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White caterpillars

White caterpillars

white caterpillar

I wrote this piece after my Uncle Dave passed away on Oct 1 2015. He was one of my favorite people. Funny and talented, he had an album of original songs out in the 1970′s, and one of them was even used later in a John Waters movie! As one of 7 kids, trips by myself to visit him and my equally special aunt were always magical to me. He taught me a lot about personal responsibility, trying new things, how to present my point of view better (he loved to argue), among many other things. And he was freaking hilarious. I miss him a lot!

I’m sorry, white fuzzy caterpillar. I know when I confidently put that twig up to the end of the branch you were dangling on, I must have seemed like the hand of God. Like someone who knew things about life. Like someone you could trust. You crawled on, but all I did was deposit you onto another branch, which you climbed and then came to the end of. Again. I tried to rescue you, but you thought better of it. Figured, better to double back where I came from. This stick rescue operation seems faulty. Good for you. Neither of us knows what the fuck is going on! But finding you with my eyes after hearing you rustling in the leaves nearby was comforting to me. So thank you. And I’m sorry I didn’t have better guidance. All I can think of is the question, can your heart get bigger even with this? Yes? Then you are OK.

When I learned that my uncle had passed away I was drawn to the woods and the caterpillar encounter.  He died peacefully in his sleep after a long illness, after an evening of fish and merriment with his wife and his sister, my aunts. It must have been right around when my alarm was going off with church bells. 7:30am. If I’d stuck to my schedule I would have been doing qi gong at that time. But I needed the sleep, I thought. I had been making the drive to Maryland to be with him nearly every weekend the past few months.

My sister was in a different patch of woods in Pittsburgh after learning he had died, and she was also visited by a white fuzzy caterpillar with a black center line. It crawled onto her book and she took a picture and sent it to my aunt while thinking, this is something Debbie would do. We laughed and cried when she showed me the picture and I exclaimed that I was talking to a caterpillar at the same time. We joked that it was Uncle Dave visiting, paused seriously for a moment when we realized he might not find that funny, and then laughed even harder.

I could feel myself starting to grip around that story, wanting to hold onto something as meaningful, lamenting the fact that I’d be doing qi gong at 11pm instead of while he passed on that morning, regretting all the times I hadn’t written, the half-formed thoughts that sparked almost too powerfully in me and then faded away. I felt at the end of the branch, waiting for someone to put me on the real one. You know, the one that I climb that ends in a leaf, or a happy ending, or some epiphany, or something.

Of course I know there’s no real branch. Well, there is, but it’s the one that I’m already on. The one where my uncle dies while I’m sleeping and I’m still OK.

I found out about a week after his death that those caterpillars are poisonous. It came up in small talk with one of my patients. She said something about a friend’s son’s rash that ended up being hand foot and mouth disease. “But you know there are those caterpillars…”

“What caterpillars?” I asked, trying to sound casual.

“Oh, they’re white. Anyway,” she said, going on with the story about her friend.

I didn’t look it up. I didn’t want to look it up. Then later a text from my mom. I just saw on the news last night those cate R poisonous.

OK, time for google.

So poisonous is a strong word. They’re Canadian. They have a defensive chemical in their fur that gives people a mild irritation. Kind of like a nettle sting. In a very small percentage of people there might be a more serious reaction like nausea or vomiting.

I like nettles. I often run my hand through them just to feel the sensation. Jim Duke the famed herbalist used to walk in patches of them to help his arthritic knees. And anyway I am not touching the caterpillars.

I did feel a little silly at first. My uncle’s spirit, ha. But then things reoriented in my mind. Grief can be transformational and it stings. It’s important to me to find grace and meaning even in painful situations. Those caterpillars created a connection. Between me and my sister and my aunt. My sister and her kids. My mom and my brothers.

My brother texted me a picture of a white caterpillar a few weeks after my uncle’s death. Looks like Uncle Dave is letting his presence known here too. I could see what looked like cigarette ash on the concrete and a blurry caterpillar. I imagined him out back, smoking, sighing and then seeing that bright white and taking a picture with his shaky hands. I started to cry. I’m not sure why those moments of connection can feel like grief. Like my heart is trying to take a deep breath but can’t quite do it. Like I’m walking through fog and can almost feel the sun on my skin.

And yet I am more than OK.

Thank you for reading.

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The Nuin Center
5655 Bryant St
Pittsburgh, PA 15206
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