Monday, April 21, 2003

Summer was my favorite season as a young child. The days started at the first light of dawn and would come to a close when eyelids became heavy from the accumulated weight of heat and exhaustion after a long day of hosting tea parties for stuffed animals or working the small plot of parched earth my grandmother allotted me to use as my personal garden. If someone had asked what summer was, with the best of my four-year-old ability and limited vocabulary, I most likely would have defined it as ice-cream, swimming pools, and fireflies.

Every evening at dusk, from late June to the middle of August, tiny sparks of light would seemingly float up from the damp grass and flash against a canvas of velvety, midnight-blue sky, giving the impression that the stars had fallen from the heavens and were trying to ascend back to their places in the atmosphere. Frolicking about in bare feet with arms extended, my petite clasped hands, opening and closing like a morning glory, would chase after the small orbs of light, the fireflies. All the while, my grandfather would sit on the stoop, which leads to the back entrance of the burnt sunflower-yellow house that my grandparents made their residence in, to keep an eye on me and enjoy his evening cigarette.

Smoking was not solely an act for my grandfather. It was a process with a specific order he had created through habit over the years. First, he would clear his preferred spot on the stoop, the third step, ever so slightly off-center leaning towards the right. After situating himself, from the back left pocket of his faded slacks, he would yield a book of matches and a packet of cigarettes. Marlboro Lights to be exact. Placing a random cigarette in his mouth, he would carefully scan the matches, choose a stick, and with the flick of a wrist, strike the head against the top of the cement step he was sitting on, producing a crimson burst of light. So as not to let even the slightest breeze take out his flame, he would cover the blaze with his free hand until the end of his stick was lit. The soft glow, which emanated from the end of the rolled stick of tobacco, could easily have been mistaken for one of the lightening bugs had it burned fluorescent yellow and not a scarlet-orange. All the clouds, ringlets, and curlicues made from the gray-white smoke displayed the end product of my grandfather’s method. I remember thinking the hazy designs hanging in the air, quickly appearing and vanishing in the air, as pretty.

After finishing his smoke, my grandfather would come and dance with me amid the trees, assisting me in the capture of a few of the twinkling bugs. The few fireflies we acquired were put into a mason jar, with a gold lacquered lid that had several holes punched into it, and placed on the table that sat near my bed. These fairy-like creatures were my pets, my friends, for the evening. In the morning, I would awake to find them scattered at the bottom of the jar, dead.

This was our evening routine for the summer, choreographed and scripted, with room for a bit of variation and change, only to acknowledge and accommodate the difference in date.

Differences in date reveal the passage of time, allowing one season to fold into another. And as the seasons changed, so did my life. My parents decided to relocate to the sunny state of California, where seasons did not have distinguishing characteristics. It was summer day after day, but with no fireflies to keep by my bedside.

Several months after our move, my mother received a telephone call. I was in the next room, so I could not eavesdrop as well as I had wanted, but was able to pick up a few words and knew it was my grandmother who had rung. My mother’s affable tone dropped to a whispered hush, and there was an instant ominous weight that seemed to hang in the thick, hot air.

Curious to know what was wrong, I made my way into the room my mother was sitting. Her young, usually smiling, face was full of worry. As any other youngster would act when seeing his or her parent in a state of emotional distress, I played up to my duty as a child and asked what was wrong, thinking I could be of some aid if bandages or cookies needed to be provided. The solution would not be so simple. My grandfather was sick. He had cancer.

Following the telephone call, plans were arranged to go back to the burnt sunflower-yellow house to visit my grandfather for the months of June and July. Not being able to fully comprehend how ill my grandfather was at that young age, evening rendezvous with fireflies and my grandfather were set in my head.

Before even stepping into the door of my grandparents’ home, I could sense there were changes. It could be felt in the surroundings, a heaviness that wasn’t created by the humidity or heat. Changes were also seen. A grandmother opened the door. It was my grandma, but her face had more wrinkles, looked more worn, had more gray hairs, had less strength in her welcoming embrace. All the pieces of mismatched décor were still in place as I had remembered leaving them, but there were medical devices strewn about the house. There was in addition, a new smell that I can now identify as sterilized plastics used in equally hygienic white-corridor hospitals. Everything was the same, but not; principally my grandfather.

The tumors in his lungs had been discovered too late for any extensive surgery to be beneficial. The cancer and treatment, like smoking, was a process for my grandfather. Yet he went through chemotherapy, radiation, and medication in hopes that a miracle of sorts would occur. As a result of all the chemicals that were injected into his body, he started to lose his hair. He lost tremendous amounts of weight from not being able to eat; the medications made him nauseous. I often sat with my bed-ridden grandfather and ask, “Why did your hair fall out grandpa? You look funny.” And offer words of encouragement such as, “Get well grandpa, I’m praying for you”, not knowing that he was not going to get better.

That summer, I did spend my evenings in the backyard catching fireflies, but did so alone. Instead of holding them as prisoners in a mason jar, I used them as wishing stars. I would catch one, make a wish, and let it go flying back to wherever it had intended before I had interrupted its journey.

My small, but big-hearted wishes did not come true. My grandfather passed away three months after our family left to return home, and I never had another chance to waltz in a dewy bed of grass with my grandfather. There is one thing I have captured in my heart from my many luminescent memories, and it is this: life is the flash of a firefly at night.

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