I was in 11th grade, when I learned the word evanescent. I’ve never forgotten it. My English teacher, Dr. Galvin, gave us vocabulary quizzes every week. Of all the words that we learned, why is it that I can still remember the exact definitions of Laconic (concise, terse, pithy) and ironically, Evanescent (fleeting, lasting but a day)?
I was reminded of that word this past week.
I walked into my classroom on Friday, hoping that the chrysalis that had been hanging from a milkweed branch on my counter for the past 13 days would not have become a butterfly overnight. I flipped on the lights and zipped over to the mesh cage. Actually, we can’t call it a cage. We should call it an enclosure. The chrysalis was still intact, but I was excited to see that it had turned from an emerald green to a darker bluish color. This was a good sign. Change. I hoped that the change would be swift and dramatic at this point. We’d patiently observed the progression since the start of school, from tiny caterpillar to plump caterpillar to curled caterpillar to green chrysalis and now to bluish chrysalis.
But this was Friday. If a winged creature didn’t emerge today, then it would likely happen over the weekend. I wanted my class to get to see the moment of transformation, or the moment of rebirth, or just the emergence.
All day we waited. By mid-morning, the chrysalis had changed color again. Now, it was more of a reddish brown, and we could see the outlines of the orange and black wings.
By day’s end, though, the chrysalis had not changed shape. As the kids left for the weekend, we were all a bit disappointed. Our butterfly was following its own timetable. It wasn’t a slave to the school schedule.
At 3:30, I was alone in my classroom and heard the voice of Peter, the son of another teacher at the school. He had just started kindergarten, and he’d been a frequent visitor to my room. At one point, he’d spotted a tiny new caterpillar on a leaf. It was no bigger than a fingernail clipping. I would never have spotted it. I invited him in to see the chrysalis, and he was excited to see how much it had changed since his last visit. Still, he couldn’t wait around forever.
I sat down at my desk to write a few end-of-the-week emails and do a little planning for next week. I must have gotten into my email zone, because the next thing I knew it was 4:00. I looked over at the mesh enclosure and did a double take. Something moved. I jumped out of my seat and bolted across the room. My heart soared and sank at the same moment, if that is even possible. There inside the enclosure was a beautiful monarch butterfly. I’d been ten yards away and missed the dramatic unfolding. I had told the class that I’d be sure to get video of the moment if it happened after school. I’d been right there.
And I’d missed it.
I started snapping pictures immediately. Butterfly at rest. Butterfly spreading wings. Butterfly under transparent and empty chrysalis case. I called in Peter and his mom. We admired. I sighed.
Later, I left school with the butterfly and the enclosure. I’d read that if they emerge in the late afternoon, it’s best to release them the following day.
I planned to at least get some video of the release.
There was a chill in the air the next morning. The thermometer read 48 degrees. I had also read that it’s best to release the young butterfly when the temperature has reached at least 60 degrees, so I waited until around noon. Then it was time.
I brought the enclosure outside and called my daughter to record the moment. I opened the zipper and gently pinched the wings. I’d also read that their wings were quite sturdy, and holding them by all four wings would not hurt them. I slowly and carefully carried the butterfly over toward a rose bush. Our butterfly bush had not survived this past winter. Roses would have to suffice. As I placed the butterfly on one of the blooms, I did something I shouldn’t have done. I lifted my left hand to the flower to ensure a gentle landing. This effectively blocked the view of the video. Then, our untimely butterfly did something I didn’t expect. Rather than lounging on the rose petals, getting his or her bearings and soaking up a few nourishing rays, she bolted. Just like that. Like she was late for the train. She took off. No zigging back to say so long. No zagging to check for sweeter blooms. She darted, more like falcon flight than fluttering. And she was gone.
I shrugged. I guess that’s just the nature of the creature.
The inscription at the butterfly garden planted in memory of my daughter says, “A butterfly lights beside us like a sunbeam, and for a brief moment, its glory and beauty belong to the world.” Don’t I know it. Evanescent.