"It's going to die," Noah proclaims, his voice cracking from the pressure of wanting to be right.
I silently ask myself where his sense of wonder has gone, not that I am at all surprised. At fourteen, my son has gotten quite cynical of just about everything. In this moment, it happens to be the plump green caterpillar that lies motionless on the bottom of a large glass jar on our kitchen table. My wife, Deena, rescued it earlier, when its almost fluorescent color had caught her eye against the backdrop of the cement patio outside. We can only assume that perhaps a bird, intent on having it for breakfast, had mistakenly dropped it there after hearing the screen door squeak as it opened and closed. The caterpillar was so striking and otherworldly that Deena couldn’t help but pick it up and bring it in to show us.
We’ve done this throughout the years—pulled the kids away from whatever they were busy doing to behold our latest discovery. A tiny ring-necked snake crossing the road. The empty shells of cicadas we’d peel from signposts. Cherry tomatoes from the garden, grown from seed. A hawk feather we’d stumble upon at the end of the driveway, seemingly left there as a gift from the hawk itself. We have considered these things far more urgent and important than homework or brushing one’s teeth or watching television, for they remind us that there is a whole world out there beyond the walls of our home, one we wish our kids to intimately know before it’s too late.
"That's a luna moth larva," boasts my daughter, Zoe, who returned just days ago from working for six weeks at a small wilderness camp in West Virginia. Before I can marvel at how grown up and smart she has become, her voice turns into a high-pitched squeak while she reaches down to touch the caterpillar with the tip of her finger. "Oh, what a cute little thing you are!”
I’ve only seen a luna moth once or twice before, clinging to a window screen or dancing midair beneath a streetlight. They are phenomenal creatures, with fuzzy bodies, fern-like antennae, and enormous pale green wings that together stretch beyond the palm of one’s hand. They’ve always reminded me of angels, exotic and ethereal in their appearance. But what makes this even more of an extraordinary find is that while luna moths are common, they are rarely seen. Not only do they flitter about only at night, but in their adult stage, they only live a week on average, during which their sole purpose is to find a mate and reproduce. To create. To seize the day and birth a legacy. I imagine for a moment what I would do with only a week to live. Surely it would involve spending time with the ones I love. And maybe eating ice cream.
"It's going to die," Noah repeats. "You should put it back outside. You’re interfering with nature."
Maybe he's right. Maybe it is going to die. But I try to convince myself that at least it will die peacefully. I don’t dwell on the fact that we may have deprived a robin or a cardinal of a meal, and instead suggest that we collect some leaves and sticks to make our new guest feel at home. Noah grunts and stomps off to his room, while Deena heads outside and reappears moments later with handfuls of fresh foliage and tiny branches. We place them around the caterpillar with the same instinctual tenderness we embodied years ago while tucking our children in at night, and whisper into the opening of the jar, “You’re okay, Luna. You’re okay.”
As this lazy summer morning moves along, I Google how to take care of a luna moth caterpillar. I place a damp paper towel on the bottom of her habitat and replace the metal lid, into which I had hammered holes, with a piece of cheese cloth held on by a rubber band. I learn that Luna is in her fifth instar, or caterpillar phase, evidenced by her hefty size, which means that if she makes it, she will soon be weaving a silk cocoon wrapped in leaves.
“How do you know it’s a girl?” Noah asks.
“I don’t know,” I reply. “I guess I was just assuming.”
He launches into a monologue about how sexist I am and again insists that I am a caterpillar murderer. I only consider his words for a few seconds before I’m once again all in, entranced by the possibilities of bearing witness to Luna’s process, regardless of his or her gender. I notice in my body how good it feels to be hopeful.
A vision comes to me of a day when Noah was younger, his dark eyes growing ten times their size after finding a tuft of black hair on a barbed-wire fence while exploring some trails close to our house. He was convinced it belonged to a Bigfoot and gingerly stuffed it into a small specimen container with a pair of tweezers. A mix of excitement and fear consumed him for the rest of our walk, his pace and breath quickening. “What was that?” he asked of every single sound that echoed from deep in the woods, while holding up the binoculars that hung around his neck and glancing in random far-off directions.
I wonder if he still has that wad of hair, perhaps tucked inside the toy box hidden away in his closet that is filled with things he doesn’t want his friends to know about. Nerf guns and Matchbox cars. A stuffed cheetah, complete with its own policeman outfit. A zombie costume from a few Halloweens ago. All things that seem to cause him embarrassment and yet things that, for one reason or another, he can’t bear to part with. I’d like to think that perhaps he knows on some level that they are what link him to the inquisitive boy he is underneath his desire to be liked and in control.
A whole day and night pass, and I begin to think that Noah was right all along. Luna still wiggles a little bit when touched, but other than that, she hasn’t moved from her spot on the bottom of the jar, nor has she eaten. I Google some more, and discover that there are only certain kinds of leaves that she prefers, so Deena goes hunting for birch, walnut, and hickory trees, while I stay behind and talk to the caterpillar in a singsong way that disguises my worry. I tell her that she is loved and that we only want the best for her. Our little dog, Stanley, tilts his head as he listens, wondering whom it is I’m talking to and why my voice sounds so funny. He must think I’m crazy. Zoe reassures him by scratching his sides until he collapses onto the floor, belly side up, wanting more.
When Deena returns, we replace the leaves in the jar with fresh hickory, and almost immediately, Luna begins to soothe a voracious appetite that brings Jabba the Hutt to mind, only she’s far prettier. Her tiny, alien-like features begin to take on new life and the burgundy spots on her sides begin to brighten. Once fueled up, she begins to explore her new surroundings, getting to know every stick and finding cozy places to curl up and devour more leaves.
“Look at Luna eating!” I muse out loud to Zoe, capturing only a few seconds of her attention before she turns back to her cell phone. Damn Snapchat, I think to myself. It seems like we hardly look one another in the eye anymore. While Deena and I have tried to preserve what we could of the simple world we grew up in, it’s moments like these that make it feel like all we can do is surrender to the rapid growth of technology and pray that our kids’ brains don’t melt.
“You know, when I was your age, we didn’t have cell phones,” I sputter. I realize I sound like an old fart and that Zoe is only half listening, but proceed nonetheless. “We had to talk on the wall phone in the kitchen instead, and I would stretch the cord so far into the other room to get some privacy that by the time I hung up, I’d be completely tangled up in it.” Zoe lets out a hardly distinguishable snort in hopes of appeasing me, then peeks at her phone, now held inconspicuously under the table.
I find myself trying to pinpoint in my mind the precise moment when things changed, which of course is fruitless. What I notice about my kids today will be completely different tomorrow. It seems like just last month, they were reaching for my hand and dispensing slobbery, apple-juice kisses on my cheeks, and today, they’re towering above me, sprouting hair everywhere, and outgrowing clothes that smell of sweat and hormones. One minute, Zoe clings to me like Velcro, and the next, she is far more interested in hanging on the arm of a charming redheaded boy with a purple hickey on his neck. Noah, who once gifted me a barely legible list entitled “50 Things You Gave to Me That I Love”—number one of which was adopting him—is now more prone to screaming that he hates me just before slamming his bedroom door in my face.
Only a day later, there are fine threads of silk dangling from Luna and sticking to the sides of the jar, and each hour that passes, the strands thicken to form the walls of a cocoon. I’ve asked Noah to keep his mouth shut at least a dozen times. I’ve decided that I will not allow his pessimism to overshadow the magic of this. I even consider telling both kids that cell phones are prohibited from being in the same room as the jar, but I wonder if perhaps that’s going overboard. I sit for long chunks of time, obsessed, watching Luna slowly disappear, until all I can see is the sweet caterpillar face that I have come to love, just before the final threads are woven and the curtains are closed.
From this moment on, her process will be invisible to me. I’m reminded of when I was pregnant with Zoe, imagining her growing from speck to bean to embryo, while being glued to books like What to Expect When You’re Expecting and Pregnancy Day by Day. I find a couple of websites that stay open on my computer. They will help me keep tabs on Luna. Sometime within a week, still encased in her cocoon, her caterpillar skin will split open to reveal a dark brown, leathery pupa that resembles something out of a sci-fi movie. Over the course of two to three weeks, she will grow into a moth and eventually bust free of the pupa shell, while secreting an enzyme called “cocoonase” that will gradually soften the walls of the cocoon so that she can push her way out. She will then climb up a stick so that her shriveled-up wings can hang loose beneath her and begin to dry. Within just a few hours, her wings will spread and harden in preparation for flight, and she will begin releasing pheromones that invite nearby males to come and mingle with her underneath the silver glow of the moon.
As I lie in bed that night, I have the bittersweet realization that I will never see Luna in her squishy green larva form again. I may even miss seeing her emergence, as I have plans to head to Massachusetts for a writing workshop in just over a week. I have instructed Deena and the kids to take lots of pictures of her release, fearing that by the time I get home, the only thing left of her will be an empty jar containing traces of silk and a few dead leaves.
These thoughts automatically bring me to my children. It won’t be long until they’re gone as well. Zoe will be off to college in less than a year, and I can’t seem to shake the memory of Noah blurting out, “I can’t wait until I’m eighteen and I don’t have a mommy!” in the middle of a tantrum when he was only three years old. He’s been planning his escape ever since, and frequently reminds us that as soon as he is a legal adult, he’s either going to Miami to become a chef or heading back “home” to Guatemala. I find myself wondering what it will be like to watch them each disappearing down our street in packed cars, off to complete their own metamorphoses. I feel a dropping sensation in my belly, like the one I felt the first time we left Zoe at Girl Scout camp when she was eight years old. As she timidly disappeared into a group of giggling girls, we waited for her to turn around just once more to look at us but she never did, and Deena and I wept all the way home. And there was the time just last summer when Noah confidently strutted alone down a jetway on his way to a camp in Atlanta, and I watched his plane take off from the gate while imagining him safely swaddled in down pillows and bubble wrap.
I know exactly what this feeling in my stomach is. It’s hope and loss all wrapped up into one. It’s that awkward tango between holding on and letting go, between the grasping of fists and the spreading of wings. It’s a desperate desire to slow down time, paired with an urgent need to experience it all right now—first steps, first loves, weddings, grandbabies, a moth emerging from its cocoon—for fear that I’ll somehow miss it all. It’s my role as a mother being carved and etched with my personal mistakes as well as the highs and lows we’ve weathered and continue to weather as a family. It’s trusting that love is enough, by golly. Love has to be enough.
As my eyes begin to water, I turn over and nudge my backside up against Deena, whose breathing sounds like a cross between a hiss and a deep-throated snore. She meets me in the middle, draping her arm over my side and squeezing me closer, while mumbling something I can’t understand. This has become a familiar ritual of ours over the last twenty years, eventually disrupted by sleep-induced twitches that will once again chase us each to our own sides of the bed. But for now, I will savor this feeling of armored closeness, of being tucked inside of a cocoon, safe and warm, quietly anticipating whatever’s to come next.
They say that if you are to pry open a moth or butterfly pupa in its earliest stages, you will be greeted with caterpillar soup—a thick ooze that the caterpillar has dissolved into, containing highly organized groups of cells called “imaginal discs” that serve as the beginnings of each adult body part. I love the word imaginal. It gives the process of becoming a certain richness and sense of sovereignty. It reminds me of how I used to envision myself crossing the finish line while training for a triathlon several years ago, long before I believed I could do it in real life. And how now, when I’m feeling so stressed that I can hardly breathe, I sit in a certain chair in my studio and picture myself as a mountain, strong and unshakable even when surrounded by storms. Perhaps, all scientific explanation aside, Luna is a magnificent artist, busy in the process of visualizing herself into being. Maybe her eyes, legs, wings, and antennae are rapidly forming as we speak, from sheer imagination. How else could one possibly make sense of such a surreal process?
It’s been roughly three weeks now since I watched her slowly vanish inside her silken temple. When I left for Massachusetts only days after she built her cocoon, I was convinced I’d be gone during her emergence and would have to rely on tiny out-of-focus photographs on Deena’s flip phone while the rest of my family chanted, “Remember how she did this? Remember how she did that?” I feel blessed that I didn’t miss anything, but I also find myself thinking the worst and becoming worried that perhaps Luna didn’t make it after all. I heard once that some injured caterpillars will build a cocoon to die in and wonder if that’s what has happened. I can just hear Noah’s endless barrage of I-told-you-so’s.
The kids seem disinterested, both in what’s happening in the jar, and in me. I can’t say I necessarily blame them. When I was in Massachusetts, they were freewheelers, making their own meals and having the house all to themselves while Deena still went to work every day. Noah undoubtedly watched hours of Family Guy and ate every snack in the house, while Zoe probably slept until one in the afternoon and then lazed around on her phone until she had to drive herself to work. Now that I’m home, I’m the party pooper who gets to put routines and boundaries back into place just in time for school to start.
Zoe is quiet and focused as she finishes up her summer reading essays, disappointed that I need my car back. Noah’s resentment is palpable. He resorts to old passive-aggressive tendencies and forceful spells of fury that have me escaping into my studio and locking the door behind me. I don’t think he would hurt me, but the way he tends to loom over me like a vicious animal frightens me, and calling for time-outs and breaks is no longer effective. He will persist and persist until he is on the verge of passing out before he’s willing to take a step back. Lucretia, his foster mother in Guatemala, warned us about this very thing when we brought him home just after he had turned a year old. “Whatever you do, give him what he wants or he will turn blue,” she stated in a nonchalant way that had us wondering if she was exaggerating. She was not. Out of necessity, we taught him to take deep breaths before he could even talk. Even now in the thick of a tantrum, he will sometimes ask one of us to breathe with him, and we will sit together and hold hands while repeatedly filling up our bellies with air like balloons until we are able to grab onto some semblance of calm.
Tending to Luna has become a welcome respite from the crazy, something positive to pour myself into when it feels like everything around me is crumbling. I cling to the hope that she is still alive, even though Noah continues to be adamant about her demise. I pore over websites and discover that what triggers emergence is a combination of temperature, light, and barometric pressure. Of course she hasn’t emerged, for she has had to succumb to the rhythms of humans rather than those of her own kind. We have bathed her in artificial light and air conditioning cold enough to appease our perimenopausal hot flashes.
I move her jar out onto the gardening table in the mudroom, where she can be more in tune with the sun and the moon and experience the warmth of the day and the chill of evening. I occasionally spritz her cocoon with water to mimic the rain. I clean out and trim the extraneous sticks and leaves that crowd her space, knowing that she’ll need ample room to spread her wings. And as I get even more brazen (and perhaps more impatient), I gently lift the cocoon out of the jar for just a moment, wanting to explore it in more detail. I’ve heard that if you hold it up to the light, you can see the shadows of the pupa inside, next to an abandoned and withered caterpillar skin. I can’t see anything, for the walls of the cocoon are too thick and stiff. But as I get ready to put it back into the jar, I hear and feel a subtle fluttering coming from inside, and almost drop it onto the concrete floor below. I can’t decide whether I’m freaked out or excited—probably both. I swear out loud not to touch it again for fear that I’m doing something wrong.
As the days crawl by, it becomes clear that I am addicted to hearing the life inside as I hold the cocoon up to my cheek. I am like an expectant mother who eats spicy food in hopes of feeling a kick or roll inside her womb and who rents a fetal Doppler to listen to her baby’s heartbeat every single day. Sometimes the cocoon hops around like a Mexican jumping bean and I am quick to assume that her emergence is imminent. Other times, it’s eerily quiet, setting me into a panic and making me wonder if perhaps the sounds I’ve been hearing all along are some sort of illusion, like when you hold a seashell up to your ear and hear the ocean.
One morning, I awake to the urgent thought that Luna needs more space. Perhaps that is why she hasn’t come out—the jar is too cramped. I ask around to see if my friends have any unused birdcages or fish tanks lying around, but in the meantime, Deena is determined to make something from scratch. When she gets home from work that evening, she arms herself with a roll of screen and sets up a table just outside of the garage. She forages for wood scraps, unearths the jigsaw and sander, and loads the staple gun.
She has a plan, and I am her assistant. I hand her things on demand like a nurse helping a surgeon. “Screw.” “Hammer.” “Drill.” While usually I don’t like being bossed around, I must admit that I find Deena quite sexy when she’s being handy and takes on that funny look of concentration—one eye squinting, the other eyebrow slightly raised, her forehead wrinkled, a pencil clenched between her teeth and her pants hanging loose on her hips exposing her butt crack.
I can’t remember the last time we built something together like this. We used to be quite the team. She was the builder while I was the designer who finished off our work with hand-painted artistic touches. We once even considered starting a business of creating handmade toy boxes after spending weeks making one for Noah when he was little. We fell in love with the process, disappearing into the basement after the kids were asleep each night and playing loud music in hopes of masking the howls and reverberating booms of our creative fervor. Thank goodness both of our kids were deep sleepers.
Determined to finish, we work on Luna’s new home for hours until nighttime swallows the light, all the while slapping at the mosquitoes and no-see-ums that keep nibbling on us. Noah makes it known that he is far from impressed when we finally come back inside. Even though he has gotten away with watching television on a school night, his dinner is late and soon it will be time for us to go pick Zoe up from work. “Annie’s instant macaroni and cheese was made for nights like this,” I proclaim, while transferring the cocoon over to the new box. Luna now has more than enough room to spread out. Deena and I, having both grown up in the Field of Dreams era, convince ourselves that Luna will obviously be hatching at any moment now. “If you build it, they will come,” we chant proudly. Noah shrugs and puts on his earbuds, pretending not to hear us, and I feel myself getting annoyed by the muted murmur of loud bass invading the space between us.
A few more mornings pass and still no Luna. Perhaps she is waiting for the full moon. Or maybe she is waiting for next spring. The suspense plays me like an instrument, testing my patience and making me moody. After posting on every online insect forum I can find, I stumble upon a moth specialist from Canada and email him a slew of questions and a picture of the cocoon. Lo and behold, he replies only a short time later. “It’s hard to say for sure, but I think the cocoon is that of an Antheraea polyphemus rather than an Actias luna. If it is going to emerge this late summer to early fall, it will likely do so in the next couple of weeks.”
I’ve never seen a polyphemus moth, but hastily look up images on the internet and quickly learn all there is to learn. They are in the same giant silk moth family as lunas, but are various shades of brown with splashes of pink and large purplish spots on their hind wings that look like eyeballs—which is why they are named after the Greek mythological Cyclops, Polyphemus. While I had been intent on welcoming a luna moth, I love her just the same and settle into the torture of not knowing what to expect. She could be anything. Even so, it still doesn’t occur to me that she might be a he.
I awkwardly start calling her PolyLuna, and continue trying to gently coax her out into the world. When I meditate in the morning, I send her mental images of navy skies sprinkled with stars and others of her kind fluttering around our porch light, eager to reproduce. I promise I will stop bothering her and that I’ll honor her process no matter what it looks like, even though the moment something feels “off” to me, I look to her for reassurance. I tiptoe out into the mudroom as though I were a child sneaking a look at presents hidden away in a coat closet, and give her cocoon a slight jiggle until I feel that familiar squirming again.
Sadly, there’s a lot that feels off these days. There are hurricanes, wildfires, and earthquakes. There is my 29-year-old niece who is entering hospice care after five years of battling stage four cancer. There are walls and travel bans and grave threats of nuclear war. There is a little boy in New Hampshire who was lynched by a group of teenagers due to the darkness of his skin. There are children who went to my kids’ school getting killed in a horrific car accident, and a grown man throwing himself in front of a train out of sheer hopelessness.
And then, as if it’s a microcosm of the world, there is what’s happening here in our home. There are intense power struggles ending in Noah telling Deena to “shut the fuck up” while I disappear into my studio and pray that they don’t kill each other. There is my daughter, wanting to borrow one of the cars yet again and growing into an independent woman at a rapid, unsettling pace. There is the family meeting during which we forgo the sweet gratitudes we always started with because the tension that pervades our house makes it nearly impossible to feel appreciative of one another. Everything feels as delicate and brittle as my Grammy Jo’s antique china, and I am fighting an abysmal funk that only a scratchy sound coming from a silk cocoon can temporarily ease.
I need this moth to be alive, damnit. I need her to come out and restore my hope in things.
The full moon comes and goes, and to my dismay, PolyLuna has gotten unresponsive to my needless poking and prodding. I hope I haven’t accidentally killed her. I’ve read that giant silk moth cocoons are extremely resilient. In fact, elementary school teachers will often pass them around from one set of eager peanut-butter-and-jelly fingers to another with no ill effects. Not to mention that under normal circumstances, they are at the mercy of nature’s outbursts of wind, rain, and hail. Surely what I’ve been doing is gentle in comparison. Perhaps she’s just saving it all up for the next part of her journey.
I distract myself with dandelion root tea and oil pastels. It’s been a while since I’ve allowed myself to get lost in color. I have no agenda other than smearing whatever hues call to me onto a large sheet of black paper, until images begin to surface like ghosts gliding through a wall. First a blue figure appears, cloaked in red. Her eyes are closed, and she has a spiral on her forehead. She is wise, peaceful, patient, everything I want to be—everything I know I can be if I simply dig myself out of the gloom. Eventually, the lime-green wings of a luna moth protrude from each of her sides, stretched out as though she is ready to fly, and a moon lights up the background.
And finally one evening, after the kids are in bed and Deena grabs her headlamp and takes off for a night-hike in the woods, a polyphemus moth shows up over this luna-woman’s heart. She seems to be making space for it, holding her cupped hands below at a distance, trusting that the moth can find its own way.
By the time I go to bed that night, the painting is finished. My fingernails are jammed with oily pigments, my clothes have been graced with vibrant scars, and I have found a rare sense of calm. As I climb into bed, Deena turns out her reading light and rolls over, while I stare up at the ceiling and listen. I hear the buzzing of the fan in Noah’s room. Zoe shuffling papers around as she finishes up her homework. Stella the cat chasing a stray goose feather down the hallway that must have leaked out from the comforter. The rattling of the window due to a train passing through a few miles away. These ordinary sounds that so easily become white noise are like the imaginal cells in the great big mess of caterpillar soup, holding the promise of life. We’ll be okay, I think to myself. I’m not sure if I believe it, but I want to, so for now I will. Only seconds later, I slip into a deep sleep and dream that I have wings.