When I was in the first grade, I had a wonderful teacher named Sister Virginia. She was at the time, oh, probably 50-years-old, but to me at the ripe age of 6, she seemed to be someone who walked with dinosaurs, saw Santa Claus’ birth, and hung out with Jesus. Sister Virginia, with her head of snow-white hair and dressed in full habit, was the kind of teacher that every chid should have in their life.
One morning, in late Autumn, my fellow classmates and I arrived to school to find a large aquarium in our classroom. Crawling on branches inside of it, were dozens of tiny, furry caterpillar. My classmates and I were enraptured with the creatures, as we tried to bump each other out of the way to catch a glimpse of them. We gathered in a circle, and Sister Virginia explained to us that in the next few months we were going to witness a miracle. It was the first time I can ever remember someone using that word… “miracle.”
I could not contain my daily excitement. Every morning, upon entering the classroom, I would put down my book bag and rush over to check out our classroom pets. But as the days blurred into each other, and nothing changed, I began to lose my hope.
Then one day, the caterpillars were gone. And all that remained in their place, were tiny pockets of web, hanging from the branches. I remember seeing them, and being filled with fear; my eyes welling up with tears. Sister Virginia sat us down and explained that the miracle had begun.
“But….where have the caterpillars gone,” I asked?
“They’re becoming something new,” she replied.
And so it was, that every day I went to school with this renewed anticipation, that I would see a miracle. The days grew long, and winter drew out like a blade, while the caterpillars remained cocooned and motionless. My classmates soon lost interest in our school project. There wasn’t anyone anymore to bump aside, in order to get a glimpse of the glass box of magic. Still every day, I paid a visit, waiting for something to see.
One afternoon, while watching the cocoons while my classmates were at lunch, I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was Sister Virginia standing behind me.
“Are…. they dead?” I asked.
“No, they are far from dead.” she replied.
“They look dead to me. Or are they just sleeping?” I asked again.
“They are far from resting, dearie. It is now on the inside, where we cannot see, that all the changes are happening. The caterpillar is metamorphosing into something beautiful.”
Today, 27 years later, for reasons I can’t explain, I awoke with the memory of that glass box of magic in my mind, and I got to thinking about those caterpillars. Traumatic Brain Injury is a strange and emotionally complex journey, not unlike the life cycle of a butterfly. We grieve what is lost, while trying to accept what is new, pushing for what we hope is still possible, but trying to be grateful for what already exists. Just like I did, every day, waiting for my miracle in the first grade.
I’ve spent two years getting to know my new Patrick, and it has been a process of watching the new person that he is .… emerge…. from within a fog, a darkness, a cocoon. When I look back and watch old videos from early in his recovery, I can see that the new him was there, but sort of out of focus. And with every day, the new him comes forth more and more, like an image through a clear, and bright lens.
When Patrick was in the cocoon of a coma, laying eerily still, I remember wondering where the essence of him was residing. Was he in the room with me, was he gone, was he knocking on Heaven’s door? He looked so still and so lifeless. But now I know, that a coma is the ultimate way in which a body shuts down, to reserve all its energy for healing. He was anything but resting. It was on the inside, where I could not see, that all the changes were happening.
I think we all need to remember that TBI is not only a journey; it is a metamorphosis. It’s not a broken leg or arm; it’s a new way of life. The hardened shell of injury that closes around our loved ones, cutting us off from the people we knew, is with time shed away, and a new creature is revealed to us. This can be painful, because we miss the caterpillars they were. And they often miss themselves too. And yet, everyone knows that when they see a beautiful butterfly, the caterpillar is still there flying too. For instance, just this morning, I caught Patrick with a pencil behind his ear, reading the paper at breakfast. He hasn’t worn a pencil behind his ear in two years, but it’s something he used to do all the time. And there it was, as if it had never left us, just a part of him again. So you see, caterpillar and butterfly – yes, they are different, but they are the same too. And so it is, with my Patrick, who is still emerging with new, brightly colored wings.
On a day that was clinging to winter but wearing the strong, warm sun of Spring, the Miracle came to Sister Virginia’s 1rst grade class. Our glass box of magic was alive with the flutter of dozens of butterflies. I had never seen anything so beautiful in my short, curious life. At lunch we took the aquarium out onto the playground. There were buds on the trees and the smell of flowers in the air, and we set the butterflies free. I watched them fly in a flurry around us, a few landing on a shoulder or hand, and then all at once, they were gone.
In all my years of education, all the teachers I ever had and all the classes I ever took, nothing taught me more about my life, and especially about my future walk with Brain Injury, than did Sister Virgina’s glass box of magic.
*For Patty, my dear friend, who always sees the emergent butterfly in everything *