The Year of the Firefly

This mysterious creature illuminates one man’s past and makes his present even sweeter.

By Derek Burnett
Also published in Reader's Digest Magazine September 2013

FlowersRei Ohara

January
I’m having my regular Sunday- evening phone call with my parents. As usual, the winter is mild in North Carolina, but my parents have had an old-fashioned cold spell, with subzero temperatures and a bitter wind. Dad tells me that Duke has died. Normally Duke would have been in the barn when Dad went out to do his chores, but one frigid evening, he was not there. Under pinprick stars, Dad walked through the pasture calling for his old horse and found him stretched out on the frozen brook. He had likely slipped on the ice and succumbed to the cold. I can hear in Dad’s voice the guilt and loss. Dad tells me that he will not be replacing Duke.

That gives me pause. It’s part of a larger pattern, scarcely detectable unless one takes the long view. The farm is steadily shrinking—no more beef, no more dairy, no more pigs, fewer horses, smaller garden. My parents talk of slowing down. Right now it’s mostly just talk. I sure can’t imagine it. And that’s a problem—for me. Slow down they will, and part of my job as an adult is to come to grips with that.

July
The kids are a year older, and the backyard is once again festive with the cold green lights of fireflies. I catch the first one of the season and pass it to a delighted Stillman. There is no place I would prefer to be, nothing I would rather be doing.

Was my childhood as idyllic as I recall? Perhaps not. But the love outweighs the rest, and with any luck, it will be the same for my children.

At one point in my life, I made hopeful but doomed forays into Buddhism but could not reconcile myself to its principal doctrine of detachment. I can see that an enlightened detachment from my parents would serve me well as they begin their inevitable decline. And yet I cling: to my parents, to my wife and children, to the thrills and magic of this world, calculating that the pain of loss will have been worth the joy of attachment. Still, one of the Buddha’s lovely images has fixed itself upon my mind: He likens reincarnation to the passing of a flame from one candle to the next; the source of life is the same down through the generations, but it’s no longer the same flame once it has passed from one candle to another.

That’s what I’m doing here, I finally understand, as the little pure light of each firefly moves from my hand to those of my young children: simply passing the flame that is briefly mine to hold. Passing a firefly off to my children takes on a sudden and poignant weight.

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