I have this vivid childhood memory…though I am not sure if it really happened or if I dreamt it. I had to have been around four-and-a-half, not much more, because my mother was pregnant with my younger sister.
In this memory, my mother and I are curled up in my bed, leaning against the big-girl pillows, my woven blue blanket tucked tight around our bare toes. We are reading a picture book, and I point to a green stubby worm in the center of the left-most picture.
“Look, Mommy! It’s a baby!”
She reaches over me and places her finger underneath the picture, below the word ‘caterpillar’ and makes each sound, ‘caaa – trrr – pill – rrr.’
“Sound it out with me,” she says. We say it slowly together: “Ca-ter-pill-ar.”
“What is a caterpillar?” she asks.
“A baby butterfly.”
“That’s right! And where do caterpillars live?”
My mother looks at my bedroom wall and smiles, giving me a not-so-sneaky hint. My room is decorated with a flower-print wall, a blue wall, and two white walls with a fancy blue fence. The fence is painted along the room’s bottom edges, almost as if it grew from the floor. My mother stenciled the posts herself. They look real, except for the blue color. But the blue matches my blue pillows. And my blue blanket. And this fence transforms the room into a garden.
“Garden!” I squeal. “Caterpillars live in gardens!”
“Yes,” she says, “Good job, sweetie.”
I nestle in the crook of my mother’s arm, the little bun at the top of my head fitting right under her armpit. She turns the page of the book. There is a momma lion and her cub. I place my little hand on my mother’s stomach. It is large and swollen.
“The caterpillar is a baby,” I say, “A baby, like this one.”
I have always been fascinated by human development—the way we shift from tiny seeds in our mother’s stomachs to people that jump double-dutch, drink root beer floats, develop whooping cough, fall in love.
I am still not sure whether that memory with my mother actually happened, but as a four-and-a-half-year-old, I do remember touching my mother’s swollen stomach, feeling the tiny movements of feet and life beneath my fingertips. I remember my new sister’s nursery and its lavender and light green colors. I remember the obnoxious pink stork in the center of our lawn. And I remember the quiet bundle my father carried like a glass figurine in his arms. The whole process was fascinating.
In my senior year of high school, an exhibit called Body Worlds & The Cycle of Life came to the Chicago Science and Industry Museum. I went for a fieldtrip with my anatomy class and stood in the back, walking a hundred or so feet behind everyone, taking it all in. One of the first sections of the exhibit featured actual preserved embryos and babies at different weeks. There was a zygote from one week after conception, then a seven-week-old embryo, no bigger than a blueberry. One of the most powerful glass cases held the body of a twenty-eight week old fetus, fragile and small enough to hold in my hands, unborn, each finger and toe defined.
I remember standing in front of that glass case, blinking back tears as I admired the soft folds of plaster skin that formed the eyelids, the waxy arms and legs. A sign underneath the case said something about third trimester abortions, how this twenty-eight week old baby would classify as a third trimester fetus.
The baby looked so real, so alive. I could almost see the thin arms moving in the amniotic sac; I could imagine the strong kicks against the mother’s belly.
I have always been in awe of the complexity of human life, our changes and growths, how a fetus can develop different senses in the womb, responding to stimuli before birth, or acquiring sensitivities to different tastes in the amniotic sac: sweet, bitter, salty, sour. It has always amazed me that even a sense of hearing is developed prenatally; I remember talking to my baby sister, leaning against my mother’s stomach, hoping in a kindergartner sort of way that I would hear something back. My mother talked to the baby too. She believed, like most mothers, that her unborn child would recognize the tone and inflections of her voice. When I held my sister just hours after birth, and she smiled at me when I spoke, I felt that smile was a recognition. She had remembered me.
Standing in front of that glass case at the Body Worlds exhibit brought me back to my four-and-a-half-year-old hand on my mother’s stomach, feeling each kick. It brought me to hours after my sister’s birth, holding her like a sleeping puppy in my arms. It brought me to months later, watching as she underwent rapid changes—learning to hold her head upright, move her arms and legs, scoot herself across the floor, babble and coo. I watched this growth intently. It was her arms and legs first, extremities sprouting to lengths disproportionate to the rest of her body. Then it was crying and laughing melting into words, and floor-shuffling becoming crawling, then walking—and everything happening simultaneously—a structured sort of chaos.
There was a small period in my elementary school life when I wanted to be a doctor, one that took care of mothers and small babies. I think this was a result of the spinach spoon-feeding I assisted my mother with, and at age five, being too young to change diapers and thus not experiencing the true horror of it all. Though profound, the career path was short-lived, as I realized I was terrified of needles and all too sensitive to be able to hold back tears when seeing someone in pain.
My sister grew to be a lot tougher than me. When she was six or seven, I held her tiny hand in mine as the doctor inserted a numbing agent into her ripped-open chin; she had slipped on the edge of an indoor swimming pool. While she sat stone-faced in the doctor’s chair, I, eleven or twelve years old, cried enough tears for the both of us.
My sister is both beautiful and tough. She has always reminded me of a butterfly, delicate-winged but resilient. As a baby, she was the perfect caterpillar. Each scuttling movement across the kitchen floor was worm-like; she would inch forward with determination, every day one scoot closer to crawling. And like the newly-hatched caterpillar larva with its disproportionately large head and few bristles of hair, she looked like most babies, half-bald and big-headed.
A caterpillar develops a unique set of color patterns, hair, spine, and fleshy filaments, becoming unique and differing from its appearance at birth. This was my sister with her tiny upturned nose, oval brown eyes, and little high-pitched giggle. Where I had inherited my mother’s curly, dark brown mess of hair, my sister’s was straight and golden. Where I had been given my father’s strong, short legs, my sister’s were feminine and long.
As humans grow, we undergo rapid changes, physically, mentally, linguistically, and emotionally. We become different and unique. We develop tiny toe nails and crescent-moon smiles. At eight weeks we are the size of a raspberry. At week twenty-eight, like the Body Worlds baby, we are the size of an eggplant—very much alive.
A human develops immensely, yet even in this, we are so dependent on the world. Like caterpillars, we rely on our surroundings. We need security, stability as if to counterbalance to the turbulent growth inside of us. But this inner chaos is both beautiful and makes us into beautiful beings.
Sometimes I want to ask my mother about this memory of us reading. If I close my eyes, I can feel the stiff linen of the pillow, the warmth of my mother’s body next to mine. I remember reading about caterpillars, how they grow from the thick shell of an egg, like my sister inside my mother, only a faint idea to me at the time.
I want to ask my mother if she remembers this book, if I really did point to the caterpillar and then at my future sister, as if to give her wings to grow into. As if to command her into existence. As if to predict who she would become—beautiful, resilient.
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