Every time a kid’s birthday party approaches, my sister-in-law LizE asks what they would like, and usually I instruct, “You just do you.” Because she just happens to be the best gift giver on the planet. When my kids were babies, I suspected this was because of her career as an occupational therapist, where she helps kids develop their motor and fine motor skills. Because of this, she is required to know, in a noncommercial way, what makes a toy a good toy—engaging, developmentally appropriate, and helpful in some way that I would never suspect because the kids loved the things so darn much. But as the kids have gotten older and are moving beyond her professional expertise, she continues to deliver. So now I know for sure that she is so good at giving gifts because of a huge amount of thoughtfulness, which makes up the core of who she is.

For Vivvi’s 4th birthday, Auntie LizE outdid herself in the most spectacular way—a way that will be impossible for her to top ever, so I feel she can retire as the ultimate gift giver right now. Which is hilarious, considering that when it comes down to it, she gave us bugs.

I say “us” because this ended up being a project for the whole family to enjoy. The project was Insect Lore’s Butterfly Garden—where you can watch caterpillars become butterflies. The kit comes with a net and a voucher to order the live caterpillars, so you can decide when you want to do it. They just ask that the outside temperature is 55 high during the day, so when you have full butterflies, you can release them.

We ordered the cup of caterpillars, and a few days later, the jolly postman showed up with a box. He saw me in the kitchen as he came up the walkway, and in a way he’s never done before, he held the box above his head and shook it around like a maniac who hates bugs, who hates science projects, who hates life, really, and the process of life and wonder and joy and all things good. Really, he was just indicating that we had a package that he’d be putting by the door, but these were our new babies and my mama bear instincts were outraged. I ran to grab the box, which I was sure would say on it, “Fragile, life inside, do not shake around like a maniac,” but instead it just said, “Your caterpillars have arrived.” Phew. They were probably safe.

We opened the box, and there they were. Five tiny guys. “Now we have 6 pets!” Wally5 said. “Our worms are here!” Vivvi said. We watched them wander around the cup for a minute, which is packed at the bottom with a brown substance that they tell me is food (but I seriously question because it looks like brown cement). Then we went back to our business.

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A few hours later, Wally5 checked again. “Their getting bigger!” he said. “Look, Frank and Hungry won’t stop eating!” I checked, and wasn’t sure, but thought he might be right. They did seem slightly bigger.
“Awww, worms, are you hungry? Okay, love you,” said Viv.

Caterpillars

Over the next 7 days, I still questioned whether it was food, but not because I thought it looked inedible—instead, it was because our new little friends grew a noticeable amount every time I checked. This wasn’t food—it was a magical medicine that packed in one-piece-of-chocolate-cake-one-ice-cream-cone-one-pickle-one-slice-of-swiss-cheese-one-slice-of-salami-one-lollipop-one-piece-of-chocolate-cherry-pie-one-sausage-one-cupcake-and-one-slice-of-watermelon. I suspected we’d have 5 tiny stomach aches soon. Every time we checked the cup, we gasped at their new size. They grew before our very eyes.Caterpillar

Caterpillars

Three started the process of hanging upside down when they were good and fat. Two poked about near them, wondering what their little friends were doing. “Silly keeps bothering everyone else,” Wally5 said. “Okay, worms, go to sleep now,” Vivvi said.

IMG_1637Chrysalis

Then, we waited as each formed a chrysalis, shelled up, closed themselves off from us for a while. We didn’t check them often, because they didn’t give us much to see. Once they were fully shelled off, we moved the cap of the cup to the butterfly net so they’d have space when it came time to emerge.

Chrysalis

And we waited. And during this waiting, I thought about how, for the first 10 days we had them, they were our children. For some reason, this had me doing some calculations—Wally 5 is 6 (and a half, as he’d say). This means we are half way to him being a teen. As long as it took for him to get from a colicky little lump to his current size—we have that same amount of time until he is a teenager. Looking out further, we are currently 1/3 of the way—33 percent!—to when he turns into an adult. These rascally little caterpillars have me thinking about that thing they say—the wise “they” who say all these things that we all nod our heads at. They say the days are long and the years are short. And these caterpillars, who plumped up a little every hour I’d look at them—they were our kids in fast forward. We watch them grow—and day to day (for the caterpillars second to second) there was no difference—we see no change if we stare at the cup. But if we take breaks between glances at the cup—we look back to last month, last year, the year prior, sometimes it feels like we can see them growing. (For Wally, in his short little life, the years are still long. The other day Wally was sent home with his journal he started at the beginning of his kindergarten year. One of the first entries said, “I am 5 years old.” He looked up in amazement, “Whoa! This was sooo long ago.”)

And now these little closed off creatures are like teenagers—turning inward to discover themselves, making us feel separate from their growth. But that is okay, for now—because we know what they are doing in there. We know what they are becoming. (I say this, and at the same time, I tremble for the time when the metaphor is happening with my own kids, in my own house.)

And then, one day, Vivvi and I came home in the morning to discover that one of our new little friends had decided he was ready to come back to us. He stood there, undramatically—so still that Vivvi hadn’t even noticed he was there when I told her to check. Welcome back! I thought, as we stared at each other through the net.

Caterpillars

Then we picked up Wally from school and sat vigil like the world had stopped turning so we could see his friends join us as well. I scraped a lunch together while we stared. I turned on music to encourage them. With U2’s With or Without You blaring, Wally said, “That’s good music. It sounds like he’s about to be born.” And then, it happened.

(In addition to telling them to stop watching it through the screen because it is happening in real life before their very eyes—(kids these days, right?!?), you’ll hear me say in the video that I’ve never seen anything like this before. When he watched the video later, Husband Wally reminded me that I have, in fact, birthed two children. To which I pointed out that at that time I was too busy, well, birthing two children to watch.)

This witness to science, to creation, to wonder, and to God had me gushing to everyone I saw about it for days—the kids’ teachers as I dropped them off with an excellent excuse for being late, our neighbors, friends, the jolly postman. Over the next 2 days, the rest came out. The rapid growth of the caterpillars alone would have been enough. Add to it the chrysalis, the emergence—the whole experience was exhilarating. And then one of the best parts—we got to set them free.

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As we were letting them go, Wally decided to yell at us the whole time because he was sure we were hurting them. (He somehow has got it in his head that we don’t know how to take care of fragile little creatures—perhaps true, I think, but we will do our best.) One butterfly took longer than the rest. While we waited, two that had immediately flown out came back and circled our heads. “Bye, little butterflies!” Vivvi said. “I love you!”

And just like that, they were gone.