JAMESTOWN, R.I. — It had been a week since the O’Donnell family had buried their youngest child.
Fifteen-year-old Keri O’Donnell and her older sister were going to the beach with friends on a hot July morning in 2010 when a tire on their minivan blew out, and they crashed off the highway.
Hundreds had paid their respects at Keri’s wake and funeral. And then, after that exhausting, surreal week, her father, Frank O’Donnell, went into their backyard in North Providence alone, thinking about her as he tossed a ball for their dog.
He saw a monarch butterfly alight on the side of the house, its unmistakable orange-and-black wings flashing quick. Then, it was still, remaining near O’Donnell for a while, a small moment of peace in a terrible time.
“I’ve never seen a butterfly stay still that long,” O’Donnell said.
He wasn’t a superstitious man, but there was something about those wings of bright orange, one of Keri’s favorite colors, and the butterfly’s soft presence that made him feel like she was with him.
O’Donnell knew that some see butterflies as “visitors,” signs of a lost loved one. When he posted on Facebook about the monarch, two friends recommended that he plant butterfly bushes and butterfly weed to attract the insects. One said she’d done so in her own garden, because the butterflies made her think of her late father.
Soon afterward, someone gave the family an angel statue for a garden, and O’Donnell decided to turn part of the yard into a memorial garden for Keri. As he worked on it, a blue jay leapt onto a branch overhead and squawked at him.
The perky, bossy bird reminded O’Donnell of Keri. He is a local comedian and performer, and she shared his passion for the stage. She loved to dance and sing, and demanded to be the center of attention since she was big enough to hold a microphone.
So, O’Donnell decided to also welcome blue jays to Keri’s garden. He set up a feeder for them, and other birds began appearing.
“They brought color to the garden,” he said, “when there was no color anywhere else.”
Grief creates a hole that’s always there, he said. “Sometimes, it’s small. Sometimes, it’s big,” O’Donnell said. “It’s kind of like your iris. When there’s a lot of light around, it goes small, but it’s still there. It never shuts. And then when it gets dark, it’s wide open. It never, ever goes away.”
Although he had never been an observer of nature, the garden and its visitors became a solace after Keri’s death.
“I guess I’ve become more spiritual, not necessarily in a religious sense, but you know, nature does a lot of stuff,” O’Donnell said. “And, I honestly do believe that she’s around. Every once in a while, you’ve got like a little tingle and you know, it’s just like, somebody is paying attention.”
And the monarchs were special. When the family established the Keri Anne O’Donnell Memorial Fund, which gives scholarships for children to study performing arts, they put a monarch in the logo.
“Monarchs, to me, are Keri,” O’Donnell said. “I love seeing the other butterflies too, but the monarchs are what reminds me of her, just because of that one monarch that visited the week after her funeral.”
They are tiny and fragile, living as butterflies for only a few weeks before they die. And despite their fragility, the Eastern monarchs make the 3,000-mile migration to the high-elevation oyamel fir forests of the Transvolcanic Range of central Mexico each year. “Against all odds, when you think about it,” O’Donnell said. “It’s kind of amazing that they can do it at all.”
As he learned about the butterflies, he wanted to help them survive.
The monarch butterflies are edging close to extinction. Although the insects qualify as a federally endangered species, the US Fish and Wildlife Service decided last year against adding them to the list. So many other species needed protection more.
When the O’Donnells moved to Jamestown last year, he decided to do more than just watch for butterflies. He grew milkweed and reached out to Monarch Watch, which sent him about three dozen monarch larvae, and collected four caterpillars from milkweed in Keri’s garden and a garden planted by a friend for her late daughter, Kiki.
In his garden shed, O’Donnell set up a mesh enclosure to protect the larvae and fed them stalks of milkweed and butterfly weed. They grew into caterpillars, their cage warm from the sunlight streaming through the shed windows. O’Donnell hung a photo of Keri across from the cage, and watched as the caterpillars slowly formed chrysalises.
In a few weeks, 27 emerged as butterflies. O’Donnell released them into Keri’s garden to feed on the butterfly bushes and fly away. Then, he harvested the milkweed pods and realized he had many seeds.
This January, O’Donnell offered to send milkweed seeds from Keri’s garden to anyone who wanted them. So far, he has had a couple hundred requests from all over New England, and as far away as North Carolina, Ohio, and Oregon.
“I’m not saving the world, but I don’t want to see the monarchs disappear. They’re just cool,” O’Donnell said. “Their population is dwindling, but the more milkweed that’s out there, I’d say the odds are good that we can help them.”
He likes to imagine the seeds from Keri’s garden sprouting into milkweed plants all over the country, feeding the progeny of the butterflies that have helped him in his grief.
He will never stop missing Keri. This project, for him, is a way of keeping her alive.
There’s no way of knowing whether any of the monarchs that will arrive this summer at Keri’s garden are the ones he raised. He’ll just be glad to see them again.
And he’ll look for that flutter of orange in the summer light, and feel as if his daughter has come home.
To request milkweed seeds from Keri’s garden, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org