Skip to main content
first person
Open this photo in gallery:

Rachel Wada

First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at

It’s hard for me to describe important memories without spoiling them with a contrived sort of sentimental language. So I don’t often talk about my brother and especially not the monarch butterflies that lived for at least a season with our family before his death. Pictures of them flying freely around my first home are still very clear in my mind. I don’t want my memories to be diminished into the overworked metaphor for renewal that the butterfly’s transformation sometimes seems to be. But recently, during one late-night drive home, my partner and I turned off the car radio and traded stories about our childhoods. This is the story I told him. It isn’t just a metaphor if it really happened.

My brother, the oldest and the only boy, loved snakes and bugs and butterflies. For him it was a regular thing after supper and on Saturdays to ride his gold bicycle along the rocky paths of the Hamilton escarpment that overlooks my home town. He’d take the net my mother would have made for him out of red tulle stitched over a bent coat hanger. He got a new net each spring. Sometimes he brought home a snake, which I wasn’t afraid to hold back then.

With two teachers for parents, an ordinary occurrence in my house could quickly spin into a tutorial about the big world we were growing up in. The four-hour drive to the cottage invariably contained a geography lesson about the Holland Marsh and Canadian Shield. And because my brother loved bugs and particularly butterflies, my early vocabulary consisted of words such as "pupa" and "chrysalis."

Milkweed lined the unpaved road leading to our cabin outside Parry Sound. One or two stalks could be collected after checking under their leaves for creamy white or pale yellow eggs. The black, white and yellow banded caterpillars that hatched from them got long and fat feeding from the milkweed and were taken back home in jars with us. If the drive home happened later in the summer there might already be monarchs fluttering around the car along Highway 69. There were millions more monarchs back then.

The first weeks of September were exciting not only because of new shoes and pencil crayons to take to school but because we were waiting for the caterpillars to change into butterflies. It was thrilling to witness them declare themselves ready by striking an upside down position on a twig, wriggling out of their striped skins into a brilliant green sleeve with gold flecks moving along it to form a ring around the top. In all creation, there can be nothing more enchanting than that few minutes of magic.

Over several days the sleeve became like dark wet rice paper, with black and orange wings gradually visible from inside. We watched them slowly birth themselves and flex wet wings the way our friends in the subdivision might have watched kittens being born in their houses. We rewarded their enormous effort with sugar water hand fed to them on toothpicks, their black tongues unfurling. I recall this as a common event though in fact it may not have happened like this more than twice.

When my brother was diagnosed with a childhood cancer, he was allowed to keep his jar of caterpillars with him at the children’s hospital where he began to spend more and more time. He died the summer he was 11 and I was 6. My parents returned from the hospital that August morning with his brown bear, toothbrush, blanket and the jar with one lingering caterpillar. It stayed on my mother’s sewing room windowsill until one day somewhere in my first weeks of Grade 2 when she called the school to tell my principal to send me home.

My dad was coming through the door about the same time as me – Mom had called him at work, too, because the caterpillar had morphed into a chrysalis that morning. It was essential for us to come home in a hurry because she hadn’t wanted us to miss what was going to happen next. With me between them, we watched as the gold flecks moved together to form the circle around the rim. Though not even the butterfly that would later emerge could somehow bring my brother back with it, as I so wished, we could at least reflect on his time on Earth with us, well lived, brief as it was. We spent those minutes recollecting him and re-collecting ourselves as a family.

I don’t remember setting the butterfly free. I think perhaps my parents did this privately on their own without me. It would then have found its brothers and sisters for their perilous migration to Mexico where that life cycle begins again. I think about it sometimes, ahead of whatever danger or loss I’ve had to steer my life through since.

My children, both young adults now, have had caterpillars of their own and set them free from our yard as butterflies, gently circling their heads before disappearing as black specks in the sky. I know their memories of this aren’t nearly as vivid as mine. As for me, the word metamorphosis is infused with entire scenes of my childhood. A single sighting of a monarch now reminds me that no matter what harrowing crossing or milestone I have had to navigate, there has always been at least one gold fleck waiting somewhere to join with another to form the circle of a new life. I will always arrive in different landscape stronger, dignity and hope intact. Nothing can prevent that from happening, not ever, even if I have to twist myself into unfamiliar shapes and hang upside down for a while like a butterfly.

Martha Mallory lives in London, Ont.

Interact with The Globe