When Zach was a toddler, probably three, he used to carry around a copy of The Very Hungry Caterpillar. When I would come home from school, we would often read about the caterpillar who ate endlessly on his way to becoming a beautiful butterfly. Perhaps I loved the book as much as Zach did.
It is hard to believe it was three decades ago that Steve and I read that book over and over to Zach—and I still remember the story. It was such a busy time of life for our family. Zach was an on-the-go youngster. Matt was seven and caught up with Legos and soccer. I was immersed in teaching high school, and Steve worked endless hours trying to launch a small business. Then we hit a bump. A hard one.
During this period of our lives, my young husband used to walk across the empty grassy fields to the east of the small home we had built near an industrial park where he had rented a small space and started a machine shop. His intention was to create his dream job, and he loved designing and building machines. His bliss.
But one morning it was far from blissful. Steve hiked across the field, and he was greeted at the shop door by Devon, his foreman whom he had known for a few years and trusted. The two always started the day with a progress meeting. Not today. Devon met Steve outside and announced to Steve that he was quitting to start his own business effective immediately. He announced without hesitation that he planned to be Steve’s biggest competitor and that he already had plenty of business lined up to make a go of it. Business, of course, that would have belonged to Steve’s shop.
Steve marched through the day in a fog, doing his best to guide the shop while carrying on with his management tasks. That evening he made his way across the grassy field to our home. In a bit of shock. As usual he was met by little Zach waving the caterpillar book up at him. And he read the story to Zach for the umpteenth time. After the kids were in bed, he explained to me how much of a nightmare this had created for him—and for us. That evening he sunk into his comfy chair. Despondent. Still in shock. Sitting there he could not imagine what he would do. Take Devon to court? Throw in the towel on this business venture? Go back to McDonnell Douglas? It would be hard to go on without his lead and someone he had trusted. Someone who left with not only his shop’s business but with many of the shop’s tools. For a few days he was stuck in the muddle and the “not knowing what to do.”
I remember the following weeks all too well. It was January and dark. Oh, so dark. Bills were coming at us faster than money. I was so grateful for my teaching paycheck. Steve was working all day and often much of the night. Sometimes he failed to take his turn reading the caterpillar story to Zach, and somewhere during those days, Zach tired of this book and moved on to another. Steve rarely talked about his struggle and while his situation weighed me down, the weight must have been unbearable for him.
It was well into spring when Steve came home early from work one evening and announced we were going out to dinner. The boys chose the spot, Nello’s Pizza. What followed was a family celebration with Steve explaining he had burrowed his way forward. He told us how a company in Mesa who had one of their airbag machines “kill” a crash dummy, had asked Steve to redesign their faulty machine. When Steve’s new design worked successfully, Talley hired our little company to make similar machines. At last Steve had a clear intention and a wonderful new vision of what our little business could bring to this world. That evening over ooey-gooey-cheesy pizza, Steve explained to the boys how important it is to consider all the possibilities in life. “There are so many possibilities,” he explained.
Zach clapped, which he did often as a child. “Just like the caterpillar!” he said, and we all laughed. At the time, it seemed like Zach often interpreted the world as working like the hungry aterpillar from his beloved child’s book.
Indeed, it was sometime later, when I realized my small son’s wisdom and the power of the metaphor in the book called The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Like all of us, the colorful little caterpillar makes his way forward, eating his way through apples and leaves and then junk food which almost does him in. But this small, amazing creature rises up and spins his cocoon, and prepares for change. After his long struggle, and only after this journey, did the caterpillar grow into something better and far more beautiful—a butterfly. I would have to stay Steve’s little business had the same wonderful transformation.
This is what I wish for all of us. The ability to take all of our hardships, all of the unexpected ups and downs that come to all of us, and to grow from them. To change and to find ourselves better for it.
Happy New Year. May 2024 be your best year yet.