“Fireflies: A Father’s Tale of Love and Loss” by David Morrell tells the story of David’s grief at the death of his 15-year-old son, Matthew. Six months before the opening scenes of the book, Matthew was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma. A large tumor was lodged between two of his ribs and dangerously close to his spinal column.
Matthew underwent several rounds of chemotherapy. Only the final one produced any improvement. He then had extensive surgery and a bone marrow transplant. Just when it began to appear that Matthew would survive, he developed an overwhelming infection and septic shock. Eight days later, he was dead.
The book begins with David, Matthew’s father, struggling to write a eulogy for his son. When he finishes, he goes into the bedroom he shares with his wife. Tears running down his cheeks, he is amazed to see a flurry of fireflies whizzing around the room. Although he considers himself agnostic, he is suddenly sure that one of the fireflies is Matthew.
David calls out to Matthew, and one of the fireflies separates itself and flies over to him. “Dad, I want to play,” it says. “At last I’m having fun.” David nods his permission, and the firefly returns to the group.
The next day, as he checks the church in preparation for Matthew’s memorial service, his grief becomes so overwhelming that he nearly faints. Again, he believes he hears his son’s voice. “Mourn for your loss, but don’t mourn for me.”
The day after that, David, his wife and daughter and a few friends go with the cemetery caretaker to place the urn carrying Matthew’s cremains in the mausoleum. Inside, they find a gray mourning dove swooping around in graceful patterns. It lands on the floor.
Although hardly aware that he is speaking, David hears himself say that he has to let Matthew out. He holds out his hands to the dove, which jumps into them. He takes the dove outside. At first it hesitates, unmoving. David wishes it well and tells the bird that it is free to go. He hears his son’s voice saying that this is the last of three signs; he will not make contact with David again. Finally, the dove takes wing.
Days later, David describes a vivid dream in which he goes back in time and tries, unsuccessfully, to prevent Matthew’s death by starting him on antibiotics earlier. Later he learns from the autopsy that even if they had avoided septic shock, Matthew’s cancer had spread since his surgery. He also had an undiagnosed aneurysm in his brain. Matthew’s death had been completely unavoidable.
“Fireflies” is written in third person from the author, David’s, point of view. David Morrell, by the way, became a famous writer for creating the character of Rambo in “First Blood.”
“Fireflies” is beautifully written. The tenderness and love David feels for his son are very clear. His spiritual journey about what, if anything, lies beyond death compels the reader to reflect on his or her own faith or lack thereof. David also talks about the panic attacks he suffered after Matthew’s death.
If you’ve experienced the death of a child, this book may bring you some comfort and offer you some compassion. It belongs on your reading list.