Remember the Fireflies

One of my earliest memories is running around my great-grandmother’s backyard catching fireflies. Grandma Marie lived in Virginia, and, at least once a year, we would make the nine-hour journey to visit her and my Grandad Jessie; it was the best part of summer. There isn’t much for two, energetic children to do in a small town in Virginia. We had to find ways to entertain ourselves. We played in the local park, listened to our grandparent’s stories, or helped Grandma Marie bake her famous cinnamon apples. Anything to pass the time until evening. In the evening, my grandmother’s humble little house became something magical: hundreds of small insects would bring the night sky within reach. The yard, which would normally be consumed by the darkness of night, was lit by a sea of fireflies. My brother and I were fascinated by the bugs who carried stars on their backs. Of course, we later learned that this was not the case, but children are simple. At the time, this seemed the simplest solution to an unanswerable question. We would spend hours jumping, climbing, and crawling to try and catch the little stars.
“You know you will catch them easier if you stay still. Let them come to you. They are scared of you. They don’t know who you are. Just be still.” My grandmother said each time we complained about the difficulty of our task. We rarely listened. One night, I managed to catch two of the little critters at once. The glow could be seen through the careful dome I had made out of my hands. I ran back through the dark towards the house.
“Look! Look!” I cried as I ran toward the green rocking bench where my grandmother sat. I said it with such urgency that my grandmother turned with the reflexes only a mother could possess. Her face softened when she saw my glowing hands.
“Would you believe me” I asked, “if I told you that I caught a falling star?” I held up my hands, showing her the flashing green light.
“My!” she smiled down at me, “How did you manage that?” Eager to go catch more, I didn’t want to take the time to explain my theory about stars and fireflies.
“It fell from the sky, and I caught it” I replied nonchalantly. It was a small fib, which I knew was wrong. I was sure, given the circumstances, Jesus would make an exception.
“Well then, you should make a wish and let the star go. That way, it can carry your wish up to heaven.” She said. I did just that.
Years later, Grandma Marie moved into our house in Georgia. My mother explained to me that she was not the same woman that we had once known. Now a widow, time had begun to slip away from Grandma Marie. Her timeline was like a ball of yarn that had twisted and turned and was now hopelessly tangled. She didn’t remember the park, or the apples, or the fireflies. Most days, she did not remember who I was. It was our worst fear realized; the illness that had claimed her husband would now claim his beloved wife.
When she came to us, she had only been sick a short time, and the illness manifested itself in ways that could almost be considered endearing. My mother’s favorite dish set had a painted farm scene on it. A happy farmer stood in front of a charming cottage smiling at the happy animals painted on the cups and plates. Grandma Marie would often point to the farmhouse and ask, “who lives here?” We would smile and respond; she loved those dishes.
The severity of her memory loss differed from moment to moment. Like the fireflies she had helped me catch, her memory seemed to momentarily spark only to quickly dim again. One night she woke screaming for a husband who she thought had abandoned her.
“Where is Jessie?” she cried. “Why would my family leave me with strangers?” It was a daily difficult decision whether or not to tell her that her husband had passed away. On one hand, it seemed cruel to allow her to believe that she had been abandoned; however, it seemed equally cruel to force her to continually relive and mourn he husband’s passing.
“Jessie isn’t here. Go to sleep, and he will come get you tomorrow,” was the response whispered by my father in the early hours of the morning. He often slept downstairs with her in case there was an incident. Eventually, she settled only to wake up crying again, convinced that she had been left with strangers. It was the first of many long nights. This is typical of Alzheimer’s patients we were told by every resource we could find. The slow descent into darkness and confusion was not an easy one. Often patients would suffer from confusion, and it may be difficult to convince them that they are safe and with family.
As the disease progressed, thoughts and memories seemed to tumble out of my grandmother’s head in the same instant that she tried to recall them. Like discarded pieces of paper, her room was littered with memories that she no longer felt any connection to. Photographs were of strangers; handwritten letters inspired no interest. Certainly, she would say with the utmost conviction, we were not her family. As she lost more and more of these memories, I began to wonder if my grandmother was not correct in her statement. Maybe we were strangers. I certainly saw nothing of the woman who had made me cinnamon apples and who had taught me to make wishes on fireflies.
It was difficult to see my grandmother slowly disappear. Her body stayed behind long after her mind had left her, and she had to be supervised at all times. As she became more limited, so did we. In some ways, I resented my mother for insisting that she live with us.
My parents both worked until evening, leaving me responsible for the care of my grandmother during the day. Something I appreciate now but resented then. I loved my grandmother but felt suffocated by the weight of the responsibility. To compensate for my restlessness, I would often sit my grandmother in front of the large bay windows and go exploring outside. One of my favorite activities was jumping on the trampoline in our back yard as my grandmother watched from her place at the window. Towards the end, my grandmother did not even remember her own name, but she always remembered the girl who jumped on the trampoline.
Grandma Marie was not able to live out the rest of her life in our home. Eventually, her condition required constant medical supervision, and she was taken to a nursing home thirty minutes from our house. We visited her often, and she would ask about the girl who jumped on the trampoline.
“I’m right here.” I would say and take her hands in mine. She would smile, and we would talk for a few minutes before she would ask me again who I was.
Eventually, death came for her like sleep to the weary. I was 17 and in my first year of college. For the first time in years, my family made the nine hour drive up to Virginia to attend the funeral. Her obituary didn’t do her justice. It focused a great deal on where she had lived, how she had died, and where she would be buried. Had I written the obituary, it would have read, “Aurelia Marie Mullins, beloved by all, was an expert at baking cinnamon apples and was excellent at catching fireflies. She loved painted farms on dinner plates and loved to hold her granddaughter’s hand. How and why she died doesn’t matter much.”