Tag Archives: death

When Fireflies Dance

This is the lazy man’s way to blog: recycling homework. While I am not allowed to recycle homework for my classes, I can do it on my blog. Below is a Creative Writing story I wrote this week. Currently, I don’t have time to blog much more than this. This story is fiction. Any names you might recognize are simply because I like to draw from my own experiences and the people around me. It makes the story “me.” And no, my grandma did not suffer from Alzheimers (just to be totally clear). 

I am never quite sure if I like Grandma or not.

When I was a little girl, I thought all grandmas were like this. Until one day I am rolling out cookie dough at Regina’s house, and Regina’s grandmother walks into the kitchen. Once she leaves, I ask Regina who she is.

“Why it’s my grandma!” says Regina.

“You mean she can talk? How can she talk if she is a grandma?”

Regina stares at me in incredulous surprise. “What do you mean? Of course she can talk!”

I don’t know what to say. I just say “oh” in a small voice and tuck it away to think about.

That was a few months ago. Now I know better.

My grandma Emmy lives in a little house with Grandpa John right beside our house. Sometimes she comes over to our house when Grandpa John has to go to town to do errands. Some days I am glad when she comes. On those days, we play doll together. Grandma Emmy dresses up her doll in the nicest clothes, and she is the best at making pretend baby noises. We pretend to be riding in an airplane with our dollies, and even though Grandma Emmy can’t talk, she makes the best airplane noises.

But most days Grandma Emmy isn’t like that. On those days, she walks around the house like she is looking for something. When I was smaller, I would ask her what she was looking for. But now I don’t.

The worse is when she cries. She sits down on the floor beside the toybox and holds her doll tight and cries. I am always scared when that happens, because her crying doesn’t sound like a baby. It is thin and wailing like the lost kitten we found under the pipes in the back of the barn. And I don’t like watching big people cry.

Keith and Amy can remember when Grandma wasn’t like this. When she was like a normal person. They tell stories of the delicious cookies that she made and how she would let them lick out the bowl after she had made cake. She would play checkers with them on winter evenings, and let them make snow candy by pouring maple syrup on snow and letting it harden. She would read books to them, using different voices for different characters, in ways that made the hair on the back of your neck stand on end.

But that all changed one day when she began to forget names and faces. She did funny things like put the silverware in the fridge and the cake in sink. At first it was so funny, Amy says.

But soon Dad started watching her with a furrow on his brow and things just kept getting worse and worse until they were as they were today.

Sometimes when Grandma comes over, I watch her. I like playing with her most of the time, but sometimes I wish I could have a grandma that lets me lick out the bowl after making a cake, and reads scary stories to me at night and plays checkers with me on winter nights.

Sometimes when she is sitting quietly, I go to her. I reach and touch her, just to see if she feels like other people. Her hands are wrinkly like other old people’s hands, like my hands look when I take a bath too long. But her eyes don’t look like other old people’s eyes. They are blue, but when she looks at me, she doesn’t really see me.  Amy says grandma has Al Seimer, but I don’t know who Al Seimer is. I only know Al Miller. After Amy says that, the next time he comes to talk with Dad about the price of hay, I watch him carefully. But he never even talks to grandma, so I don’t think it is him. Perhaps he comes in the night to visit grandma and grandpa.

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I am chasing the last cheerio around in my bowl of milk with my spoon. I like to pretend that the cheerio is a fish and the spoon is a shark. This morning the windows are open and a slight breeze pours in through the window. It is June, my favorite month because it is my birthday month. The shark has almost caught the fish, and I am just ready to ask Mom how many more days until my birthday when grandpa comes panting up the steps.

His white wavy hair sticks up like it does when you rub a balloon over the carpet on winter days and hold it over your hair.

“Grandma.. grandma… there’s something wrong,” he says. “I thought she just wanted to sleep in. But she’s not responding.”

Grandpa’s eyes look worried, afraid. “I think she’s gone.”

I want to look away.  I don’t like to see grandpa upset. Grandpa and dad never get upset.

Dad leaves the table without a word and runs out the door. I can see grandpa follow slowly, his shoulders slumping.

“But mom,” I say, “where did Grandma go?”

My mom hugs me, her long arms drawing me close. “I think she died, Anna. That’s what he means.”

I saw a dead cat once. Amy’s cat. It was lying on the road by the mailbox when Dad went to get the paper one morning. It had probably been hit by a car while it was hunting for mice in the ditch, Dad said. I remember seeing it a little, but I didn’t like to look at it much because it was bloody and messed up. It didn’t look like Whiskers anymore.

But I have never seen a person dead.

Aunt Dorothea comes the next day, but she doesn’t laugh as much as she usually does. Then come Uncle Roger and Aunt Nellie, Aunt MaryLynn and Aunt Lorena, and Aunt Barbie. Mom says they came for the funeral.

Other times, I like when they come. They bring good food and candy, and tell stories all afternoon and evening, and everything is jolly. But this time, nobody seems to pay attention to me. Keith and Amy go outside to help Dad with the barn chores, acting important that they can do something to help. But I am too little.

The morning of the funeral, I wipe the last bit of egg from my bowl using the buttered middle of my toast.

I ask Mom, “Where is Grandma, Mom?”

Mom stops spreading the glaze on the cinnamon rolls like she is surprised and looks at me.

“She went to heaven, Anna.”

“But where is heaven, Mom? And how did she go? Did she want to go?”

Mom waits a long time, and she looks out the window.

Then she speaks. “Anna, I don’t know where heaven is. All I know, is that it’s with Jesus. And Anna, I really don’t know how it works. All I know is that only Grandma’s body is here, but she isn’t inside it anymore.”

“She isn’t inside it anymore? But how could she go without her body? How could she walk?”

Mom comes over across the room and sits down beside me. Her hands grasp mine, hard and strong and a little sticky from the cinnamon roll glaze.

“I really don’t know, child. But I do think she wanted to go.”

“Why, mom? Why would she want to go? How do you know?”

Mom sighs, and she looks out the window again.  “Anna, you remember hearing stories of how Grandma used to be, right? When I was young, she was the best mother I could have asked for. She was kind. She was strong and healthy, and could walk and talk like other people. But then she got sick. Like her mind got sick. And even though we took her to the doctor, he couldn’t help her. But now, she is like she used to be again. Her old mind and body that were sick are left behind and she went to heaven.”

I nod. And swallow the lump in my throat. I feel funny and I don’t want to talk about it anymore.  So I pretend to understand. But I don’t really. How could Grandma not be in her body anymore?

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The funeral is long and warm. I see Grandma in the box, but she doesn’t move. I think about what Mom said about Grandma not being here anymore, and wonder what it means. There are so many people. I can’t breathe because there are too many people, and I don’t know where Grandma has gone. I hold Mom’s hand tight, tight the way Grandma used to hold her doll when she cried. I watch them put the dirt over her. How will Grandma go to heaven if there is dirt over her? I don’t want to cry. Big girls like me don’t cry. I try and try and try to hold it back, but suddenly I can’t. Mom picks me up and holds me. I cry till her shoulder is wet. I don’t care anymore about being a big girl.

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That evening, I sit on the wooden steps. Mom is making strawberry shortcake for all the aunts and uncles that are still here. They are laughing now.

I like the night like this. It is quiet and safe. I feel tired from crying so hard. I put my feet down on the grass. It is soft and wet. The darkness comes creeping over the lawn, like it has a secret to tell.

Suddenly a little light blinks on, and then off, right above my head. A little bit later another light blinks on and off.

I stand up in wonder. It’s fireflies! I remember last year when the fireflies came! Keith and Amy and I chased them over the lawn and caught them with a net. One time we put them in a jar and watched them fly around.

Their lights blink on and off all over the lawn, above the wet, cool grass. Quickly and quietly, I run into the kitchen and climb onto the counter. I grab an empty glass jar on the shelf. I don’t want Keith and Amy to see me. I don’t know why, but I want this to be my secret.

Out on the lawn, little lanterns blink by the hundreds above the dewy grass. I have never seen so many. I watch, and chase them. They dance over my head. I catch one and watch as it crawls over my hand, its light slowly glimmering on and off. I put it in my jar and screw on the lid. I chase the others. Sometimes I almost have them in my hand and then they flit away. Finally, the jar is filled with tiny lanterns, blinking, flitting. Mom is calling me to come eat strawberry shortcake with the aunts and uncles. I run upstairs with the jar and put it on the windowsill.

After supper is over, mom makes me go to bed. She says I am tired and need to have a long night of sleep. For once I don’t complain. I lie in bed and watch the fireflies in the jar. Amy comes up. I decide to tell her about the fireflies, but she doesn’t really listen. She is getting too grown up and is getting boring. I am never going to grow up.

After she is asleep beside me, I lie still, very still and think. The crickets are singing under the wooden porch again. Outside, a new sliver of a moon is coming up. It looks like a boat that floats crookedly through the sky, like if you would ride in it, you could almost fall out. A few feet on the windowsill is my jar of fireflies.

The fireflies are flying inside the jar. I see them from here. They fly against the glass and bounce off. Silly little fireflies, I think. They don’t know what the glass is. They don’t know that they can’t break the glass. But still they fly against it and bounce off, again and again.

Where do they want to go, I wonder? Why don’t they like it in the jar? I wonder what it would be like to be a firefly. To dance across the lawn at night when the sun goes down and turn my light on and off. I would be the fastest firefly. And I would dance all night long.

I wonder where grandma is. I wonder if she likes fireflies. I wonder if they have fireflies in heaven. I wonder if Grandma caught fireflies and put them in a jar when she was a little girl.

I sit straight up in bed. I look at the fireflies again. They are still flying in the jar, bouncing off the glass, wanting to get out. I wonder if they are scared.

I crawl out of the bed, the floor cool to my bare toes. I tiptoe to the window, trying not to wake Amy. I take the jar off the windowsill and screw off the lid. The window is open and I hold the jar outside. The fireflies pour from the jar, fairylights gleaming. They fly into the night, free from the glass that held them in, dancing and dancing and dancing, until they are lost in the night.

I laugh to myself, a happy laugh.

As I tiptoe back into bed, Amy stirs.

“What are you doing?” she mumbles.

I wrap the covers around me and snuggle down.

“Nothing,” I say.

 

photo credit: Pixabay.com

Life Is Beautiful

A few weeks shy of my 27th birthday, I tapped the brakes slightly on my motorbike, and as a result, went sliding down a rain-washed mountain curve, leaving a 15 foot long scar on the pavement and a barely noticeable bruise on my leg. Shaken, but not hurt, I righted my bike and continued down the mountain in a proper fashion.

A few days before that, I finished reading the book When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi while sitting in the waiting room of a hospital waiting for a health certificate in order to renew my driver’s license. Finishing the book at the hospital seemed fitting, even when I had no reason to be there other than to get a piece of paper.

Kalanithi writes poignantly of his battle with cancer and even more poignantly of his search to find purpose and meaning in life. Somehow when you read a book in which you know the author dies in the end, you read it with an expectancy of being on the brink of learning a great secret of life. It’s like leaning breathlessly over a death bed trying to catch the last words of someone who is ready to cross over to the other side of that blurred glass. You feel that someone that close to death must have a key to the purpose of life.

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Perhaps that is because death and life really are not that much different.

The gist of Kalanithi’s story kept echoing in my soul several days after I put the book down. Kalanithi’s words, the fact that I slid down the mountain, the fact that I am close to adding another full year onto my life, and various other factors turned my mind to take a deeper look into my own life. One afternoon as I was patting one of my K1 students to sleep, a thought exploded in my brain.

If I live till fifty, I am over half finished with my life. If I live to 75, I am a third finished with my life.

I hated that thought and wished it away. It scared me. It made me panic.

You see, I’ve been living life in the same manner that I’ve been using crayons at work. In a classroom of 21 children, crayons are expendable. Once one of them becomes a little stub, it ends up in the trashcan without much thought and is easily replaced.

Life is not like that. But I’ve been living it like that. And suddenly with the realization that I’ve been alive for 27 years and at best have 60 more years left, comes the realization that I can’t afford to live life carelessly. I could die tomorrow. I could die in two weeks. I could die in 20 years. And the brutal fact remains– I’m not getting any younger.

My young students remind me of this daily. One day while playing “doctor” (I was the patient; they were the doctors) one of them discovered the white hairs in my head, exclaimed over them and made it her self-appointed duty to pick them out immediately. Just a few days ago, I leaned over a table, talking to a three year old, while raising my eyebrows. At the end of whatever I was saying, he didn’t respond, only wonderingly lifted his finger up and traced the wrinkles on my forehead. No, I’m not getting younger.

What does it mean to really, truly be alive in this world? This is the question that comes back to me over and over again.

There are lots of good quotes and words out there about what it means to really live, what a life well lived looks like. Cliché. Well meant. Good stuff.  But somehow I’ve reached a point in my life where I myself need to come to a conclusion about what it really means to live.

As I was trying to form a conclusion for this post, I only was able to come up with a hundred more, disjointed random questions and thoughts.

Like these:

Does truly living mean pouring yourself out trying to meet the needs and demands of the people around you until you are totally exhausted in the evening and lack the energy to even make your own supper?

Or is it the opposite, saying no to the needs around you so you can live your private life, follow the desires of your heart and stop and smell the roses and drink all the coffee you want?

I don’t think it means either of them. For the last few years, the former has been the story of my life. On some days I drag myself home at the end of the day, thinking, “Is this really what a fulfilling life looks like?”

But the fight within me continues. I have a hundred things that I would love to do before I die. I want to gallop across the Sahara desert on an Arabian horse with my hair down. I want explore Southeast Asia and visit the deserts of Mongolia and find my way into North Korea. I want to live in a refugee camp on the Thai/Burmese border. I want to write another book, a really really good one.  I want to read books. I want to live at home and appreciate the intricacies and idiosyncrasies of my own culture. I want to live in a Karen or Akha village in the mountains of Thailand. I want to learn another language. I want to live in Tibet. I want to get married and have children of my own.

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Pu’er, China. Photo credit: Sarah Jantzi

But I only have one life. And it’s not my own.

Can I justify doing things to satisfy my own wanderlust and desires?

What do the words mean, “Delight thyself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart?” Am I not in tune enough with the Father’s heart to have my desires be his yet?

What does it mean to enjoy the gift of life that God has given us to the fullest, and yet being in tune to the needs of millions in this world who lack the privileges of money and freedom I have been given? Can I justify using my time and money in following my own desires while others are struggling to simply live?

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Kampong Speu, Cambodia. Photo Credit: Sarah Jantzi

What does it mean to be a Mary who serves?

Is it wrong to spend time reading literature just for the fact that it is well written, even if its spiritual benefit is low?

When is it right to spend money on your own comforts when it is something you could live without?

How do you decide where to pour out your life when there are so many things you love to do and would love to learn?

Paul was an apostle who poured out his life so others could hear the gospel. But did he ever stop on a mountain peak and drink in the glory of the natural world? Did he rejoice inwardly in the beauty of each culture he visited and delight in the different stripes and colors of each country?

This life is beautiful. The people and the world around me are beautiful and deserve to be noticed and gloried in. There are hundreds of amazing accomplishments of humanity that should be celebrated, not because of the human ability behind it, but because of the gift of talented brains and gifted hands that God has given us. There are hundreds of beautiful cultures and customs that express the image of God.

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Chintaluruh, India. Photo Credit: Diana Weiler

To sum it up, the question that remains is, “How do I live and taste this beautiful life to the fullest, without getting wrapped up in things that take away from the purpose God has given me?”

What do you think? I would love to hear from you.