Loretta Downs

Loretta Downs with a monarch butterfly and milkweed plants in her bloom-happy Bucktown garden. (Alex Garcia/Chicago Tribune photo / July 22, 2010)

If you were to catch Loretta Downs loping through the shoulder-high milkweed along her alley fence come the end of June, you might not realize she was searching for something so sacred it leaves her speechless.

What she's searching for, on the underside of those tonguelike leaves, is smaller than a pinhead, and what emerges from that itty-bitty white dot would surely drown in a raindrop.

You'd know it, though, once the miracle of the monarch flipped through to the last page of its unlikely story.

You'd know it by the stained-glass wings of orange and black with drips of white, and the thousands upon thousands of butterflies that flutter in the monarch's migratory river. It's one that stretches from the old-growth oyamel fir forests in the mountains of central Mexico across 2,000 miles -- with a scheduled stop, year after year, in Downs' urban milkweed patch -- to southern Canada, along the shores of Lake Ontario and beyond.

The milkweed meadow -- planted hard against the pocked asphalt and trash cans of an unnamed Chicago alley -- and the once-dirt lot that sidles up to Downs' Bucktown two-flat is a most essential way station for the most uncanny butterfly with so much wisdom tucked deep inside its jade-green chrysalis, the transformation chamber that dangles from a leaf, where striped caterpillar unfolds into winged beauty, catching drifts of wind.

"It's a mystery, and we don't get so close to these kinds of mysteries," says Downs, who has been raising and releasing monarchs since 2002. "To watch this unfolding, it's a miracle. There is no better symbol for transformation, for the mystery of death."

When the jade of the chrysalis gives way to the orange- and black-winged butterfly, as it somersaults from upside-down cocoon to something altogether new, "my heartbeat speeds up," she says. "I'm watching this rebirth."

With the release of each and every monarch, as she allows that newly hatched pair of wings to take to the wind, "I think about what that first flight must feel like," she says. "I really think that's what the moment of death must feel like, when at last we are free of our bodies, which very often at the end have become hard to be in."

Downs, who is 61 and a certified end-of-life care practitioner, talks easily about death, intermingling freely the metaphors of monarchs and life after death. For nearly three decades, until she retired in 1998, she worked in sales at the Merchandise Mart, and as the AIDS epidemic took so many of the ones she loved in the 1980s and '90s, she never shied from those friendships -- or those hard goodbyes.

But it wasn't till she spotted a windowsill filled with glass jars at a friend's house that she realized how the migrating butterfly might deepen and propel her understanding of the mystery of all those deaths.

When Downs asked her friend what was with all the old mustard and pickle jars, she got her first lesson in monarchs. And before she packed up for home that day, she had in her keep a couple caterpillars and a stalk of milkweed, a must-have ingredient for monarch caterpillars.

"I fed them, and they grew up. They went into their chrysalis right here on the kitchen counter," she said. "I was sitting here having coffee as I watched it, right before my eyes. They were my pets. Every day I watched. It is such a sacred meditation."

She was hooked. She started scouring empty lots near her house, gathering up all the milkweed leaves with the telltale white pin dots -- the monarch's egg -- and carrying them to her kitchen nursery. Back in 2002, she hatched only two. Every year since, her crop has multiplied; last year she raised and released 270 monarchs.

Along the way, she has planted her own stand of milkweed and with it, a side yard filled with what she calls "a tavern for the butterflies, they go there for a cocktail." Monarchs by the dozens alight upon her buddleia, purple coneflower, black-eyed Susan and bee balm.

Downs began bringing boxes of chrysalises and butterflies to the Fairmont HealthCare and Rehabilitation Centre, the North Side nursing home where her mother died in 2006. Believing deeply that nursing home residents deserve to die in the serenity of a hushed and tranquil room, surrounded by ones they love, she worked to create such a room at the Fairmont. It opened five months before her mother died, and Downs named it The Chrysalis Room.

Now president of the Chicago End-of-Life Care Coalition, she is leading an effort to open Chrysalis Rooms in nursing homes across the country.

Downs never forgets the ones whose hands she has held as they took their dying breaths. For every one who has died, she has planted a perennial in her butterfly garden: forget-me-nots, bleeding hearts, lots and lots of lilies.

Come summertime, when the stained-glass wings dot her garden, Downs can't help but be washed over by the peace that all those monarchs bring.

"The garden is a healing space," she says, stepping along a pea-gravel path that winds through an archipelago of butterfly-beckoning beds. "I come here to heal."