(In loving memory of Jack Jones, 1925-2015)

In the early-morning dark and chill of September, where the road to our house leaves the woods and passes by open fields, there are fireflies alight in the grass beside the road, hundreds and hundreds of them, glorious, glowious, astonishing, phosphorescent yellow luminaries, giving light and showing the way for whoever is about in the night.

They are beautiful to behold, little sparkles in the shadowy dark, and coming upon them is like crossing the threshold of some sacred place where holy men and women are praying in silence, praising, pleading, and surrendering themselves to Love. I am not part of that praying until I happen upon them, I am just out for a little exercise before the day begins, but now, by the power of their presence, I also am drawn into Love.

The summer is past. The fireflies’ work is done. No longer do they move about as creatures of the sky. Now they are grounded, at rest upon the earth from whence they came. And to see them in their final hours, to be among them and awake, is a gift, and a wonder, and a reminder of the way beings at the end of their lives illuminate the world they are leaving.

In the Christian world, today is the beginning of Holy Week, a week to remember the light of Jesus in the last week of his life, his clarity, humility, and courage.

But consider also Martin Luther King, Jr., preaching in Memphis the night before his death, saying he’s no longer concerned about living a long life, he’s not afraid of dying, he’s already seen the Promised Land and now all he wants is to do God’s will.

Consider the writer Raymond Carver, living much of his life in alcohol-soaked misery, finding love and sobriety in his final years, and writing this poem, “Late Fragment,” in the hospital bed where he would die of cancer:

And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.

And consider my Uncle Jack, who died peacefully two days ago in the company of his brother Mack(my father) and his son-in-law Dave.

Eighteen months ago Uncle Jack suffered a stroke, and though he recovered much of his speech and mobility, he said he hoped his next stroke would end his life rather than leave him diminished and a burden to his wife and daughters. Last Saturday afternoon he had that next stroke. He and his daughter Jenny were doing his taxes – go ahead, it’s ok if you’re thinking of the old saw about death and taxes, we all thought it, too – when he collapsed in his chair. Jenny immediately called an ambulance and got him to the hospital, but the scans there showed damage to his brain that would not heal. He had been so clear with his family in anticipating this scenario that they felt no anguish in moving him from the hospital to the local hospice facility. Sadness, to be sure, but no anguish.

Uncle Jack was 89, two months shy of four score and ten. He grew up poor in South Carolina, biologically the second but functionally the oldest of five sons. As a teenager, he served in the Army in World War II, fighting in the Battle of the Bulge. He met his wife Mary at Furman, and they were married 63 years. They have two incredible human beings for daughters, Anna and Jenny. He worked into his eighties for the National Security Agency, doing classified work, or as we called it, in an affected whisper signifying great importance, “secret work.”

He was loving and generous and funny. As we kept vigil with him this week, we took turns telling Uncle Jack jokes. His puns are legendary. When I was born he said, “You can rustle your leaves but you can’t leave your Russell.” When my brother Marshall was born he said, “You can marshal your forces but you can’t force your Marshall.” My parents finally stumped him with their third child, Tony.

He loved languages. He knew Greek, Hebrew, Latin, German, French, Russian, and several other Eastern European languages. He authored an English-Serbo-Croatian military dictionary. But the language he loved most was that of Shakespeare, and over his lifetime he committed large portions of the Bard’s work to memory. He would often quote situation-appropriate passages.

So last Saturday, in the emergency room with Jenny, it was no surprise that he began reciting Shakespeare. Jenny could not fully understand him, but she knew her dad, so she asked, “Are you quoting Shakespeare?” He nodded his eyes and voiced what she recognized as “Yes.” So she listened as closely as she could and, hours later realized he had been reciting this speech, one of her favorites, from The Tempest:

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air;
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve;
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

It is a marvel to me, his presence of mind in that moment, his courage, his dignity, his reservoir of memory, and his love for those he knew he was leaving.

Uncle Jack is a firefly.

3 thoughts on “fireflies”

  1. Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
    As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
    Are melted into air, into thin air;

    To call myself beloved, to feel myself
    beloved on the earth.

    Wow,wow,wow……thanks Russ and thanks Uncle Jack(was he by chance an A’s fan?)

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