When I was a little girl, one crushed firefly made me feel prettier than any makeup ever could.

It was in the thick of summer, on an evening just like every other summer night we spent in our neighborhood of just three houses in the historic district of Howard County, MD. My sister and brother and I were running barefoot with the Healy kids, dashing to and from each others’ houses. Seeing how high we could swing on the swing set. Exploring the woods behind our houses. Taking a break to slurp on popsicles. Catching lightning bugs. Riding big wheels and bikes up and down the street. Playing “Mother May I?

The three Healy children — Michael, Katie, and Becky — had been our built-in playmates from the first day we moved in. We spent the night at each other’s houses on about four days each week. We all ended up going to the same small private school, so we carpooled every day for 10 years. Even when all our parents ended up divorced, our mothers coordinated our visitation weekends with our fathers so we would all be at home at the same time.

While my sister Kenley and I usually paired off with Katie and Becky, Michael was the idol of my little brother Matt. Michael was so sweet with him, even though he was 10 years younger. Matt always toddled round the Healy house, wanting Michael to play with him, and Michael always obliged. When we went sledding down the huge hill in the Healys’ back yard, Michael always let Matt sit in the sled with him so Matt wouldn’t be afraid to go down the hill.

On this night I remember squatting on the front steps of the Healys’ house with Michael next to me. We had been chasing fireflies and were counting how many we had caught in our jars. I was about 8 years old, so Michael must have been 13 or 14.

He was helping me count how many I had caught, when I noticed one of my fireflies wasn’t moving inside the jar anymore. “Oh, that one’s dead,” I said. “Get it out!”

Michael reached inside the jar, very carefully so none of the others would escape. He grabbed the firefly, held it between his fingers so its bright belly was facing me, then swiftly crushed it and swiped it across my eyelids and cheeks.

It left a shimmery trail of firefly dust all over my face. Michael stretched out a few fingers, rubbed the glitter into my cheeks and eyelids. Then he stood back, paused, and looked at me.

“There — you’re beautiful,” he said.

That is the first memory I ever have of someone telling me I was beautiful. And probably the purest it has ever been said.

Michael Healy died very recently from a rare cancer he had been soldiering against for a few years. Nothing I could write here will ever describe how I felt about him or how much he was loved, or how I hurt right along with his family.

But in that moment on that summer evening, I understood I would always be safe with Michael. Everyone was safe with Michael. Even up to the days before his death, he was still spending his energy being sure that his family and friends were okay. That they were sleeping enough. Eating enough. Safe.

As a girl, I have spent countless hours putting on makeup, doing my hair, buying pretty clothes, and getting dolled up for proms, balls, and dates.

Still, with all that primping and preparing, I have never felt so beautiful as I did that night with Michael — sitting on the rough stones of his front steps, skinned knees, braided hair, bare feet, bug guts crushed on my face, and the summer warmth of friendship in the space between Michael and me.

Article © 2008 by Andy Brame