Sometime in early October we lose the last caterpillar. Lose isn’t the right word, but we can’t find any more, which is a different kind of loss, so we keep looking, as if we’re always oscillating between have and had, always wanting the first and wishing for the second.
Outside, it’s a time of cool mornings. Mist smoking from the surface of the river I drive across on my way to work. Deer moving in the late woods. Afternoons like exhalations, when the wind is constant in the branches of the trees and dead leaves go scuttling along the sidewalks in the same wind. The swallows gather in the live oaks; they take short flights, measuring the distance they have to travel, or warming their wings for the trip.
All summer Jenn and I have been raising butterflies. We find the caterpillars among the milkweed and put them in cages to protect them. We watch them form chrysalis. We watch them eclose into butterflies, and on warm summer afternoons we release them and watch them spiral skyward. All summer Jenn has been keeping records. All summer she has spent bent over her butterfly cage, making notes about males and females, about days found and days released.
What she doesn’t record is the last. She can’t mark which is the last caterpillar because we won’t know which will be the last until long after they’re all gone. If we’ll find one more hanging around like the last leaf on some December tree. One more to gather and protect until it’s time to release.
It’s fine weather this fall, but fall brings about a change in me. I suspect it does in you, too, else so many poets are wrong about what the seasons represent. In the afternoons I’ve been walking our small garden. For months our milkweed has been thick with caterpillars, and now there are none. The leaves are mostly gone from the trees. The flowers in the garden are dying, and we are left looking for what is no longer there.
In the bare garden, waiting for the first hint of coming winter in the wind while I look for one last caterpillar, I am reminded of Steve Edwards’s essay “The Last Cricket.” It’s a short, beautiful essay about loss: how easily it is to lose track of things we love. But in the loss is a gaining—Edwards remembers being a boy. Baseball games, an oiled leather glove. He writes:
It’s easy to think so fancifully when the crickets are going gangbusters. A time of abundance props up the fiction that you’ll always have enough. In September the sun shines on trees full of apples. The first stars of frost on the lawn feel as far off as real stars, wintergreen and blinking. In September, the crickets deliver to me every lost dream of childhood. From the depths of my love and loneliness, the boy I once was emerges again to lie awake all night listening. His insomniac mind conjures impressions from a late ballgame: the smell of cut grass in the outfield around him, the oil darkening the mitt he absently jabs a fist into while waiting for a pitch, the coolness oozing from the deep woods beyond the parking lot. That boy’s parents are young and strong, and time hasn’t grayed their hair and carved lines into their faces. That boy’s grandparents smile and blink and breathe. To have him back, if only for a moment, is a restoration of innocence, the melancholy of which sings to me. I want to rise to the last cricket’s call and inhabit a quiet empty enough to contain my every contradiction.
Like Edwards, I grew up listening to crickets. Catching fireflies on summer nights that now seem so far away they might have happened to another person. Lying in my bedroom with moonlight pooled on the floor thinking of the kind of man I might turn out to be, not knowing then that all life is looking back, trying to remember the last fireflies on a timeless summer night or lying awake in a room wondering what the future might be like.
But the boy I once was is long gone, replaced by a man who, more and more, sees endings everywhere. Fall seems more final than it ever did before. I’m at that age. When my father calls we talk of his friends—men I’ve known all my life—and their health: Floyd goes into surgery Monday. Phil had a heart attack last month. David’s cancer came back but he won’t go to the doctor—he’s not doing another round of chemo, he says. My father is diabetic and walks 3 miles each morning. We talk more and more of death in these Covid days, and though neither of us ever acknowledge each phone call might be the last time we talk, we do linger a bit near the end, prolonging the conversation. “Oh, I meant to ask you. . .” he might say, just for a few more minutes.
Which brings me back to caterpillars, and crickets. In his essay Edwards can’t remember when he heard the last one. It is an essay not so much about endings as about missing them. Realizing a thing is over only after it is over. It’s an essay about all the ways we fail to pay attention. Or maybe just that there are so many things clamoring for our attention we lose track of time.
Now I can’t find any caterpillars, and as I look I am lamenting not holding onto the last one. Or, rather, not realizing it was the last one. We mark so much in our lives: birthdays, anniversaries, the days friends and family members died. We step outside after a hot summer and realize the weather has changed, another season has ended, the earth keeps on turning as it swings its way around the sun. We look in the mirror and notice the gray hair, the lines etching themselves into our faces.
But it’s hard to mark the last time you did something. One day you put your child down and never picked them up again. Chances are you’ve already seen some friend for the last time and just aren’t aware of it yet. We all know some stars are still giving off light long after they’ve died, but their light takes so long to reach us we might never notice when it finally winks out. My younger daughter just came home from college, and I can’t help but wonder, as she drives away, if I’ll ever get to pick her up again.
I wonder if I’ll ever talk to David again. If I should call Floyd after his surgery. If Phil, whose son I went to high school with, will ever breathe again without hearing the wonder of his own failed heart.
I wonder if I’ll know the last time Jenn and I make love. The last time I’ll hear my father’s voice. The time my daughter will drive off and I’ll never see her car come swinging around the corner again. She makes fun of me because I am always standing at the door waiting when she arrives, and I haven’t yet figured out how to explain to her what would happen to me if she never did.
What I do know is that yesterday Jenn released the last butterfly. I can’t find any more caterpillars, but we stand in the backyard while the last leaves fall around us. The backyard looks like a coin pool, the fallen leaves all red and yellow and gold. The wind feels like the last warm breath of summer. Jenn takes the last butterfly out of its cage. She holds it perhaps a bit longer than she needs to, but I know she is saying goodbye. When she lets it go we watch it wind its way upward, tiny wings beating against a giant backdrop of blue sky. In a moment one of us will say “That was the last one,” but for now we watch it go, until finally it is so small I’m not sure if I can still see it, or if I can only remember what it looked like.
When I first read Steve Edwards’s essay “The Last Cricket,” it struck me in the way the best essay always do—I wish I would have written that, I thought to myself. It’s a (seemingly) simple premise that’s beautifully rendered, the kind of essay that through language and image and idea, moves me. I wanted to write this essay because I identified with young Edwards, lying awake in his room. I identified with older Edwards, realizing that, once again, he had missed the last cricket. That once again the wintergreen stars had been moved toward winter by the turning of the earth.
But every essay of Steve’s I’ve read has hope in it. He captures so well the melancholy that sets in us all at times, but ends with the idea that we can, if we’re lucky, look for whatever it is we’ve lost. “October,” Edwards writes, “comes along with its dazzling, razor-edged contrasts—warmth and cold, light and dark, color and gray— and other stories start singing. By the time I remember my intention to listen for the last cricket, the silence is already everywhere. Come the spring, I think, I’ll listen for the first.” Reading Steve's essay made my own start singing. I hope you'll listen.
Paul Crenshaw is the author of the essay collections This One Will Hurt You, published by The Ohio State University Press, and This We’ll Defend, from the University of North Carolina Press. His third collection, on the Cold War culture of the 1980s, is forthcoming from The Ohio State Press. Other work has appeared in Best American Essays, Best American Nonrequired Reading, The Pushcart Prize, Oxford American, Glimmer Train, Tin House, and Brevity.