For Irene

Today is Mum’s birthday.

She passed away last year, and I’ve been thinking of her a lot lately — the woman who taught me to love music and books, art and design, how to be patient and how to be creative. I grew up painting beside her in her little studio full of plants, and spent three days a week one summer drawing and doing puzzles together while she underwent dialysis. She sewed toys and costumes, and made countless paintings of local flora and fauna in dazzling detail.

She was an avid naturalist, too. For my birthday, Mum always used to send me a photo of a cool insect she or Dad had found that day — a caterpillar or a moth or what-have-you.

Last spring, as her health began to fade for the last time, we both realized that there wouldn’t be the chance for another birthday bug. But some time in June, sitting up in her hospital bed, she turned to me and said, “You should look for fireflies.”

It had been years since I’d seen a firefly. When I was little, we’d gone out to see them when we were visiting Grandma and Grandpa Hamada in the farm country west of Brampton, in the long grass beside their yard.

As it happened, last spring was also when Sean and I moved to Hamilton, fortuitously close to the hospital, and not far from a public golf course with some nice bits of meadow and wood between the greens that we could wander after dark. So a night or two later, I went out for a walk with our dog Mae — and there they were. Just a couple at first… then another, and another, and as dusk turned to night, I saw dozens of them, more fireflies than I’d ever seen, drifting in a vast, shifting, blinking starscape.

I let Mae run free while I stood and watched the sky, laughing and crying at the same time.

I went back to the hospital the next day and told her about them. I said “Thank you.” She just smiled and said, “You’re welcome.”

And every night, there seemed to be more fireflies. Soon they were coming to our back yard too — and the light show went on for weeks afterward.

So that was her final gift. And truly, it’s the most enduring thing Mum taught me: that you don’t have to travel far to find beauty and wonder — that it is always there, all around us, waiting to be discovered.

Mum and Dad looking for moths by the front door, 2016.