Thinking about the lives that pass us by.
By Sara Schuster | On a recent trip home, I came across a relic of my childhood, tucked comfortably and nearly unnoticeably in the recesses of my old closet: a bug catcher. Its mesh netting sagged slightly between the bones of its plastic frame—the red, green, and blue hues more garish than they had been to a child’s eyes. It was the size of a small pet carrier, maybe a foot long and half as wide, with a circular door that swiveled over an opening on top. Chubby little hands used to twirl that door over and over again, in the humidity of early June in New York City.
In something of a childhood ritual, my younger brother and I would plop our fleshy bottoms down in the cool grass of Riverside Park, and wait. At that age, the passage of 10 minutes felt like an eternity. Staked out as we were, we would stare at my mom with wide eyes, the bug catcher perched in my lap.
“When are they coming?”
“Soon, princess. Soon.”
Her hand would smooth the top of my short blonde locks, pin-straight, barely just touching my shoulders in the back and my eyebrows in the front. She would breathe in the smoggy summer air with closed eyes, taste the hint of the grass in the air she’d sucked in, and smile. My dad would lean against a bench, probably as impatient as the two of us wiggling on the ground below his legs.
We could see the highway on the other side of the field, still illuminated by the just-setting sun. Hear the rush of cars that sped past. That was enough to occupy my brother, then perhaps six. He’d just begun to lose the dark curls from atop his head; a few haircuts were enough to convince the hair to lay flat. The cars would zoom past, screech ever so slightly, and move on, continuing on a path we could only guess and carrying people we’d probably never know.
The sun would creep down, and darkness would start to settle.
And just like that, like blinking your eyes, there they were. Little lights, everywhere. Under the trees, in the grass, on the wires of the fence, next to my father’s ear.
We’d squeal, excited, ecstatic. That’s one of the many mysteries of childhood, isn’t it? The way so many single moments can house the most fulfilling experiences. The light at the tail end of a bug: absolutely elating and perfect.
Quickly we’d set off “hunting.” Perhaps it was the remains of ice cream that made our fingers so sticky and appealing, but we never had any trouble. Little palms would close as delicately as they could manage around the little bodies and we’d ferry them to the catcher.
Firefly after firefly, we’d gather as many as we could, racing around the field in our clumsy dance. My mother and father would watch with quiet contentment: the success of occupying two small children for another sliver of the day, coupled with the satisfaction of watching the infectious joy we could receive from such little things.
When we’d had our fill, the bug catcher consumed by a lightshow of soft yellow flashes in the dark of the park, we’d return to our apartment and set it on our bedroom windowsill. My father would tell us some story from his own childhood and we’d half-listen from our twin beds, still enthralled by the frame holding the bugs we’d stolen.
I later came to know that my mom would sneak in, in the middle of the night, to grab the catcher and discard the dead little bodies within before we would wake. We never saw the half-dried wings and the quivering, then quiet, legs. We only saw the magic little lights emanating from their backsides.
“Butt lights.” My brother’s round cheeks would bounce as he giggled. It would be years before he lost the baby-fat orbs that once defined his face, revealing a jawline no one knew he had. Years he still complains were more than he deserved, and years my mother still laments the passing of. As his cheeks slimmed he grew like a weed, the top of his head shooting far past the top of my father’s.
I hadn’t seen the “firefly house” in more years than I can remember. I’d gone in search of a sweatshirt in which to curl up next to my dad on the couch, and my eyes had settled on the red circle of that door.
The fates of bodies have lately been on my mind. To speak candidly about time is to speak candidly about the passage of life, and that is something that I, just scraping the edges of 20, cannot claim authority to do. But I am, maybe, a bit more attuned to the markers, having grown up with a father who was 63 when I was born. I can see the difference of a year in the blossoming sun-spots across his forehead. I can sense the months in the soft, increasing whiteness of his hair. I can look at the bug catcher and remember how one summer he ran with us, and the next he didn’t. This isn’t a lamentation on the toll years take, just an observation akin to a sigh.
For each year that I’ve grown, my dad has shrunk. This is not shocking; it’s life. It’s the movement from one generation to the next, physically manifested in the rise of my shoulders and the slow lowering of his.
These are the changes that you don’t see from one day to the next, but you suddenly do when you remove two people from the constant presence of one another. He sees my figure filling out with an exhalation of relief. I see his aging with trepid acceptance.
The life expectancy of a firefly is about two months in the wild. Trapped on our windowsill, it was more like 12 hours. Just long enough to light up the bedroom of two kids, one six and one eight. One blonde, one brown-haired, both cherubs in stature and features. Characteristics that would not last but a few more summers. Then the bug catcher got moved to the back of the closet, replaced by remote-control trucks and board games, taekwondo gear, and dance costumes. Soccer balls and endless piles of clothing. The cane my father considered and discarded. His crutches, which saw a similar fate. Bigger clothes, shoes, sleepaway-camp suitcases. Linens that had no place to go. Dust.
And then time goes on and the closet that was yours becomes your “childhood closet,” and the items within just distant memories. The hat I wore on my first “date,” bright white beside the black mesh of the catcher it resides next to.
For the 12 hours that one of our fireflies lived, about 30 billion cells die in an average human body. New cells replace them. The cycle, miraculously, keeps chugging. We morph constantly, both positively and negatively. Gain weight, lose weight. Grow. Shrink. Quiver, and at some point, stop.
This has scared me from the first time I ever understood it. My body was never going to be what it was the day before, or the day after. Things change. Even if I didn’t see it in the mirror all the time, my father was the living example. And yet, it has never seemed to bother him. He’ll point to his crooked second toe and let out a hearty laugh, a sort of bellow that resonates from his diaphragm to his esophagus and ends with a resounding cough. “Would you look at what that’s doing now?”
Standing in my closet, I wiggled the bug catcher from its perch, watching the rest of the items on the shelf shift irreparably as I finally slithered it out. With longer, slenderer fingers, I spun the circular door, finally wondering where all of the bodies went when they stopped blinking their butt lights.
We never saw their end, my brother and I, for which I’m kind of thankful. Their light was perfect and magical just as it was. We did not have to witness their deterioration or demise, only their unique triumph. We never asked where they went. As children often do, we simply bought in to the illusion of life’s infinitude as unquestioned fact.