Marlene’s Monarchs unifies a community through transformation.
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In the last months of her life, Marlene Payne was in and out of the hospital. In a time when many things were hard, Payne found a surprising source of comfort. The chrysalides (cocoons) of monarch butterflies, raised by a neighbor in Berea, Kentucky went in and out of the hospital with her. Her daughter, Deborah Payne, said they were significant companions on her mother’s journey.
“The experience of watching a butterfly emerge from its chrysalis was tremendously transformative for my mother, particularly as she spent hours observing it from her hospital bed,” said Payne. “In a person’s journey with cancer, his or her body starts to transform, often in challenging and painful ways. The monarch chrysalis reminds people that this transformation will bring new life, or entry into the wider life.”
Even healthy people are awed by seeing a monarch butterfly emerge from its shell after days of apparent stillness. When it is time, the pearlescent green chrysalis bejeweled with gold, turns transparent, revealing glimpses of the orange and black butterfly inside. When the husk cracks open, the butterfly emerges all at once, but is not yet ready to fly. Its wings are crinkly and its body has swollen; it must pump fluid from its torso to form the wings for flight. For those transitory minutes, it is completely vulnerable.
In the summer of 2016, Payne was still reeling from the death of her mother that spring. She kept thinking of the power of the monarchs in her mother’s last months and wanted to share that metamorphosis with others in tender spots in their own lives. She began Marlene’s Monarchs, a living tribute to her mother that shares chrysalides with those amid their own personal transformations.
Payne was inspired and encouraged by other community members who were already raising monarchs from eggs to butterflies. Some of them contributed to Marlene’s Monarchs, including Nancy Naumer, a friend of the Paynes. She has helped raised chrysalides for the project all three years. Naumer has seen firsthand the powerful way they bring transformation. “Every single person who witnesses a monarch emergence is just transfixed by the everyday miracle of it. They get a childlike sense of wonder,” said Naumer. “It has the element of the divine.”
That first year, Payne reached out to the University of Kentucky’s Markey Cancer Center where her mother received treatment for her pancreatic cancer. Payne and her partners shared over 100 chrysalides with patients, caregivers, and staff from doctors to custodians at the center. She believed that everyone there, not just the patients, had been touched by cancer and were in need of healing. It was a significant event, with patients naming their chrysalides. The doctors began to notice a marked increase of smiles on their rounds.
In the summer of 2018, Marlene’s Monarchs gave over 300 chrysalides to those in hospice care, addiction recovery, and foster care. Staff members at Liberty Place Recovery Center for Women reported that the women at the center saw parallels between the life cycle of the insects and the process of recovery. One of the patients relayed that although her disease made her feel trapped, through recovery she was able to spread her wings and become the most beautiful version of herself. Watching the butterflies evolve was a tangible reminder of the beauty that was to come.
Naumer and other butterfly “parents” had still more chrysalides after delivering them to organizations, so they began sharing them with individuals all over Berea. Anyone who as much as breathed the word “butterfly” found themselves hosting an iconic plastic container with the suspended green jewel. For a few weeks in Berea, they were everywhere: schools, businesses, homes, and restaurants. “It unified a lot of people in the community,” said Naumer. “After all, we are all on a transformation journey.”
Facebook and Instagram feeds were full of pictures and videos of homegrown butterflies. For some people, it was a tribute to their friend Marlene Payne. For others, it was the chance to have a small part in this everyday miracle. In the emergence of so many butterflies, you could almost feel the increase of hope in the community.
“Marlene’s Monarchs has shown me that there is joy beyond the grief of cancer, pain, addiction, or loss. Remembering my mother in such a living way is my greatest blessing,” said Payne. “These small creatures have no idea what grace they’ve brought our community.”