Monday, September 14, 2009

The End

In my work as a naturalist, I have always tried to be honest about "the hard stuff:" life, death, the fact that not all animals beat the odds, that sort of thing. I'm not overly dramatic or sorrowful, this stuff just happens. It is what it is. When I'm teaching a class of adults, it's much easier to be matter-of-fact about it. With kids, not so much. During early childhood, some kids can be almost neutral towards the idea of death, others are torn apart by it, others are fascinated. It's hard to predict what their reaction will be. Best to be prepared for anything.

Late that evening, I checked on "our" butterfly again (where our story begins), when I went to take the garbage out. She was still there, hanging from a leaf. She didn't look too bad, but still. Something wasn't quite right with the one wing. It was a bit warped, and didn't align properly with her hindwing. Something had definitely happened to her after she emerged. Either she fell, or she was released too soon, her wings still soft. We'd never know. So, she hadn't flown away, and she most likely wouldn't, she admitted. Butterflies don't fly at night or when it's overcast: the sun's warmth powers their bodies.

Trying to predict the reaction our kids would have consumed the better part of an evening for myself and D.

Did I worry that knowing the butterfly had died would somehow cast a pall over their whole experience? Of course. I really didn't want to burst the bubble of enthusiasm. And of course I wanted my kids to be proud, to feel they had had a hand in helping a butterfly find her way in the world. Who wouldn't? And obviously, I would have preferred to avoid the sadness and loss of knowing she died.

In the end, D relented and accepted that I was going to tell them what had really happened. He wasn't thrilled about this; he figured, what's the harm in letting them believe the butterfly flew away happily? And, in reality, there's no harm in it at all. None. I just want them to have authentic experiences. And not all of those experiences are going to have happy endings. And butterflies die if their wings get crushed, because they can't fly. This stuff just happens.

Within moments of coming downstairs the next morning, the kids were clamoring to go check on the butterfly. I led them outside, all of us still in our jammies, and braced myself for the scene: We'd find her crumpled body there in the garden, under the lantana where we'd released her, and maybe we'd have a funeral of sorts for her. We'd talk about how butterfly wings work, and how delicate and fragile they are, and how there are so many butterflies in this world, flying right now.

But she wasn't there. The butterfly was gone. I looked around the plants, the mulch. There was no sign of a monarch anywhere. (Which means, dear reader, not that she flew away, but that she was probably eaten by a toad or a raccoon in the night. Sorry.)

"Hooray!" The kids yelled, jumping up and down. "She's gone! She's gone!"

Uh, well....can't argue with that one....

"Maybe she flew away!" They rejoiced.

You're going to call me a cheater here. Now technically, the kids were under no illusions at this point. They were happy that the butterfly was gone. They said "maybe." They realized it was possible she had flown away. There is an implication there that they also realize it's possible she didn't. That some other fate befell our lady. What they were happy about, then, was the fact that the butterfly was gone, and that maybe she flew away. I didn't press the issue. Lucky me--I could "neither confirm nor deny" as they say.

(If one of them had said, "What happened to the butterfly, mama?" Well, then, we'd have had to have a little talk. But no one said that.) I decided in that instant to let them live with the conclusion they drew based on what they saw. (A basic scientific practice, I might add) I don't believe I misled my children. My children were reacting to one interpretation of events. And that interpretation is possible. Not likely, but possible. I will never know either way.

"Maybe she did!" I crowed, relief washing over me like a hot shower. We played in the yard for a good long time before I managed to get them inside for breakfast.

"You know what would have been really great, Mama?" L said, her mouth full of cinnamon toast. "If that butterfly couldn't fly. Then she could have been an indoor butterfly and stayed with us. "
I just had to gulp down more coffee, and bite my tongue.

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