I particularly like butterflies. Several blue ones visit me daily, and on most summer mornings, they land outside the bedroom door, slowly flapping their wings in recognition. I find their presence comforting. I would even go so far as to say that I have come to view them as a heavenly messengers since their first appearance here coincided with a visit from my sister-in-law, who at the time was battling late stage ovarian cancer. And no, the irony is not lost on me.
When I penned Angelique’s War, I wanted an angelic symbol that I could carry throughout the novel. And the blue butterfly was perfect, of special significance to me, and hopefully, to my readers as well. It is hard to forget the haunting image of a beautiful creature gracefully landing on the outstretched finger of an innocent five-year-old girl, desperate to find her way back home.
I even planted a special bush in my yard, one that is known to attract them. I wanted to create a happy environment, although I have no idea if butterflies experience such emotions. It simply seemed like a nice reciprocal gesture in appreciation for the many hours of joy that they had brought me. And yes, I guess I am getting a little carried away with the personification here. Forgive me as I over-explain why they are special to me. I feel that it is important to do so before I write this next part.
You know, most kindergarteners can relate the basic story of how a caterpillar becomes a colorful butterfly. And we have often used the term metamorphosis to describe any kind of major transformation. But few people know what really happens during this process. I recently learned of it myself and found their evolution absolutely fascinating. So, of course, I have to share.
If you have ever had a garden, you have probably battled the lowly caterpillar as it chomps its way through your prized foliage. It eats hundreds of times its weight in a day until stuffed and bloated, it hangs itself up to recover. Its skin begins to harden, forming a chrysalis, a temporary house of sorts for the creature. But there, deep inside the caterpillar’s body, things are changing as it begins to produce what entomologists call imaginal discs. Now, the poor insect’s immune system doesn’t recognize these invaders and tries to attack them. But they continue to produce at an alarming rate, eventually linking together. The caterpillar’s resistance is compromised, making it unable to fight the stress, and its protection fails, while the stronger imaginal discs convert into imaginal cells that build the butterfly. As the caterpillar dies and decomposes, the butterfly feeds on that which remains until it is strong enough to emerge in its new form.
Admittedly, it is a bit gruesome, but also amazing, a biological marvel. And yes, the caterpillar must die in order to give the butterfly life. Gee, that makes for a great metaphor.
Cancer is also an attack on the immune system. There is a similar internal battle being fought as the good and bad cells arm wrestle for power, with life or death hanging in the balance. We are given chemo therapy, which destroys both the healthy and malignant tissue, anticipating that the body will eventually recover enough to keep the evil interlopers at bay. Ok, that’s a bit simplistic, but close enough to prove the point.
What most folks, including the medical community, fail to fully realize is that the siege is not just physical. Cancer packs an emotional and psychological wallop as well. With the diagnosis comes a signed certificate of uncertainty, delivered by the grim reaper himself. You slap a smile on your face and claim to be doing well, while the scared child inside is screaming. You focus on trying not to fall apart in public places. You hide a lot of the anxiety, shielding others from your reality. That’s the truth. And only part of the story.
But if you are able to make it past those first months of shock and despair, if you are able to survive the consequences of treatment, you begin to discover unexpected rewards, the emotional pot of gold. Most of these come in the form of spiritual growth. Let’s face it: even the most avowed atheist sometimes calls out to God when faced with his own mortality. For the believer, there is the healing and comfort that accompanies faith. The resulting peace of acceptance is empowering. But more importantly, you come to understand that sometimes we have to release the old to embrace the new. You see, a diagnosis like cancer changes you forever. But once you gain the necessary clarity to understand what that change truly means in your life, you can see that there is a fullness of heart, a sense of pure joy. The scenery is quite lovely on the other side of the mountain. And so, what starts out as an end can actually be a beginning. I know this much is true.
When we believe we have all the time in the world, when life seems limitless, we hold ourselves back, whispering “not now, not yet” in the inner dialogue that examines our dreams. We are held tightly in place by that which is safe and familiar. We censor our thoughts and emotions, careful about what we reveal of ourselves to others, fearful that we won’t be understood or accepted. But when the days are possibly numbered, we somehow give ourselves permission to take risks, to authentically stand in our own truth. Fueled by a sense of urgency, the confines fall away. And in the process, we learn how to live. Like the caterpillar, we become transformed through the pain and suffering. We struggle to emerge, clothed in a new garment that somehow fits us better. And then, in the blink of an eye, we spread our wings and fly.