Life is Like . . . Fireflies?


I walk down the quiet halls of Grandma and Grandpa Follows’ house, lingering to examine the photos lining the walls. In one, a young Grandpa Follows stands by his new bride, smiling a smile I’ve seen many times. It’s the kind of smile that fills the whole face, especially the eyes. It’s the kind of smile that makes you wish “contagious” and “lights up the room” were not cliches. 

It’s my husband Joshua’s smile. 

This photo could be a photo of our wedding, except the bride is not me, and there is no color in the photo, and the groom is wearing a dark suit coat instead of Joshua’s white mandarin suit.

I stand there a long time, just looking. Then a strange feeling comes over me. Though the travel here took us 18 hours and felt like forever, suddenly life itself seems short as a breath. As short as an EKG printout, with its swift ups and downs. As short as the song the family was singing when Grandpa Follows breathed his last. As short as the phone call when we last spoke with him.

Grandma comes up behind me, walking softly and carefully. She smiles at the photo. I look at her, then turn back for a moment to look at her 70-years-ago face. In the picture, she seems on the verge of a laugh. Now all her smiles are sad smiles.

I’ve been thinking about life and death lately. This happens when friends and family die. It also happens when everything’s fine, if you’re introverted and contemplative and find poignancy in nearly everything. 

Sometimes life just feels like… fireflies.

Fireflies are an experience. Especially when it is very dark. Their lights go on and off, but in between flickers, they move. So, if you are watching them in a corn field, you can never quite see one. They go on and off, all around, in your periphery, and you never know where there will be a tiny dot of light or just more darkness.

A firefly brings such wonder and light, for just a moment. And then it is gone. And though you look, you can’t find it again. When I watch fireflies, I wonder if my little temporary light will make a difference to someone. If it will fill them with a little bit of wonder or joy.  And I wonder if that’s enough.

Grandpa Follows was a hard-working farmer. He and his shy wife could often be found with visitors from their rural community and beyond who loved their dahlia flowers and their pleasant company. Grandpa loved to joke with people. He had a special talent for whistling. And he was generous.

Grandpa was generous with his time, his money, his talent. And he was generous with his faith. He let his faith change him as much as possible during his few short years on this earth. He wasn’t perfect. But he was the kind of person who sent positive ripples into the ocean of people around him. His life–let’s be specific, his love and good choices–affect me now even more than the great smile he passed down to my husband.

He modeled diligence. Even as I write this, my husband, son, and father-in-law are out in the rain helping on Grandma’s farm. He modeled honesty.  Well enough that my daughter comes to me at night if she thinks of anything she has said that wasn’t true.

I remember our last visit with Grandpa. We were just about to send one of Joshua’s brothers to the airport. Someone struck up a song– a song we’ve sung many times before as a family:

You will see your Lord a-comin’
You will see your Lord a-comin’ 
You will see your Lord a-comin’
In a few more days.

I was standing in the back by Grandpa when I got that strange feeling that life is very, very short. I looked at him, and he looked at me. Then he put an arm around me. We stood there, not singing, fighting tears.

He passed away this spring, on Joshua’s and my wedding anniversary. 

I’m an ideas kind of person. I collect ideas like some people collect souvenir fridge magnets. I have more ideas than I could possibly do in one lifetime, too many to fit at one time on the canvas of my mind. 

I could start a computer club where local kids could learn English through apps. I could help my neighbor start an Etsy business making dolls wearing ethnic apparel from our host country. I could buy quail, because they’re quieter than chickens. I could garden—there could be trellises involved! I could quilt. I could start a book club in our city and maybe we’d talk about spiritual things. I could host afternoon teas at my house. I could host an exercise class like my friend Barb, even though in Zumba I’m always the one in the back who is three moves behind. I could redecorate, paint a giant mural in the living room, take my daughter to volunteer at the animal shelter twice a week, read more books, write more books, cook from scratch, and can peaches.

I wish I could bring these things to be, these lovely ideas. The problem is, all my plans and dreams are like water in a mason jar, and I have to pour from that jar through a funnel with a very tiny nozzle. For, although I can delegate and inspire others and catalyze great things, the truth is, I’m always only one person. And all I have is one minute at a time to live. 

As Joshua often says, “What will you say no to so you can say yes to this?” 

It’s good he says this.

Anyway, today I’m asking myself what really matters. I’m taking out each idea and holding it up to the light, asking myself:

Will this matter when my grandchildren and great-grandchildren look at photos of me on the wall and notice how much they look like me? Will it matter 90 years from now, when one of my relatives has that strange feeling that 90 years is very short? 

Then I ask myself another question. Is this idea worthy to pursue in light of eternity? Is my little light going to show the way for someone else to walk one step closer to Jesus? How about my family? Are they seeing my light?

I might think I can multitask, online or in real life, but studies show it just doesn’t work that way. So I sit down with my dreams, my to do list, my prayer list, my personal connections list. And I choose what to say yes to. And, more importantly, I choose what to say no to.

I’m thankful, though, that I don’t have to have all the answers. I know Grandpa Follows didn’t. In reality, though he wasn’t an overly emotional person, he cried every time we left for the mission field, thinking this would probably be the last time we’d see each other. Every furlough for almost 15 years. Despite his cheerful, joking, energetic personality, he had a strong sense of his own mortality. And, just like me, he couldn’t know when he would die.

But he never asked us to stay or to come home early. Even when it was quiet in the house and nobody came to visit because it was raining. He knew there were people out there who didn’t know Jesus, so he wiped his tears and sent us away. Then he turned and served his community with all his heart, did all his hand found to do with all his might. And God used his life, like one stroke in a giant painting, to work beauty and good in this world.

I don’t know all the answers. But I know Someone who does. So I’ll keep dreaming and narrowing down and doing, over and over. As long as there is darkness, you’ll find me running here and there, wherever He calls, blinking my little light. Maybe I’ll see you out there, and together we can transform the darkest night into something that reminds the world there is a God who loves them.

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Abigail Follows

Abigail Follows has lived on three continents and understood the life stories of friends in three languages. She has served as a missionary since 2010, alongside her husband, two energetic kids, and cat, Protagonist. You can read more from her at Whatsoever Thoughts, or check out her book, Hidden Song of the Himalayas.

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