What can we do to make it work?” he’d asked.
“You guys have done everything just fine,” I’d replied. “You’ve been really generous and hospitable. This is about me being proactive.” This is about me shedding my skin so that I can grow into my new one.
He puts his hand on my shoulder and gives a squeeze. I try not to think about Marie leaving the room after seeing the library card she’d loaned me with the house key sitting on top of it. “That makes it seem really official,” she’d said. “I’m sad about you going.”
I try not to think about missing out on the daily time with Shea. Not being a part of her discoveries anymore. Not getting pulled along with her fist wrapped around my fingers to see some new bug, or being asked to pick her up so that we can both better watch the airplane passing overhead. Not to have her bring a book over and sit in my lap so that I can read it to her. Not to make animal sounds together. Not to have her look up at me and say, “Dince. All Night.” and wait for me to take her in my arms and spin around the room singing “I Could Have Danced All Night” together over and over and over again.
Those are the moments that love felt just like joy.
They’re too sweet to think about now, I can’t cry. Do the caterpillars cry when they slide out of their old exoskeletons and find that they’ve grown bigger, changed colors, become something new? No. They don’t cry they eat the old skin, they reabsorb and digest it and use it to fuel their next growth spurt.
Let that be a lesson to me too. I can imagine that I’m like a caterpillar and my old skins are memories, experiences, loves, dissatisfactions, unrest, pressures, the past. And this part of life is just another instar. That moment in time between one molt to the next.
Thanks for the lesson, caterpillars, may you all live to be Giant Silk Moths, and, in the meantime, may we all glory in the stage we’re in.