The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

My son loved the cicadas. I’m finally ready to love them again.

The author's son, Andrew, born 17 years after Jack, her first son, who died in 2011. (Anna Whiston-Donaldson)

I was a baby when Brood X cicadas first emerged in my lifetime.

Throughout childhood, when I would find a discarded exoskeleton on a tree branch or hear a loud cicada call, my mother would tell me that the smattering of insects was nothing compared to what was coming.

The next time, I was 17, about to graduate from high school. The riotous buzzing filled our old farmhouse in Northern Virginia. I was far less interested in the science of them, than whether they would interrupt my sun-tanning on a towel in the yard.

They clung to the screen door, making our house seem dark at midday, and I tried not to disturb them as I gently opened it and slipped through. In the last heady spring and summer of my childhood, my greatest concern about the cicadas was whether one would get stuck in my 1980s hair spray during graduation on the football field. When you are 17, life is all about you, and the strange life cycle of a largely underground insect is barely noteworthy.

The next time they came, in 2004, I was a young mother with a 5-year-old and an almost 3-year-old, and by then I’d been disabused of any notion that life was all about me. The days in the farmhouse were long gone, my mother having died the very next summer. So great were my children’s needs and so intense their emotions, it often felt like there was barely anything left of me, let alone the 17-year-old I’d once been. Young Jack and Margaret had stolen my heart and my sleep, and we spent relentlessly long days looking for ways to pass the time as my husband worked almost nonstop.

Friends, mostly transplants from outside the D.C. area, saw the cicadas as a frightening display they’d rather avoid. But for me, it soon became clear that not only could my small brood coexist peacefully with Brood X, we’d gained a free entertainment source. Five-year-old Jack was particularly enthusiastic. He began collecting the delicate exoskeletons in a spaghetti sauce jar — the perfect project for a gentle kid, for if he was too rough, they’d crumble under his touch.

We would watch the red-eyed insects push out of their exoskeletons and take flight. The kids wanted to know if it hurt and how long they would live. I didn’t know, but we researched together. We read recipes for chocolate-covered cicadas, but never took the plunge. We grew used to the noise and scooped mounds of rotting carcasses off the driveway with a snow shovel.

Brood awakening: Cicadas emerging across D.C. area

A few times Jack cupped a live cicada in his hands and brought it home in the minivan from the playground so it could enjoy a change of scenery in our yard. We bought him a cicada T-shirt and he wore it for years, a commemoration of this intense, fascinating, yet fleeting time of early childhood.

As we learned more about cicadas, I pondered what I saw as their odd, grim lives.

It sounded so futile. Why would you survive 17 years underground only to sing, mate, lay eggs and then die? Certainly there was a design to it all, to keep the species going, but to me it seemed pathetic.

I thought ahead to where we would be the next time they came around. It was hard to imagine being 51. I’d be an empty-nester, living life on my own terms, with no one interrupting my showers. At ages 19 and 22, would my grown kids even remember our long cicada hours?

But only a few years later, at age 12, Jack drowned in a creek, just down the long driveway from where we spent our days. A flash flood, a group of young kids — it was a perfect storm for tragedy. The news called it a 100-year flood, the likes of which no one in our town had witnessed in their lifetime.

Jack wouldn’t be there to see the cicadas again. Or go to high school. Or get married.

In my grief and despair I focused on the futility of his short life. It felt like a waste. A bad plan. Didn’t he deserve more? The why’s of his short life story nearly destroyed me until I eventually opened up my clenched fists that held on to my anger and need for answers and let love and mystery blow them gently away. Emerging from the darkness, which felt like my own grave as a mother and a person, took time and was fed by my ability to help grieving people through my writing and demystify grief for others. I had to shed my own expectations of how life would be, and learn how to accept life as it is. And joy returned.

In the years since Jack’s death, when I would see a random cicada, it was with a mixture of pain and sweetness. How could I forget his darling smile and big brown eyes, his gently cupping a cicada in his hands? Even with healing and hope, I joked that I might need to go far away when Brood X returned, so intertwined were cicadas with my memories of my son.

What I didn’t know was that a surprise pregnancy as I cruised into menopause would mean we’d have another 5-year-old brown-eyed boy when Brood X came again.

People are not interchangeable. Our Andrew’s birth does not negate how much we love and miss Jack. But just as Jack’s death turned us upside-down in the worst way, Andrew’s birth did it in the best. I never imagined I’d be out in a driveway again with a little boy, watching, learning and — as much as I love them — trying to keep a cicada from landing on me.

Parenting again is both exhausting and wonder-filled. I’m glad there are iPads now.

I do not think life here is futile, but I do find it beautiful and strange. And in the way that one day at home with children can seem to last a lifetime, yet 17 years pass in a blink, I ponder the mysterious rhythms of time.

One hundred-year floods. Seventeen-year cicadas. My mother’s death at 46, and my becoming a mother again at exactly that age. Five-year-old boys born precisely 17 years apart. I make no proclamations for others, but somehow I can believe there is a design to it all, even if I don’t understand it.

So these 2021 Brood-X Cicadas? We’re here for them.

And yes, we bought a T-shirt.

Anna Whiston-Donaldson is a writer whose memoir “Rare Bird: A Memoir of Loss and Love” and children’s book “A Hug From Heaven” help those dealing with grief.

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