After my mother, Barbara McInnes, passed away last summer, tributes and stories have come in by the thousands. “I spoke to her for only a moment, but the words she said to me changed the course of my life.”
“She was one of the only people who ever saw me — and I mean truly saw me.”
But for me, she was just Mom. She never spoke about her work. If she received an honour or accolade, we would often hear about it from someone else. You can google “Barbara McInnes” and learn all about the incredible work she did for our community, country, and world. What the internet can’t tell you is who she really was as a person and what she was like as a mother.
Mom moved around quite a bit as a child, since her father was in the military. The station that had the biggest impact on her life was in France, where she lived in her early teens and made deep friendships that live on to this day. The family settled in Ottawa when Mom was high school age, but after a disagreement with her parents when she was 15 years old, she moved out of the family home.
By then, she had met my father, Glenn, who at 16 years of age was already starting engineering studies at Carleton University. Contrary to convention back in the 1960s, Mom and Dad were married for five years before they had their first child. My little sister Emily followed a few years later.
Mom danced through life. As children, we don’t remember her ever staying still. She danced and sang as she cooked. She danced and sang as she put us to bed at night and as she woke us up in the morning. She never stopped smiling.
Mom always had her nose in a book, and we followed in her footsteps. For as long as we can remember, we were surrounded by stacks of library books. Going to the library was a much-loved ritual. We would spend hours together agonizing over which ones we’d bring home.
In the summers, our parents rented a cottage, which my mom’s parents had rented when my mom was growing up. It was made of fieldstones, had a hand pump in the kitchen and an outhouse out back. The huge fireplace and built-in seating were designed for reading. We’d spend the entire summer up there with Mom, going back to town only to replace our library book collection.
Mom was in her element up there in that old cottage. She was surrounded by her favourite things: her children, books, and a lake. Oh, did she love to swim! After she died, we were looking through photos of her with her siblings. There are some taken in Europe when they were young. Her brothers and sister are up to their knees in the ocean, their arms wrapped around them, clearly freezing cold. Mom has her arms up in the air, jumping in the waves with a giant smile on her face. She was in love with water.
There were some things about Mom that were magical. She was completely selfless. Over the years, she was our champion. She stood up for us when we needed her to. She stood back when we needed to hold our own. From her, we learned empathy and kindness and the value of every human life. She never complained and never asked for help, even when she was ill. Until her last breath, she was concerned only about others.
Repeatedly she assured us that she was okay. She had an incredible life, she would tell us. She had so many adventures and she had no regrets. She felt so lucky to have travelled the world and to have met so many wonderful people.
The night before Mom passed away, a firefly entered her room. Her eyes lit up in surprise and wonder, and her granddaughter gently captured the firefly so that it could safely be released outside.
The next night, after Mom had passed away with a beautiful smile on her face, we sat with her for hours as the sun slowly came up. Again, a firefly came to visit us before quietly flying away.
In the weeks after she passed, the fireflies were out in full force as they are at that time of year. But their behaviour was unusual. When the tears would fall, a firefly would separate from the others and come right up to our faces — no more than a centimetre away — and hover. It seemed to be Mom’s way of saying: “You’re okay. I’m with you. I am light and free and happy.”
Mom is everywhere: in the sun shining over us, in the stars shining brightly in the sky, in the one last rose remaining on the rosebush, and in the firefly blinking its tiny light just a hair’s width from our eye.