It’s dragonfly season in my classroom. Willow branches poke out of dank tanks atop our desks. Tadpoles dart in the murky water to escape the voracious appetites of our dragonfly nymphs.
And us? We wait, holding our collective breath until the day one of our nymphs makes the climb up a willow branch to molt a final time.
I’ve written about dragonflies before and I’ll surely write of them again because in their metamorphosis from nymph to dragonfly, I find pieces of myself. Pieces of myself in times of grief. Pieces of myself in times of triumph.
Dragonfly nymphs molt about 15 times. The first molts take place in the water. When a dragonfly nymph is ready, when it’s literally ready to burst out of its skin, in the cover of night the nymph climbs up a stick and using the hooks on its feet, the nymph holds on for dear life. Then the nymph pushes from within and breaks out of its skin right between the wingpads, leaving a large hole in the old skin. It’s an act so violently beautiful that when my students ask me if it hurts, I can only blink back tears and eek out the words “I don’t know.”
I imagine it’s extremely painful. Growth usually is. This week as I watched a nymph transform into a dragonfly, I thought of my friend, Lynn. She wrote about losing her mother, of being separated from someone who was entwined in every fiber of her life. After such a loss, when you have a gaping hole, how’s it possible to return to life again when life as you know it doesn’t exist anymore?
Life as the nymph knows it ends as life as an adult dragonfly begins. What you may not know about dragonflies is that after cracking open the back of their skin, they pull their head free and then their thorax, leaving their long flute of an abdomen still encased in the dead skin of the nymph. At this point the dragonfly flops over backward and takes a rest, stuck halfway between its old life as a water creature and its new life in the skies. The dragonfly rests like this for some time, like it simply cannot summon another ounce of strength to free itself from its old skin. When my grandmother passed away, I was stuck in between my life with her and my life without her. I couldn’t rewind time, but the thought of moving on without her was unfathomable.
After the nymph hangs upside down for a while, a marvelous thing happens. In the ultimate display of mind over matter, the dragonfly flings its head up and grabs onto the stick again. Sometimes it can only grab back onto its exoskeleton, taking hold of the old life one last time. The dragonfly pulls its abdomen out of the cracked skin and waits.
It waits for its body to harden. It waits for its wings to be ready. This is when the dragonfly is in its most vulnerable state. After all that work to emerge, dragonflies are powerless against hungry birds and frogs. If the dragonfly crawls back into the water, it will drown because its abdomen now breathes air. It cannot fly away because its wings are too crumpled to take to the sky. In the sacred shield of night, the dragonfly is completely unguarded.
The dragonfly cannot move forward into this new life and cannot return to the old life either. It begins to shiver, but not out of cold. As the dragonfly shivers, blood pumps into the veins of the wings. Slowly, life flows through the wings and they begin to take shape. The dragonfly quivers and shakes until suddenly its wings snap open.
It’s a clumsy flier at first, unsure how to move on the wind. Soon the dragonfly learns to slice through the air, taking in the beauty of the sky with its enormous eyes. The dragonfly leaves the stick, leaves the shell of its old life and lifts into the air. One of my students asked me if dragonflies remember what it’s like to be a nymph swimming in the water or climbing up a stick. Again I could only offer a paltry, ”I don’t know.”
I’d like to think that dragonflies do remember. I’d like to think they remember all the growth that had to take place in order to soar. I’d like to think they recall the night when the old self died to make room for a new life. And surely they recall the strength it took to heave their thorax up onto the stick and pull free from their old shell.
Night closes her eyes on me and in the warmth of my home, I wonder if any of our nymphs are making that brave climb tonight in our classroom. I think of my friends who are summoning measures of bravery I can’t begin to fathom. I think of Lynn, who is choosing to breathe in and out each day without her mother. I think of my own mother and our loss.
I keep coming back to the vulnerability of the dragonflies as they’re moving from one phase in life to the next. Sometimes that vulnerability, that willingness to be fragile, to grieve what is lost, is the very thing that births the strength to move on.
As Mother’s Day stands tiptoe on my doorstep, I think of all my friends who have lost their mothers. My dear, dear friends, my Mother’s Day wish for you is that you find strength in your time of need, that your memories of your mothers will give you strength to continue and that when the long night finally gives way to brighter days that you will find yourself soaring in the sky.