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  • Writer's pictureSam Stoeltje

Fireflies as UFOs, or, Fear of Flying Pt. 2

Updated: Aug 24, 2020

I meant for my writing here to focus on the paranormal and popular culture, but I find myself called to do another post about death; called, that is, by life, and by this strangest of summers during which three people close to me have died.

At the beginning of the summer, it was a close friend, a fiercely unique and beautiful person who died young and unexpectedly.

Then, last month, I learned that a woman whose life I have researched for many years, whom I have spent many hours interviewing on the phone and at her home in Columbia, Missouri, a woman in her nineties whom I have long thought of as a friend, in a certain sense my oldest friend, had also died.

And then, just last week, my paternal grandfather also left us and went wherever he went, wherever it is we go, if it is anywhere at all.

I learned this while I was on vacation in Cape May, New Jersey. He was eighty-four, with several decades of heavy smoking under his belt, and his body reacted poorly to the general anesthesia that was part of an otherwise successful hip surgery.

I would learn still later that he broke his hip while attempting to fix a broken clock, on the phone with one of his daughters.

My father was in contact with me as my grandfather, his father, whom we always called Popo, began the process of departure, and I was able to speak to him through my iphone, although with the ventilator in he could not reply. All the same, it felt like a great mercy, a great privilege, to have that chance at least.

So they, his children, decided that there would be a funeral service. I considered protesting in the interest of public health, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. When my friend died at the beginning of the summer, as Covid-19 was charging through Houston, there had been nothing, no ritual, no observance. I think I was still feeling the pain from that absence, and further felt, selfishly, that I needed something.

So I bought a plane ticket, cut my trip short, and flew back to Texas.

No, I am forgetting something. I’m forgetting the fireflies. As I said, I was in Cape May with my partner and her family, and it was the rainy first day of the vacation when I got the news. The following day, the sun came out, and so we went to the beach. The service was on Friday, so I had decided I would stay in Jersey a few more days. Perhaps this also seems selfish; perhaps it was. But I was there, on the shore of the Atlantic, enjoying the breeze on my face, maskless for at least a few hours, the waves high and powerful, breaking right on the shore. My grandfather had been a career Coastguardsman, a commander, and had spent most of his life flying planes and helicopters, literally saving peoples’ lives. I had had my differences with Popo, emotional and political, but I felt confident and sincere telling him over the phone that he had lived a good life. I would, and will, always associate the ocean with my father and with him, and with the stories of their many residences on the three coasts of this stolen land called the United States (and on its neocolonial interests; they also lived for a time in the Philippines).

But what about the fireflies? That night we ate dinner on the screened-in porch of the airbnb where we were staying, surrounded by an overgrown back garden, dusk fallen, and I saw one: highlighter-yellow, for about a second, flashing on. I announced it to the table, “a firefly.” They looked for a bit, seeing nothing, then went back to eating and conversing.

I saw it go off again, the same one, presumably: “There it goes.” But I couldn’t direct their attention fast enough before it winked out.

Then I made the connection, coming to the realization that I had always associated fireflies with my grandparents’ house, with their backyard, which sloped down to the banks of the Guadalupe River. We, my cousins and I, had caught them in jars and watched them blinking on and off, appropriately fascinated. So inevitably I associated them, like the beach, like the entire world ocean, with my paternal grandparents and the time I was able to spend at their home (their second home in Seguin, after the first had been utterly destroyed in a flood).

It happened again, the following two nights. I saw a firefly, just one, beyond the porch, and I was the only one who saw it, the only one who saw any fireflies at all. With the idea in my head that this was more than a coincidence, that it was some communication about my grandfather, that, as my partner put it, “it was meant for me,” I also couldn't help entertaining the idea that they were hallucinations.

What, after all, could be easier to hallucinate: a solitary light in the night, blinking on and off, for less than a second.

(Note: On my last night at Cape May, before I flew down to Texas, my partner saw one as we were lying in bed, through the second-floor window. Improbably high up, I think, for a firefly, but I’m no expert. At least I wasn’t crazy…or crazy, alone…)

I thought of the firefly, asked myself to what extent it might be an Unidentified Flying Object. Of course, I could identify it, as a species of the family Lampyridae, a bioluminescent beetle. Yet due to context, the lights I saw in the night air were possessed of a potential mystery, one that reminded me, at least in the register of feelings and imagination, of the UFO. (I had seen one of those as well, the previous year, an unidentified flying object. That’s another story.)

But allowing for the possibility that I was being communicated to, that the beetle was a sign of some kind (like the beetle in Jung’s Synchronicity), I felt that something had been restored to me, a lack that the word “paranormal” gestures toward, in its transgression of the distinction between the normal and the many varieties of “not normal.” What might have been restored, for a moment, was an attitude of wonder toward the world, and the life and lights inhabiting it, a wonder of which we as “moderns” are so famously bereft in our disenchanted existence. We could, I guess, call this an ecological wonder, but I feel as if there is more to the story than that.

(The image, above, I pulled from a NYTimes article about the current plight facing the firefly: their mating practices have been confused by light pollution. Like so much of the insect world, they are in peril, dying out.)

In any event, whatever may have been going on, the next morning I boarded a thoroughly identifiable flying object, and that evening found myself in Houston, that night in San Antonio. The next day, on the way to the funeral service in Seguin, my parents shared with me other strange goings-on. A piece of furniture had been found, moved across the floor to the middle of the hallway, a shelf that seemed far too heavy for one of the dogs to budge. And the cat had appeared in their bedroom, when the door was closed and they were certain she was elsewhere. As you have guessed by now, my parents are fairly open-minded about such things. I myself wasn’t sure what to make of them. They defied my attempts to be “read” as meaningful communications. They were the senseless and playful acts of the poltergeist, more impressive on a phenomenal level but, I thought, less poignant.

Perhaps this is indicative of my mindset; perhaps such phenomena are filtered through the expectations and feelings and psyche of the experiencer. I am, among other things, an observer and interpreter of culture, and so my fireflies were like characters, graphemes, or like the binary meaning-makings of Morse code. For whatever reason (assuming the things they described to me were in some sense “paranormal,” and not the more mundane tricksterism of the family pets), the signals my parents perceived were more dramatic, more physical, but also less interpretable. Or at least, I am unable to interpret them, here, now.

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