After the fireflies

We are sitting on the porch, Jessica and I, watching the fireflies. We do this every summer night, poignant for me, a happy tradition for her. Last year, at this time, the neurosurgeon was telling us about an unexpected finding on Jessica’s MRI and proposing what sounded to me then, and still does, like a terrifyingly high-risk surgical procedure.

Twelve months later, and nothing has changed, and everything has.

After a series of follow-up tests and exams, the neurosurgeon, who still calls it a “surgical intervention” and not “one of the seven nightmares of Jennifer’s life,” delivers the news. The intervention/nightmare  has not solved the problem, as we had expected it would.

“This is a surprise,” he says, and doesn’t seem to know what else to say. “Usually . . . .”

Yes. Usually. In the universe other people live in. Damn! I think. Still not invited to where all the cool people hang out.

So I tell Jessica that the surgery didn’t do what it was supposed to do, and she takes the news calmly, the way she always takes the news.  I used to think she didn’t know how to judge, didn’t understand the implications, had no locus of comparison. But in truth she understands perfectly well, and is at peace in a way I will never be.

Her calmness steadies me, and after taking one agonizing peek into the future, I turn back to the present. And so the present finds us on the patio, watching fireflies.

There aren’t that many tonight, and pretty soon Jessica’s attention turns to the moon, low in the sky.

“What does the full moon do?” she asks.

Tides, I remember, but that is where my memory fails. Which phase of the moon is strongest? How? Why? Things she will ask questions about and for which I have no answers and no encyclopedia ready at hand. If I say I don’t know, she will want to know why, and I will have to promise to look things up, and frankly I’m already exhausted.

“ ‘It makes the night safe for hunted things,’ ” I say, quoting from a book I read a long time ago.

She nods matter-of-factly.  “That’s because the moon’s so bright.”

I look at her, and I wonder how she knows about the dark of night, and predators, and hunted things. Probably Harry Potter, I think. Or maybe the cat-and-mouse game she plays with her disease, trying to outwit it, hiding from it, knowing it’s always there, stalking her.

“So that is a fact,” she says.

“That the full moon is bright?” I ask. “Yes, that’s a fact.”

“I like the moon. That is an opinion.”

“Yes,” I say, not sure whether she is asking for confirmation or politely informing me.

“Is there a song about full moons?” she asks.

In a novel, my tendency to quote from poetry, fiction, medical treatises, travel  brochures, and popular songs would be the kind of charming character trait that would be used to distinguish me from the other minor characters in the subplot, but I suspect in real life it is extremely tiresome. Jess never lets on if it is, though, and, like tonight, she usually humors me.

“Indeed there is,” I say, and I sing, “ ‘There’s a full moon over Tulsa, I hope that it’s shining on you . . . .’ ”

She listens, and when I run out of words, she says, “And what is the name of that song?”

“ ‘You’re the Reason God Made Oklahoma.’ David Frizzell and I can’t remember the woman who sang it with him.”

“We can look it up,” she says, and before she starts thinking of other things we can look up, I say, “Sometimes when the moon is this bright it shines through my bedroom window and keeps me up late.”

“Not tonight,” she says. “The moon is in the wrong place.”

That is true; it won’t be shining through my window tonight.

“It’s . . . .” She hesitates and gestures. “That direction.”

“Southeast,” I say.

“Yes.” She points. “That is south. That is west. And that,” she points again, “it is the east.”

“ ‘And Juliet is the sun,’ ” I say, because I can’t help it.

She pauses for my interjection and then repeats the directions: “South, west, east. I do not know where the north is.”

“You are the north,” I say, and she smiles her smile, the one that means she is well-pleased.

“That is a metaphor,” she says.

“Yes,” I say, and then I have to add, “Of course, all words ultimately are; they are signifiers that can only represent the signified . . . .”

She listens patiently, the smile still on her face, maybe thinking of hunted things or full moons or directions.

When I wind down, she says, “That is a good story, Mom.”

Which is what she says whenever I explain anything: the big bang theory, evolution, hypopigmentation, the overbooking of flights, and why the starlings wake me up every morning with their fighting.

“Thank you,” I say.

James Hillman, the post-Jungian psychologist, once said, “Relationships are containers for the craziness,” and I’ve always liked that line, but just now it is not a quote I need to speak but a thing I am experiencing. For what I feel right now is Jessica’s love, as solid and steady as she is. Our relationship, patient and sure and true, keeps the craziness in check, at bay, out there. Here, on the porch, it is quiet and safe.

“We should have ice cream now,” Jessica says.

And indeed we should.


  1. It amazes me that despite what the universe has stolen from our daughters–the magnitude of how much TSC has taken–they continue to give of themselves freely and openly. I often find myself thinking about what has been taken from my daughter–what TSC has taken from us. Thank you for reminding me what we have been given. Thank you for reminding me that our children give in a magnitude 100 fold greater than anything that has been taken from them. Brighter than the light of the fullest moon and more satisfying than an enormous scoop of ice cream on a sticky summer's night is the love of our children.

    I'm so sorry Jessica's surgery wasn't a success. I wish you some of the peaceful steadfast with which Jessica faces the future.

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