The hidden promise.
The promise. She remembered the time as if it were yesterday. When she saw a butterfly, it came back to her. She remembered.
It had been a dreary week, the winter she turned five. While she knew her father was not well that March, she didn’t think he would die. But he did.
Family and friends came and stayed. The body was brought into their home through the living room window, because the front door opened into a square cubicle that left no room for making a turn with a casket. The living room was small, and there were more people than chairs. It rained, and the house was full. It was stuffy and crowded. People sat stoically in the living room, their voices low or whispered.
People parked in her uncle’s muddy field next to the yard, and someone made a small bridge to span the dip between the field and the yard. Children had fun playing in the water and getting wet while parents sat somberly in the dim living room, sharing the grief of the young widow. First, the five-year old stayed inside, and then she went out and played.
Sometime after the burial, she noticed the butterfly. She couldn’t have said whether it was days or weeks later, but it was April when she saw the butterfly in the yard, flitting from bush to bush. She tried to follow and catch it, but she couldn’t.
The butterfly seemed oblivious to the child as he fluttered by; yet he always remained out of her reach. She’d creep up to the bush on which he was resting and reach up, hoping he’d stay. He didn’t.
More than a year later, she entered first grade. They didn’t have kindergarten then, so it was in first grade when she learned to read. She learned a lot of other things about life, for this teacher* believed in teaching more than reading, ’riting, and ‘rithmetic. The teacher knew her students, and she gave love as well as discipline to them. More importantly, the teacher gave time.
Yet, deep in the child’s heart was an empty spot. And there were questions. Many of them. There were questions about whether or not there really was life after death. Whether she would really see her father again. Whether all the things she had heard about Heaven were real. She didn’t realize that she wondered — she just knew she had questions and there seemed to be no answers. But there were (answers, that is).
When the teacher decided that watching a caterpillar develop into a butterfly would be a science lesson in itself, it was a good thing. Someone, somewhere, found a small caterpillar and brought it to class. The teacher put the caterpillar into a glass jar and screwed a lid on top. She punched holes in the lid so the caterpillar could breathe. Then she put small twigs and milkweed leaves in the jar so the caterpillar would have something to eat. It ate, and it grew.
In less than two weeks, the caterpillar was about two inches long and had eight pairs of legs. The first three pairs would later become the butterfly’s legs. The caterpillar shed its skin and the children watched. It happened many times.
Each time it shed its skin, a new skin was there, waiting. The teacher explained that a new skin is always waiting under the skin that is shed. “That’s life,” she said. The caterpillar stopped nibbling on the milkweed plant in the jar. It made a mat and hung onto the mat with its last pair of legs. It hung upside down for about a day. The caterpillar just hung and did not move.
As the caterpillar shed its last skin, it left in its place the chrysalis that was soft. It was baby soft.
The chrysalis became hard. “It always happens this way,” the teacher said. “You can count on it. When the chrysalis gets hard, it means that soon the butterfly will come out.” It was a promise. She was right.
The day the caterpillar emerged from its cocoon was a school day. Everyone wanted to hold the jar and watch. Everyone wanted to see what was happening. The bashful child wanted to see, too. The teacher put more twigs into the jar so the butterfly could climb onto them. Then they waited to see what would happen. It couldn’t fly—not yet.
First its wings were tiny, crumpled, and wet. The wings would need to grow stronger and get dry before the new butterfly could fly. While the teacher taught second grade arithmetic and then listened to the first graders read, the children watched to see if the butterfly’s wings would become drier, stronger, and ready for flight. It happened, just like she said it would.
When it was time to let the butterfly go, the teacher took the jar outside. The children in the class got to go along. Once outside, the teacher opened the lid. After what seemed like a long time, the butterfly began to stretch its wings and move them, a little at a time. The monarch climbed to the top of the twig near the edge of the jar. Tentatively at first, it moved up and out, testing the air with its wings. In another minute, it was free. Gently lifting itself out of the jar and into the open air, it drifted up, floating with the wind until it was gone. Just like that.
Still buried deep inside the heart of the child was the question: how can God make anything beautiful come from someone’s death, especially if that someone is a father of young children? If there is a God, why do people suffer? If there is a God who cares about people, why are there wars and anger and hate; floods and earthquakes and tsunamis; hail and fire and tornadoes? Why?
Watching the monarch butterfly drift out of sight, the child caught a glimpse of something bigger than a butterfly that lives for a short time and then is gone. She understood more than how a caterpillar changes into a butterfly; how metamorphosis occurs; how God can take something old and ugly, and turn it into something beautiful. Just like winter turning to spring.
The promise returns
Half a century later, she still remembers the butterfly that made the difference. When she sees a butterfly, she remembers. Seeds that lie dormant all winter will revive. Bulbs buried in the ground in the fall will die; in the spring, flowers will appear where the bulbs were planted. When March gives way to April, she remembers that life comes after death.
Winter never closes its curtain unless Spring is waiting in the wings. Spring symbolizes life and healing and purpose. Spring always comes, and it always follows winter [Genesis 8:22]. It always has. It always will. Welcome, sweet Spring!
*With appreciation to Alvina Livengood of Springs, Pennsylvania, who taught first and second grade at Yoder School in Grantsville, Maryland for many years.
Shawn Creath, for use of the feature photo