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The difference between the almost right word and the right word is the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning. - Mark Twain


It's not until you lose something that you realize how much it matters to you. After moving to the West Coast, I was shocked to find there were no such things as lightning bugs (sometimes referred to as fireflies) in the Bay Area. Some hasty research showed that San Francisco summers were simply too dry for lightning bugs. They need water to flourish.

Summer simply isn't summer without having lightning bugs flash during the waning hours of daylight. I grew up in a small town just north of Pittsburgh, PA and spent many evenings chasing lightning bugs. My father had the job of using a hammer and nail to create airholes in the metal lid of my glass jar “lantern.” My mom supervised the capture of the bugs, and prevented the carrying of the jar into the house. I suspect my father was far wiser than he let on (now that I'm older, I'm sure of it). His airholes were always too large, and in the morning the lightning bugs had escaped, leaving behind the empty jar. I'm pretty sure that the two acted as a team; Dad ensuring that the lightning bug catching could continue and Mom making sure that my bedroom didn't become filled with a swarm of lightning bugs.

I think about those days a lot now. Lightning bugs have come to symbolize youthful innocence, or at least carefree summer nights. Recently, I sit, entranced by the brief flashes of light, and think about my Mom.

She passed away unexpectedly in February, 2000 from an aneurysm.



Heaven gives its favourites early death. - Lord Byron


There are two kinds of aneurysms, one where the blood vessel gets clogged, and one where it bursts. The clogged kind, while not a good thing to happen, is treatable. The bursting kind is untreatable.

Mom had the bursting kind.

It happened a few days after my 32nd birthday. Receiving the late phone call from my sister. Lying in bed with my wife, mentally urging time to flow faster so that I could catch the first flight east. That seemingly unending flight back east. Watching her twitch as the respirator breathed for her. Holding her hand as the doctor declared her to be brain dead.

That was one of the hardest things I've had to endure.

I hadn't been back to Pittsburgh since Mom passed away. I planned on going last year, but then I got a new job back on the east coast. Right after arriving back on the east coast, my wife had some health issues to get through, which delayed the visit further.

I finally got a break to visit my Dad over the 4th of July this year. The house, the town, the region… all similar to my mental images, but different enough as to be disturbing, like a summer without lightning bugs.

My Dad's knee is getting bad. Within a year, he'll probably need to have it replaced. He was walking with a noticeable limp, and commented multiple times that he can't “go” like he used to. We visited his doctor, so that he could get a shot of steroids in the bad knee. I talked with the doctor at length about the knee. My Dad is at least taking my advice and getting a second opinion.

The house has little changes done to it. Nothing major, but unsettling. A new flower bed. Cement poured in the garage, finally fixing the uneven floor. A new car, replacing Mom's green Cavalier. The new car shouldn't have been that surprising. Dad always did turn over cars every few years.

He has a female companion now. She's not a girlfriend, per se, but she's someone who he hangs out with and shares many interests of his. She's nice, and Dad and I had a long discussion about how I was OK with it. She's a very nice person, and we got along well. I made sure he understood that I didn't see her as “replacing” Mom, and he assured me that she wasn't. He then said something uncharacteristically sentimental:

“No one could ever replace your Mom.”

We fished. We worked around his house. We drank. Eventually, we visited Mom's grave.

I was OK until he leaned over, put his hand on the headstone, and whispered, “Look who I brought to see you, Mom.”

That was simply too much. The emotions, the memories…they came flooding back. My eyes started welling up, and my Dad simply said, “C'mon. Let's get out of here.”




Our concern for the loss of our friends is not always from a sense of their worth, but rather of our own need of them—and that we have lost some who had a good opinion of us. - François, Duc De La Rochefoucauld


The trip was over too soon. But, upon reflection, it was probably a good length of time to visit. Too much longer, and I'm sure that I would have been intruding on my Dad's “post-Mom” life. He dropped me off at the airport, and I worked my way to the far gate for my flight.

I came to the nexus of terminals in Pittsburgh's airport. Again, I was struck by a memory of my Mom. One time, as my wife and I were visiting from San Francisco, my parents drove us to the airport for our return flight. We had stopped in that intersection of hallways to seek out a restaurant to kill time before our return flight. My Mom had found the directory, and I vividly recalled her excitedly calling us over, as if she had found a treasure. I stood there for a few moments, staring at the directory, thinking fondly of her before I pressed on to the gate.

The flight home, while uneventful, was filled with thoughts of Mom. And Dad. He'll be OK, I know that. I wonder if this trip caused him to think as much about her as it did for me.



There are gains for all our losses, There are balms for all our pain. - Richard Henry Stoddard


That night, after getting back to my own home, I poured myself a glass of my latest passion, vintage port. Standing out on my deck, I surveyed my backyard. The sun had just gone down and the lightning bugs were just starting their dance.

I smiled and drank a silent toast to my parents, especially my Mom. I miss her.
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