As a child, I was captivated by fireflies: the way they danced and spun, disappearing from view only to reappear just slightly away from where they had vanished from sight. You could catch them with your hands because their flight was slow. Nevertheless, catching one was still cause for pride and excitement.
By spreading your fingers just a trifle, you could watch them light up your palm – how interesting it was that the light did not burn your hand! Mom let us capture them and put them in old Skippy peanut butter jars. She made sure we poked holes in the lid and insisted that we only keep them for a little while, releasing them before we went to bed.
In college, I learned the dry facts about these extraordinary creatures: they are actually beetles, members of the Lampyridae family, producing their bioluminescence through the chemical reaction of luciferin. I also learned that they live, in the flying stage, only two months at the most. Such a short life!
It was not until I was in my surgical training that I met my first human firefly. Let’s call her Amy. It was my Chief Resident year when she came under my care. Because the training program was, by nature, transient, Amy had seen many doctors. I would care for her and then, when my final year was over, I would be stationed in an Air Force hospital far away. Amy would need to start all over and train yet another surgeon in the art of caring for human fireflies.
Amy had so many congenital abnormalities that she didn’t fit into a recognized syndrome. While orthopedic and facial congenital anomalies are the most visible to people, it is actually the genitourinary system that exceeds all other body parts in birth anomalies. So it was that Amy spent most of her ‘doctor time’ with me – an urologist.
It is hard to believe, but forty years ago we had no MRIs, no PET scans; ultrasound was in its infancy; CT scans were just coming in and were hard to get. Most of our ‘information’ about Amy came from reviewing archaic imaging studies, conducting physical exams, and laboring over textbooks for comparable oddities.
I combined all previous doctor notes in her chart and tried to draw blueprints of her unique internal architecture with all the vagaries of her urinary system and tiny female anatomy. An earlier doctor had said, in frustration, that Amy must have been assembled from used and discarded body parts.
Despite all that, Amy’s 5 year old personality was as unique as her body. She couldn’t walk, so her mother would bring her in an adult-sized wheel chair. Because Amy would sometimes tire, her mother would then sit in the chair with Amy on her lap. There was always someone who would then propel the duo where they needed to be.
Mostly though, what I recall is hearing Amy down the hall, exhorting her mother to push the wheel chair faster, because “the doctor is waiting for me!!!” She would explode into the exam room, and I think we could have shut the power off and just lit up the entire clinic with the energy coming out of this little bundle of blessing.
Unless I was examining her, she insisted on being in my lap. Because I didn’t have children at the time, Amy would ask me about my pets and my wife. She would ask how I was feeling. All the time, she would be patting my hand or my arm, just the way we pat a child who we are trying to console.
Of all her afflictions, she was dismissive. I cannot say that she was unaware of how different she was from ‘normal’ kids; it just seemed to be irrelevant to her. As constricted as her physical world was, she found plenty in that world to delight her and to create a contagious joy.
I completed my training and was stationed at an Air Force hospital in England. Thus, I was not at Amy’s bedside when she died. Her little body had finally succumbed to the entirety of her abnormalities.
Doctors have a dry observation about such problems; her afflictions were ‘incompatible with life.’ Let me assure you that, for some doctors like myself, the observations are dry, but the eyes are not. Yes, I cried when I heard about my little friend. I imagined her final moments had been spent patting the hands of her loving mother and father, providing solace to the inconsolable.
Amy is my firefly; she had a short life. I am persuaded, however, that she both derived and provided light where there was darkness, joy where it was camouflaged. I daresay that it would be difficult to find a person of normal longevity who dispensed such a level of delight to fellow humans.
Summer is coming upon us. The heat and humidity will grow, an environmental prologue to the nocturnal choreography of the firefly. In the coming days, I will imagine Amy has returned for a visit to my heart, and I will permit myself again to feel a child’s delight at flashing lights in the night sky.