“Caterpillars” and “Unwavering”

Teacher-writer Candace Berkley uses the power of words to reflect on a childhood memory and her father’s death.

Candace Berkley and


The smell of parsley reminds me of late summer, when the freedom of June days is but a feeling fading fast into the routine of school. My mother always planted parsley in big clay pots, and the black swallowtail butterflies loved parsley. Its vibrant green, small-but-sturdy stalks capped with little explosions of leaves might have been what drew the butterflies, but I think it was, most likely, the tangy, pungent odor that spoke loudest to them. They were beautiful: dusty black with iridescent blue eyes scalloped around the edges of their wings. But what I remember most, more than what drew them or their fragile beauty, was how they came to be.

Sometimes my sisters and I would find the minute white egg on the underside of the leaf, but more often we would find the tiny fuzzy caterpillars armored with black fringy fur. They wiggled and tickled harmlessly as we interrupted their food foraging. Their entire world was a verdant green landscape, a parsley paradise. Since we knew what they ate and had plenty of it, we would feel confident in containing the caterpillars in glass mayonnaise jars or old aquariums for closer continual inspection.

Elizabeth Johnson Lyons

Like the caterpillar in the famous children’s story, these caterpillars ate and ate and ate. We would eagerly check each day to see how much of the parsley had been chewed away, only stems left standing. And we would laugh at the copious green and black droppings that littered not only the bottom of the container but also the parsley itself. And then, one morning, the caterpillars would be gone, replaced by a static, still, grayish brown pupae. And although I missed the caterpillars’ colorful, comical, wriggling bodies, I knew that those non-descript mummies were where the magic would happen, concealed from my eyes. I waited.

One day I would see something somewhat familiar and somehow discomforting. The pupae would be torn open, and there, dangling, an ugly, deformed creature with long, black, thin legs. Inexplicable. Where had it come from, and what had it done to our caterpillars? The wings were tiny and scrunched, showing no resemblance at all to the graceful wings they would become. Both fascinated and repulsed. I would watch the thing.

Later, a perfect butterfly would slowly be folding and unfolding its wings.

But the best part was always setting the butterflies free. We would take them outside and open the lid of the containers. The still-fragile creatures usually moved very slowly, cautiously, uncertain of meaning.  And then, the breeze would catch them and lift them into the late summer where they were at the mercy of the breeze.



Always, the discreet shuffling of the nurses as they came into the room every hour to check…

To check what?

Exigency extreme; I needed to know in order to prepare for the relentlessly advancing moment.

I did not want to be distracted by surprises, by self-serving emotions that would cast a shadow of me.

I did not want that.

So I asked.

They said look for a browning of the urine in the bag, and then, the absence of the fluid. They said watch the fingernails and toenails for a “bluing.” Look at the skin of the hands and feet for a mottling effect. A slowing of the pulse, growing fainter.

One can not be squeamish when facing death.

Vigilantly, I held my father’s hand.

I became a stoic waiting.

I self-effaced.

Death would not sneak in, would not trick me, fool me, baffle me, overwhelm me.

Not me.

Unabashed, I would be there, waiting, when death arrived.

I cannot stop you, but I will not fear you, I will not be passive, I will not give away any power to you. Prepared and unafraid, I will watch and wait and see you when you come.

Around 5:00 AM I heard the urgent acknowledgement: “It’s time.”

I felt his pulse become fainter…

then it ceased. 

The silence that preludes eternity followed.

“He’s gone.” My inaudible whisper, the loudest sound in the room, echoed in my head.