My cousin suggested I plant a butterfly garden in my South Austin backyard last spring. She knew I’d endured a harsh winter, full of grief and disappointment, and she thought using pretty flowers to attract pretty insects would cheer me up. A small, pebbled corner of my yard contained an empty raised bed where I’d grown vegetables a few years prior. Before her recommendation, I’d never considered utilizing the space for beauty.
I’d witnessed the joy and meaning my cousin found in the hobby, so I decided to try it. I made several chaotic and clueless trips to nearby plant nurseries, including The Great Outdoors, Barton Springs Nursery, and The Natural Gardener. At first, I purchased whatever brightly colored flowers caught my eye—a red petunia, a purple cherry pie plant, pink impatiens because I liked the name. But after speaking with helpful nursery employees, I learned the merits of planting native species, particularly if I wanted to attract pollinators like the eastern monarch butterflies, which had begun passing through on their biannual 25,000-plus-mile migration.
Through online research and conversations at the nurseries, I learned that Central Texas is an important area for eastern monarchs, as one of their key migration routes cuts through the area. In the fall, the butterflies head south to overwinter in the oyamel fir trees located in the forested mountains west of Mexico City, Mexico. In the spring, their descendants trace the same path back through coastal or Central Texas to Canada, where they summer. One of the best places to witness the monarchs’ journey, as well as other rare and common butterfly breeds, is at the National Butterfly Center, located in Mission near the Texas-Mexico border. But Austin also offers plentiful opportunities for monarch sightings in the spring and fall.
Eventually, I converted the blank corner of my yard into something of a garden. In ceramic pots and in my 8-by-4-foot raised bed, I rehomed transplants of lantana, sage, yarrow, mistflower, salvia, and of course, tropical milkweed. Milkweed is the plant most likely to attract monarchs, as it’s the sole food source for their larva and thus where they lay their eggs. Most local nurseries only sell tropical milkweed, which is not Indigenous and therefore somewhat controversial in some horticulture circles, but monarchs will take to it. To ease any purity guilt, I threw a few common milkweed seeds, which are native, into the soil. Because you never know, right?
That you-never-know voice had been my life force in the months preceding the garden project. I was surprised it still existed. It was the voice that, after failing to get pregnant with a second child, led my husband and me to pursue a monthslong in vitro fertilization process. It was the same voice that, when my family discovered the year prior that my mom had been diagnosed with a terminal, cancerous brain tumor known as a glioblastoma, moved us to pursue treatment aggressively.
Before her cancer, my mother was healthy and strong. Before my infertility, I conceived and carried my now 3-year-old son. But something inside our bodies had changed—a promise broken, though perhaps we mistook it as a guarantee.
My mom and I surrendered our physical selves to modern medicine, waging that the advances available would allow us to outsmart the ways our bodies were betraying us. But neither of us won the game. My sole viable embryo, produced through IVF, failed to implant in my uterus, and, defying all our prayers, my mother’s cancer flared up sooner than we’d wanted. A second, riskier brain surgery was likely necessary.
“I’m scared to die,” she told me on our drive from her acreage home in Wimberley to MD Anderson in Houston for a second opinion. But when the neuro-oncologist asked if she ever wished to stop waking up, she demurred.
The tumor, located in her occipital lobe, had already impaired her ability to walk and see. She could no longer work as a realtor, drive her car, or babysit my son—her only grandchild. Sometimes, her brain hallucinated people into animals and animals into people. When her medication levels were off, she clung to the walls, feeling as if gravity were pulling her to the floor. Feeding her herd of five goats and the miniature donkey we adopted when I was in high school, Willie, had morphed from a simple chore into an obstacle course. Still, she refused to stop tending to her flock, the ritual central to her identity. My sisters and I understood, but each day she went out to the pasture, we held our breaths that she wouldn’t fall.
Our mom’s life had drastically changed, her ability to recall words and short-term memory waning. On the deepest level, though, she was still here. I needed her to stay. I wanted my son to know her. My father was already gone, dying of a stroke when I was 20. I couldn’t imagine my son’s life without a sibling or maternal grandparent, or my own without my mother, especially as I was coming into the role myself. I wanted addition, not subtraction. I wanted my family to grow.
It was around that time, when the possibilities felt faint, that my cousin suggested the butterfly garden.
As spring warmed, some plants died while others took hold. From reading the field guide Native Host Plants for Texas Butterflies, I learned that Texas has ten ecoregions, and understanding my distinct area provided me with insight on what vegetation would thrive. Our South Austin home is technically located in the tornado-shaped Blackland Prairie region, which is characterized by dark, fertile soil that stretches from San Antonio to the Red River in North Texas. We live just a mile or so east of the Edwards Plateau region, known broadly as the Texas Hill Country. Therefore, our soil is both rocky and strong, reflecting the borderland.
The milkweed didn’t mind. Branches stemmed out of the original stalks, red and orange flowers blossoming. Hummingbirds, wasps, bees, skimmers, moths, and several species of butterflies appeared, as if they had received my invitation. My son and I watered the garden every other day. I tried to keep his dinosaur figurines from eating too many petals.
In May, on my 34th birthday, I watched a female monarch tilt the end of her abdomen onto a milkweed leaf and leave behind a creamy white egg the size of a pinhead. She fluttered through the garden, continuing to lay eggs, yet pausing occasionally to unroll her long, straw-like proboscis to sip nectar. She even laid two eggs on the tiny leaves of common milkweed from the seeds I’d planted so carelessly. I didn’t think they’d grow, as I’d failed to follow the germination instructions. Instead, I’d just scattered them in the dirt and watered them with everything else. A month later, their baby stems broke the surfaces, just as I had broken my skin with daily hormone injections. Push through, I remember coaching myself. I assumed this new green was evidence of an invasive weed, but just in case, I tore off a leaf. Out spilled a thick white liquid typical of all milkweed. This milky sap confirmed that, despite all the bad things, good things happen, too.
This year the International Union for Conservation of Nature classified the monarch butterfly as an endangered species for the first time ever. Take away drastically changing weather patterns, vehicles, droughts, insecticides, and dwindling milkweed, and monarchs already face a perilous existence. In the wild, less than 2% of eggs make it to the butterfly stage.
Seeking distraction from my loss and my mother’s worsening condition, I immersed in the world of butterflies. I joined monarch conservation groups online, read books about how to “host” monarchs to increase their rates of survival, and visited the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. Some of the natural causes for the decline in larvae include parasites, diseases, and predators. Many nature advocates believe collecting the eggs and then “raising” the caterpillars in captivity, with the intention of releasing the butterflies, can improve the odds of maturation. Some people go so far as to bleach the eggs to remove potential disease, store them in climate-controlled rooms, and clean each leaf of milkweed before offering it to the larva. Meanwhile, a recent study in Biology Letters argues that monarchs reared in captivity are weaker, and this practice could actually hurt the population. The one consensus is that if you want to help monarchs, plant milkweed.
I settled on a solution somewhere in between. I bought netted pop-up cages and filled them with a couple potted milkweed plants. I cut off the 20 or so leaves with monarch eggs attached and added these leaves to the potted plants’ base soil. That way, when the caterpillars hatched, they could climb onto the milkweed for food. I kept the large net containers in our screened porch so the larvae would be exposed to the natural temperature but protected from predators such as birds and wasps.
Next, we waited—my husband and son had grown invested, too. The journey from egg to butterfly typically lasts a month. A monarch egg takes about three to four days to hatch. It then spends around two weeks as a rapidly growing caterpillar, bursting out of its skin four times before pupating, the term for transforming into a chrysalis. Unlike a moth, which creates a shell-like casing of silk called a cocoon, a butterfly caterpillar sheds its final skin, the last molt. What’s left underneath is the chrysalis, technically an exoskeleton, which hardens to offer a protective solitude. For monarchs, this period usually lasts a week or two. The ultimate step, called eclosing, is when the insect breaks free of its last layer—the chrysalis—and debuts as a butterfly.
Beholding each stage was entrancing, though the process was gruesome. As one of my favorite nature writers, Margaret Renkl, states in her memoir, Late Migrations, “The cycle of life might as well be called the cycle of death.”
At every turn, we witnessed the loss of potential life despite the false protection of the tent-like cages. Tiny caterpillars, the size of the writing on a penny, curled up and died. Others passed mid-molt. One’s body partially exploded from a condition called prolapsed anus. Big, juicy caterpillars with thick yellow, black, and white stripes advanced to the pre-chrysalis j-hanging position after creating their silk pads, only to have their bodies slacken with death. This was followed by a parasitic t-fly maggot crawling out on a white string like some superhero victoriously executing its assassination plan. Some eggs failed to hatch altogether.
The IVF process also involves multiple stages, attrition expected at each. My reproductive endocrinologist collected 19 eggs from my hormone-infused ovaries; 11 proved to be mature. Eight eggs successfully fertilized with my husband’s sperm; five made it to the prized blastocyst stage. We sent these five embryos off for genetic testing. Only one came back chromosomally normal. The others were likely to fail to implant or would miscarry early on, as their abnormalities were, in the words of our genetic counselor, “incompatible with life.”
Our “normal” one would have been a female, with a due date in October 2022. I still imagine her, in pigtails and heart-shaped sunglasses, dressed in her brother’s hand-me-down T. rex T-shirts. Or maybe she would’ve loved overalls and backward baseball caps and wearing rainboots in the sun. I’ll never know.
Throughout the month, several caterpillars prevailed against the gory obstacles and succeeded to the chrysalis stage. Each morning, my son and I raced downstairs to check if any of the gold-trimmed, jade-green hangings had turned black and then transparent, the signal that the butterfly would soon emerge.
None had yet, and we found one brown, mushy chrysalis, clearly dead. The losses were getting to me. I wasn’t sure I wanted to do this anymore. And then it happened: I witnessed a monarch butterfly eclose. Its body emerged wet and crumpled, vulnerably old and new. It positioned itself on its leftover chrysalis skin so it could pump fluids into its scrunched wings, as if inflating a balloon. The wings stretched out and hung low to dry, heavy and lush. A brownish-red liquid dripped beneath them like some form of afterbirth.
The staggering, elegant beauty of the black-veined, white-spotted orange wings humbled me like the sight of the jellied glow of my mother’s tumor.
After her first surgery, the neurosurgeon, a kind yet no-nonsense woman near my age, emailed me photographs of the tumor inside my mom’s brain. The tumor didn’t naturally glow—my mom had to drink a special contrast to give it brilliance. This technique, infusing the tumor with a gleaming raspberry color, helps the surgeon differentiate brain material from cancer. I found the images raw and oddly beautiful: the thin membrane pinned back, a piece of her skull removed, her brain right there, exposed, blush pink with rivers of red veins and arteries, this container for everything she is and has been.
The photographs were obviously stills, though to me they quivered with her childhood spent on Lake Cherokee, her career in fashion before kids, the peace she felt riding a horse. All the memories of our family, of her life, of what she knows of her mother’s life, her grandmother’s, my father’s. Looking at the pictures, it was as if I was peering inside a chrysalis, something miraculous and mysterious, though something that should never, ever be opened.
The butterfly signaled that it had finished drying and was ready for freedom by flitting throughout the cage. I washed my hands and gently cupped the insect. For whatever unknowable reason, this one had made it. Loss paved its way, reminding me that death is not the antithesis of life but evidence of its trials and existence.
Monarchs typically have a lifespan of up to five weeks, but the select few that participate in their species’ great migration can live seven or eight months—quite long compared to other butterflies. What’s wild is how they instinctually find their paths. Unlike birds, monarchs migrate alone, and they never complete the journey twice. Somehow, the torch passes to the next generation, and the mysterious cycle continues again and again.
My son cried when I released the butterfly, not understanding why we had to let it go. Along with my husband, we watched in awe as it flapped its wings then dropped to glide, testing out its new abilities. We watched until we could no longer tell the difference between its flutter and the shift of the leaves.
It was now late spring, early June. Maybe this one would make it from South Austin to Canada. Maybe we would find peace in the unknown. I squinted toward the sun and wished our monarch luck.