Copperheads and Fireflies

They're both around this time of year

Dear Readers,

In addition to honoring those who lost their lives serving our country, Memorial Day marks the unofficial beginning of summer. I’ve been reflecting on summer in terms of fireflies and copperheads.

First, fireflies. Lightning bugs. Growing up in Arizona, the only time I saw fireflies was on the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction in Disneyland. They seemed magical and peaceful in the first few moments of the ride. Twenty-five years ago, when my then-fiancée Gary and I were in the Tidewater area of Virginia searching for our first house together, I saw an actual firefly for the first time at a Fourth of July barbecue we attended with some of his new colleagues. I stared at its sparks for the rest of the evening, easing my angst about moving so far from the Southwest.

These past twenty-five years I have yet to capture a firefly very well on camera, which is why the photo accompanying this letter on social media depicts a copperhead instead, one I snapped with my phone earlier this month.

Normally I start seeing copperheads later in summer, but apparently, we can expect more this year due to their favored snack of cicadas. I saw the one in the picture on a rainy night when I took Pepper out before bed. Somehow (thankfully!) Pepper did not see the snake, so I rushed her back inside and returned with my phone, certain that Gary, who was in New York, would not believe that it was a copperhead. After I snapped it and texted it to him, he went to our Ring cameras on his phone and texted back, “I can see you taking a picture of a snake on ring video. People are often surprised at how far a snake can reach out. It would be kind of a shame to be bitten by a copperhead on the same day you get an agent.”

I’ve ruminated on the idiocy of capturing that snake, in the dark, in the rain, in a photo. I promise I wasn’t thinking “Oh hey, this could make a newsletter.” I’ve determined that I took the photo because I get frustrated by how people want to focus on the magic of creatures like fireflies while not acknowledging the dangerous presence of copperheads.

Gary and I have both noticed this phenomenon when people ask about my health. I’m grateful to be alive, especially after recently reading a statistic that half of the people with lung cancer die within a year of diagnosis. I’m glad I didn’t see that statistic a year ago, and I’m grateful to be in the half who are still alive. But when people ask either of us about my health, they cut us off almost immediately with “That’s great!” or “So you’re healthy!” They only want good news, when the truth is that I—we—are living scan to scan. We’ve both taken to responding, “My [or, ‘her’] last scan was good.” Those good scans are like twinkling fireflies, but copperheads lurk in the clover.

My chemo port was removed three weeks ago. I’m grateful that my oncologist and surgeons were confident enough to have it removed, gambling that I won’t need more chemo. Then again, it won’t be a big deal for them if I need to have it “reinserted” later on. They know my insurance will pay for it and it’s a statistically safe surgery. I find myself frustrated with people wanting to see only the positives—the fireflies—of having it removed because I feel anxiety. I routinely need IVs now: for example, every six months, when I get scanned, I have to have an IV inserted for contrast dye. The port made this simple. While the hospital had to find a nurse who could access a port, which took time, I did not have to get poked five times in my arm, wrist, or hand in order to find a usable vein. Due to lymph nodes removed from my left arm following breast cancer surgery, only my right arm can be accessed, and various veins have collapsed in the past year. I’m a “tricky stick.” That’s why they put the port in me to start with: a year ago, after it took five tries to get my first chemo infusion, one vein burst mid-infusion. That bag was magnesium, thanks be to God, not a chemo drug. There’s a firefly. But it hurt and was dangerous and necessitated a port, which made the rest of my chemo experience easier. For me, then, that port removal wasn’t all fireflies.

When people let me mention my concerns about copperheads, I find myself more aware of metaphorical fireflies: like this morning, when I was up before dawn, I heard an owl in the neighborhood. As you can guess from the title of this newsletter, that hooting may be my favorite sound in the world: magical, sacred. Holy. When friends give me grace about copperheads, I find myself telling them about how happy I am right now. How I have reprioritized my life, and focus at church on people and the Bible and the sacraments, worrying and caring less about finances and attendance and how tall the grass gets. How excited I am about my various writing projects. How I now have a smart, spiritual literary agent. How I plan to see my Arizona family again in the fall. I’m living scan to scan, and right now, I’m happy, grateful, and maybe not “healthy,” but healthy enough.

What are your metaphorical copperheads and fireflies? I’d love to hear in the comments (real stories about these creatures are welcome, too!)

If you enjoy reading my musings about seeking spiritual strength among the mess, please share or forward to a friend. If you’re reading online, please subscribe. Thank you so much!

Blessings, Elizabeth

What I’m reading:


Olympus Texas by Stacy Swann. If you like Greek/Roman mythology, check out this book about a family in small-town Texas.

Fault in Our Stars. I realize this book is almost nine years old. I checked it out years ago but didn’t read it after realizing it was a YA novel. Now that I have studied YA lit as part of my MFA, I realize what an art form it is. Despite embarrassment at my earlier ignorance, I’m glad I waited because I’m grateful to have read it after my two cancer diagnoses, especially reading about what the protagonist goes through with her lungs; and, that death in the book is ugly, not “brave.” My favorite line was about how our grief doesn’t change us, but rather reveals us.

Bookwoman of Troublesome Creek. Another bestseller it took me a while to read. All the hype was right.

Shorter pieces:

We Were American Girls by Ashleé Clark. I love this writer.

My Grandma Picks Fights with the Contestants on the Price Is Right by K.B. Carle.  K.B. is the Queen of Flash.

When Dawn Breaks Us by Dana VanderLugt. By one of my favorite writers and people.

Shared History Is the Chimney That Doesn’t Burn Down Even if the Rest of the House Does by Elaine Neil Orr. Jaw-dropping flash nonfiction.

What I’m writing:

This section is slim right now, even though I just spent a whole week writing as part of an online residency at my MFA alma mater, Spalding University. I hope some of the articles and pitches from that workshop will yield fruit I can link to here in the coming months. Meanwhile, here’s my Pentecost sermon: (Yesterday’s sermon won’t post until tomorrow.)

Pentecost Sermon