Love Letters

[written in Enugu, Nigeria, while living there as a full-time volunteer]

Cocoon construction, I have found, is challenging.

I expected—but foolishly, had not accepted—this. (When will my comparable experiences culminate in the understanding that we cannot forgo hurt? Shouldn’t I know by now how often pain is precisely the medium used to make masterpieces? Why haven’t my previous journeys verified the necessity of just that—the journey? Will I ever truly dismiss the notion that, compared to the destination, the process is superfluous?)

The last few weeks with my caterpillar, then, have been trying—trying dually as in endeavoringexasperatingexasperatingendeavoring. His scuffle with an older boy at school one day marked the first (and hopefully) only fight I have ever had to break up. My heart, gripped so tightly with dread it could have fit in his small, pummeling fists, knew the consequence of this misconduct: corporal punishment.

His wails haunted me. Maybe I made it worse for both of us, but maybe not: I deliberately walked past the room where he fearfully crouched in a corner, shielding his face from the whip of the teacher’s bamboo stick. I willed his gaze to join mine, silently urged the brown of his eyes to sense the searching blue of my own. I needed him to see me; perhaps I could convey the message I needed him to internalize

in these moments of brutality when it seems not a person cares, I always do.

My measured steps like the ticking of a clock, I could not stop walking and wait until he saw me; I would sooner still time than stand and watch my caterpillar receive another beating. And so my seemingly sure strides continued as my eyes desperately tried—endeavoringexasperating—to secure his, a feat I longed to accomplish without having to witness even glimpses of his punishment.

Inches before I passed out of our mutual line of vision, he peeked through his slightly spread fingers. For an instant, my eyes relayed the most blatant compassion I could muster in such a fleeting glance, and then I walked on, praying he understood. Surely cocoon construction necessitates compassion. Surely my caterpillar would know how very much I care about him, how sincerely I hope for him to thrive. Surely he would want to continue our companionship so that I may know him as a butterfly.

But for several long moments a few days later, none of this seemed a certainty after all. I sat with him, eagerly poised with that same compassion, care and hope to spindle into a cocoon, until he burrowed his chin deep into his chest and mumbled indiscernibly. My initial reaction achingly wondered what burden would make a nine-year-old’s head too heavy to hold upright; my second reaction gently asked him to repeat himself.

“I want to do it on my own.” Though this time he spoke much more clearly, the words still did not make sense to me. He wants to do what on his own? And why? And . . . does this mean he doesn’t want us to be friends anymore?

What ensued was a convoluted conversation which forced me to maneuver around the protective barriers my caterpillar has built around himself. Apparently he is unwilling to become attached to me only to see me go: not only am I not Nigerian (and so will obviously leave to return back home someday), I also have “a new job” (at the hospital), which he understood to mean we will never see each other again even while I am in Nigeria. And so he stubbornly escorted me to the border of his heart and his comfort zone—a place where everyone else in his life resided, a place where he assumed I would stay. What he did not know, though, is how well-practiced I am at waiting patiently beside these walls; soon enough, I succeeded in being allowed back in his heart. It scares him, I know (he has since made a few additional, half-hearted attempts to push me away), but it delights me that he will take the risk of building this cocoon with me. I can only assume that he, too, is curious as to what kind of butterfly he will be.

Based on the positive changes my caterpillar has already displayed, actually (apparent, at the very least, to me and his teacher), I envisage that he will be a butterfly marked with the grace of tenderness. His transformation has included several acts of gentleness and affection; with each one, I imagine soft wisps of blue laced intricately across his wings. The other day, for instance, a fight broke out in his class while I led them in a game. My caterpillar not only remained peaceful during it, but was the only student to approach the victim of the scrap immediately afterwards. His right arm comfortingly rested around the boy’s shoulders and his left hand lovingly wiped away his tears—a scene so touching that soon my eyes glistened with my own tears.

My caterpillar has not repeated this precise posture of kindness with me, but his actions have all carried its same message: I care about you, and I want you to know that. A few such actions have literally included this message (more or less verbatim), as he has written me three notes—all pure and sweet in their adoration—so far during his transformation. A boy who can barely read and write put to paper, essentially, a prayer—“I love Anty Kerry God”—in the most delicate love letter I have ever received.

So cocoon construction is challenging, yes, but it also emphasizes to me how much I love to love, and that makes it precious. Cocoon construction, actually, also reminds me of how much I love tobe loved. I often feel I do not deserve such a magnificent gift as love, but I accept my caterpillar’s love freely—eagerly, almost. Reminders of both loving and being loved coincided just this afternoon, in fact, as he burrowed himself in his arms and turned his back to me while disclosing a painful story.When he finally surfaced after several silent minutes, I greeted him warmly, “There you are! I missed you.” Following a sniffle, his response—far less chipper, but equally sincere—solidified the glory of someone you care about also caring about you, especially when that someone has struggled to show such care. His response, simple as it was, made me grateful—and hopeful—for the both of us.

“I missed you, too.”


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