I heard that milkweed attracts Monarch butterflies. I heard that. I don't know. Monarchs are native where I live. They're endemic. Also, they're endangered. I heard that too. I don't know. It seems right. It seems like there used to be more butterflies.
So I plant milkweed in my garden. It's not like I have a longstanding interest in monarchs, or butterflies in general. It strikes me as sad. There’s a melancholy, thinking of endangered butterflies. Everything feels endangered lately. I feel endangered. Everyone feels it. Monarchs don’t know they are in danger. They can’t imagine their own extinction.
I'm curious how they earned a royal title. King Cobra, Tyrannosaurus Rex, Monarch Butterfly. It gives them a symbolic, almost mythical quality, more so than other kinds of butterflies, I think. I don't know. I can't really name any other kind of butterfly. I suppose the metaphor of transformation and rebirth applies generally across all butterfly species. A caterpillar—basically a worm—wraps itself in a cocoon somehow and sleeps in suspended animation, while nature transforms it into a new and previously unimaginable organism. It no longer crawls on the ground. It takes to the air.
And don't we want this for ourselves? I want this to be me. I want to believe that after this cocoon—the pandemic turned everything upside down, forced us into cocoons, our homes, our little tribes, even our own minds are cocoons. And I want to believe in a transformation, an emergence after the suspended animation. The caterpillar can’t imagine what will come out of the chrysalis. Neither can we.
Years ago, I visited the nature preserve at Ellwood Mesa, North of Santa Barbara: two or three hundred acres of coastal bluffs and eucalyptus forest, adjacent to Pacific, where monarchs breed and from which they migrate to Mexico. I was there in January, by chance on a day of hatching. I think it’s hatching. I don’t know. I saw one monarch, then another, then a third. I looked up and there were so many butterflies in the sky they blocked out the sun. A swarm or a murmuration or a kaleidoscope of butterflies that was altogether unimaginable. Thousands and thousands. I never forgot that. You never forget something like that.
I plant milkweed in my garden, 30 years later, during the quarantine. I do not see a single butterfly. Then one day there are caterpillars, eight of them, black and yellow-green, fat little worms, eating the milkweed, chomping it to the stem. How long have they been here? How did I miss it? Monarchs flew in and laid eggs. This is promise. It’s more than bugs on my patio. This is something that means something. I need something that means something right now.
I become a caterpillar whisperer. I watch them day and night. Their patterns of eating, sleeping, movement, social interaction, or what I think is social interaction. I don’t know. I visit every nursery and garden store in the city. I compare milkweed varieties. The leaves of the locally native plants are fine and light. The leaves of tropical and Mexican milkweed are sturdy and dense. Soon there are more baby caterpillars. I coax the little ones onto the local milkweed and the adults onto the larger plants. I buy more plants to sustain the food supply for these voracious insects. I count them several times a day, eleven now, terrified of losing one to the crows or seagulls. Should I build a screen enclosure around the garden to keep out predators? Shouldn’t I do everything I can to ensure they survive? Wouldn’t I want someone to do that for me?
I’m sitting on the ground watching the caterpillars. My back is hurting, sitting here like this, because I have a couple of herniated discs, and maybe sciatica, I think. I don’t know. Two friends and WebMD say it’s a good bet. I watch the clock all day, counting the hours until another dose of pain meds. Eventually the right leg starts to fail. It won't hold the body up. Now I’m laying on a yoga mat on the ground, not walking, like a worm. My doctor won’t give me a cortisone shot—I need an orthopedic guy for that—but he orders an MRI of the lumbar spine. The MRI is a metal cocoon of spinning electromagnets.
That's when they find the tumor. I read the report from the radiologist who examined the MRI. The radiologist made a mistake, I think. I don’t know. The word tumor, which I understand, is surrounded by other words which I do not: intradural, schwannoma, meningioma, et cetera. Or, maybe there is a tumor, but that's got nothing to do with it. It’s just bad discs. I think.
Now and then, if I’m up off the floor, I go outside to check on my brood, my little herd, counting to eleven. Google tells me that soon, driven by urge and instinct, the caterpillars will each find a spot to attach their little caterpillar butt and dangle itself upside down. It will look like a little curly letter J. (Hey—that’s my initial.) Then it will build a chrysalis. I don't know how. I watch them day and night. I need these caterpillars to make it. I need to know I can make it. I need to know we can all make it.
The tumor is inside the spinal cord, like a rock stuck in a garden hose. All the nerves that run down through the hose are being pinched and compressed by this rock. Treatment typically involves laminectomy—removing the bones of the spinal column—to access the dura, the sheath around the spinal cord. The dura is opened and the tumor resected, the vertebrae replaced, and the spinal column fused with metal rods. I will no longer have mobility in my spine. It is not the transition I was hoping for. I wanted out of the cocoon, with wings to fly. This is backwards, and upside down. They’ll be turning me into a worm.
Then the monarch caterpillars guided me to a neurosurgeon at UCLA. They didn't guide me. I used my computer. Or did they? They are crafty little alchemists. The surgeon tells me he knows how to drill through the spinus process at the juncture of L2 and L3, open the spinal cord and perform a resection of an intradural schwannoma with a series of microscopic cuts and cauterizations, avoiding a complete laminectomy. Basically give me a giant surgery through a really small hole. Three days in the hospital, then three weeks on my back, then three months to full mobility. I will walk and drive and do yoga and plant more milkweed.
But I live on the second floor, and can’t climb stairs, so I need to be away from home for the three weeks of recovery. I don't know how to find a caterpillar sitter. How can I explain to him or her to watch for sudden changes in behavior, such as not eating, or a long period of stillness, sometimes attached to the underside of a leaf, so you have to search for them. It's like they're meditating, gathering courage. Then they make a run for it. They travel away from the food source. They find somewhere to turn upside down. And after hanging there a while, maybe ten days, if you’re watching, you will see them split open down their back, and the chrysalis unfold from within, like they’re turning inside out. It wraps around them, pushing away the old skin, the outer worm layer they won’t need anymore. Then they hang there, wrapped in their translucent shell, doing nothing. Is it nothing? Is it surrendering or pulsating or quivering while the transformation just happens? Is that how it works? You just sit still and it just happens?
I’m on a gurney on my back. They push me into the operating room. A cold feeling in my arm as the drugs rush into my veins. They’re putting me in suspended animation. They’re going to split me open. They’re going to make it so I’m no longer a worm. As I’m falling asleep, they turn me upside down.