David Morrell: Fireflies: A Father's Classic Tale of Love and Loss

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The best-selling author describes his teenage son's valiant but unsuccessful battle against bone cancer and relates the mystical and miraculous events that led the author to an understanding of the undying quality of the human spirit.

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David Morrell

Fireflies: A Father's Classic Tale of Love and Loss


This book is dedicated to the staff, nurses, and physicians at the University of Iowa ’s Hospitals and Clinics. One of the largest teaching and research hospitals in the United States, it exemplifies the best, in terms of both skill and humane values, that the medical profession ideally represents.

The nurses who administered to my son are too many to mention by name. Each did her or his part with utmost sensitivity and talent. My wife, my daughter, and I remember you with gratitude and love.

Of the physicians who cared for Matt, special thanks are due to Drs. Raymond Tannous, Janet Graeve, Kevin Pringle, Roger Giller, Brian Wicklund, Michael Trigg, Robert Soper, C. Thomas Kisker, and Pedro De Alarcon.

Thanks are also due to Cecilia Coulas, Diane and Michael Batty, Barbara and Richard Montross, Helen and Nicholas Rossi, and Gloria and Rudolph Galask, without whose compassionate support my family and I would have felt even more lost. Fathers Henry Greiner and Greg Miller, true servants of God, provided the spiritual consolation we so desperately craved.

But finally, crucially, this book is dedicated to Matthew.

God love you, son. Watch over us. We did our best to watch over you.

Give sorrow words: the grief that does not speak

Whispers the o’er-fraught heart, and bids it break.





A well-known novelist friend (I see him seldom but think of him fondly) once began a famous book with one of the most arresting passages I’ve ever encountered. The novel was Ghost Story, its author Peter Straub.

And this is how he started.

What was the worst thing you’ve ever done?

I won’t tell you that, but I’ll tell you the worst thing that ever happened to me… the most dreadful thing…


I’ve borrowed Peter’s words because they so perfectly express what I’m feeling. The worst thing I’ve ever done? I’ll leave that troubling question for a different book.

But the worst thing that ever happened to me? The most dreadful thing? I can tell you that with absolute certainty. Indeed, with terrible compulsion, I find myself driven to describe that ordeal. My effort isn’t voluntary. It comes in torturous rushes. Distraught, I remind myself of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, in a frenzy stopping friends and strangers to tell of my woe, as if by describing it often enough, I can numb myself and blunt the words-and in so doing heal myself of the cause behind the words.

The effort’s impossible, I suspect. Certainly, it didn’t work for the Ancient Mariner. After killing a bird of good omen and enduring a consequent nightmarish sea voyage, he managed to return to shore.

Forthwith this frame of mine was wrenched

With a woful agony,

Which forced me to begin my tale;

And then it left me free.

Left him free? Well, apparently not, for Coleridge adds a marginal note that “ever and anon throughout his future life an agony constraineth him to travel from land to land.”

Since then, at an uncertain hour,

That agony returns:

And till my ghastly tale is told,

This heart within me burns.

I’m no more free than the Ancient Mariner. To be sure, I haven’t killed a bird of good omen, though I recently saw a metaphoric version of such a bird die-and three days later I saw a literal bird, very much alive, that seemed to be a reincarnation of the departed soul of the first. A cryptic reference? You bet. Necessarily so, and soon to be explained. A mystical experience; and along with terror, sorrow, agony, guilt, compassion, God, and redemption, it’s very much a part of my tale. For like the Ancient Mariner, my heart surely burns to tell you-once and for all, to be done with my tale, to exorcise my demons, to gain and preserve my faith.


Men fear death as children fear to go in the dark; and as that natural fear in children is increased with tales, so is the other.


“Of Death”

Fear. For almost twenty years as a fiction writer, I’ve focused on terror as my main subject. I’ve always believed, as Sartre in Nausea, that real life is so fundamentally boring that we need adventure fiction to help soothe our ennui, to take us out of the doldrums of actuality. The paradox, of course, is that if we ever truly experienced a “thriller,” we would find it so terrifying we would wish with all the power of our being to be returned to the safe but depressing boredom of reality.

T. S. Eliot puts it this way in “Sweeney Agonistes”:

“I’ll carry you off

To a cannibal isle…

Nothing to eat but the fruit as it grows…

Nothing at all but three things.”

“What things?”

“Birth, and copulation, and death.”

“I’d be bored.”

Bored? I don’t think so. Not me any longer. For I have seen real life at its starkest. I’ve learned that copulation and birth have an unavoidable consequence: death. Despite what I used to think (and what Sartre thought), I know this much-that real life, whatever else it might be, isn’t boring.

Because recently I was overwhelmed by a massive dose of my subject matter. I came face-to-face with terror, and now I have trouble writing thrillers. Having encountered death, I find that to write about it using the conventions of a thriller makes me feel I’m holding back, leaving out death’s grisly secret. And yet to include that secret would be to negate the distracting purpose of a thriller.

So to tell my tale I’ve compromised. Most of what you’re about to read is fact. I still can’t believe it happened, but God have mercy, it did, and I feel an obligation to tell it. Since others have suffered as I and my family have, perhaps from our experience and the lessons we strained to learn, others will learn and find solace. In the aftermath of the loss we endured, we took great comfort in Harold S. Kushner’s When Bad Things Happen to Good People. But the book you’re now reading is different from Kushner’s in many respects. For one thing, his excellent volume (though prompted, as was mine, by a personal tragedy) is a wide-ranging discussion of crises of faith that he encountered among troubled members of his synagogue.

For another, his book is totally factual.

However, Fireflies devotes itself exclusively to one family’s tragedy, and though almost completely factual, it does have elements of fiction. Not the fireflies, the dove, and the other mystical experiences I will describe. I assure you they did happen. Still, because I wanted to make a statement about grief, about faith and the afterlife, I imposed a frame of fiction onto fact. In an epilogue, I’ll explain where fact and fiction diverge. I’ll also explain my reasons for blending the two, and my conclusion will, I hope, be spiritually rewarding.

Can I see another’s woe,

And not be in sorrow too?

Can I see another’s grief,

And not seek for kind relief?


Songs of Innocence,

“On Another’s Sorrow”



Now he was old. One month shy of his eighty-fourth birthday. His daughter, Sarie, not so young herself, sixty-one, stood beside his deathbed in the shadowy, raspy confines of an isolation room in Intensive Care. Shadowy, because the blinds had been closed to ease the strain on his aching eyes. Raspy, because no matter how faint his hearing had become he couldn’t fail to register the constant hiss, wheeze, and thump of the respirator thrusting oxygen down the constricting tube in his throat. No doubt there were odors-of medication, of his own diseased body-but he’d become so accustomed to the pungent, sick-sweet, acrid smells of the hospital that he no longer detected them.

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