by Marilyn Maple, Ph.D.
The woman who went to college to be a missionary in Borneo never brought Christianity to the headhunters, but she brought solace and understanding to thousands of terminally ill children and their parents.
Her willingness to talk to sick kids about death—even when their parents couldn't bear to—led to Marilyn Maple writing On the Wings of a Butterfly, which describes a young cancer patient's friendship with a caterpillar. As the caterpillar prepares for transformation into a butterfly, the two share their fears and concerns about the unknown.
Just reissued, On the Wings of a Butterfly is intended to encourage discussion about death as a normal part of life. It grew out of Maple's friendships with several children who participated in a series of film documentaries she created for the parents of terminally ill children. Two years in the making, the series addressed such issues as accepting death and letting go of children, topics that allowed Maple to see some incredibly brave and strong children and parents.
"There is no one more courageous than a dying child," she pointed out. And, she added, some of the parents she met were amazing in their ability to be positive and supportive of their children.
Maple didn't start out to make films and write books about death. She spent several years in the media and in advertising and in 1967, with a move to Gainesville, Florida, was hired to make historical films for school children. In 1970 she moved to a job in medical media, where she explored a variety of film techniques, matching message and audience to medium. She made everything from animated shorts—what most of us call cartoons—on topics such as safety and drug abuse to MTV-style videos for teenagers on nutrition.
Along the way, she co-founded the University of Florida Medical School's Arts in Medicine program, which taught the terminally and chronically ill to express their pain and fear through painting, poetry, dance, music and even cooking. Research in these activities, now called psychoneuroimmunology, showed that people who could express their emotions have stronger immune systems.
Maple had no shortage of ways to express her emotions. Born to actors—her mother was her father's leading lady—she attended what is now Washington, D.C.'s Duke Ellington School of the Performing Arts. She studied piano as a young woman, painted and, after earning her doctorate in mid-life, began an MFA program in theater arts. Just months after she retired from the University of Florida, she was off to Greece with a student and faculty group that performed Shakespeare's The Tempest both in Athens and on the island of Spetses. She returned home to have one of her own plays, Riverbank, produced both in Gainesville by a community group and then in Valdez, Alaska at the Last Frontier Theatre Conference competition featuring playwright Edward Albee.
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