Fireflies: Finding Light in a Dark World

Fireflies: Finding Light in a Dark World

by Heather Gordon-Young

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780819232014
Publisher: Church Publishing Inc.
Publication date: 07/01/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 232
File size: 357 KB

About the Author

HEATHER GORDON-YOUNG is a Canadian and an Anglican, a blogger, and a speaker who writes from her lived experience of illness, loss, and spiritual recovery. She is the executive director of a non-profit that supports vulnerable children and families, often with mental health and addiction issues.

Read an Excerpt


Finding Light in a Dark World

By Heather Gordon-Young

Church Publishing Incorporated

Copyright © 2015 Heather Gordon-Young
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8192-3201-4


Even when we were young, the dark called to my brother in a way it didn't call to me. If such things are allotted to us somehow, if we are given ordinary measures of light and dark between us, the dark reached for my brother and not for me.

Jimmy was born complicated on the inside, in layers that I have only begun to see. The inside layers are as clear to me now as if they had always been visible: thin and delicate, translucent and veined, a glowing tissue-paper lantern, complex and iridescent as a dragonfly wing. This is where the artist lived, where the painter that he grew up to be was waiting, bathing him in the color he would bring to the canvas, the beautiful world pulsing through tiny veins, even then.

I wonder, sometimes, how long it took for the dark to notice him.

* * *

When we were little, we drove for days once to visit our cousin's farm in Ontario; my brother and I, buckled in the backseat of our new family car, watched the prairies pass by our windows like an endless golden ribbon. The farmhouse had chickens in the kitchen and cows standing at the back door.

When it got dark, Aunt Jackie took all the kids out to the field to walk in the tall grass, each of us armed with an empty pickle jar. As we walked, fireflies flew up around our ankles as if we were floating across a field of stars.

I had never seen fireflies before. I was captivated, enchanted by the night. The dark was nothing with a field of stars at your feet. If you were quick, you could catch the fireflies in your hands and put them in your jar. After a while, everyone had bright jars of fireflies but me.

"I can't catch any!" I said, embarrassed that my voice broke, as if I was crying.

"Crying's not going to make you any faster," Aunt Jackie called out from the dark.

I decided I didn't want a firefly anymore.

"Suit yourself," she said.

Later, when my aunt wasn't looking, my brother whispered to me.

"You can have mine," he said.

He loosened the lid and held the jar underneath mine to let his fireflies fill up the empty glass. That night I walked all the way back to the porch by myself, with a magic lantern of my own, as if there was no such thing as darkness.

Everybody needs a brother who can catch fireflies, I thought to myself.

I loved him fiercely.

* * *

The night our father died, I sat in the quiet of the hospice room staring at the stillness of his body. I breathed in the silence, the whispers and moaning of grieving had stopped. His wife and her daughter were there, but for a moment I had the peculiar sense of having been left, a child abandoned on a park bench in a strange town.

I had walked with him for three long months to his death, about which I could do nothing, shuffling down the dimly lit corridor to the place where he would finally leave me and go on ahead. When you lose someone you love, the world comes undone for a while.

I knew I could not go back, that night, to cups of tea and boxes of tissues at their trailer. I knew I could not offer any words of comfort to his wife, Dona. I knew I could not yet endure the tears settling into memories in the quiet of the living room, the absence of his things already packed up and put away. I knew I could not hear anyone speak his name without feeling myself smash into a thousand pieces, an icicle dropped on the cement.

"I'll come by in the morning," I said. "My things are unpacked and it's late. Probably best if we all get some sleep."

That night, when I'd left to drive to the Oasis Hotel on the highway, having left his body there under the covers, eyes closed and hands turning a bluish white, I was not more than four blocks from the hospice, when I realized I'd forgotten already the shape of his fingernails.


I wheeled the truck around and drove back fast, running to the door, ringing the midnight bell, explaining to the night nurse that I'd forgotten something. And this was true. I slipped down the nighttime hall to the empty room to study his hands one last time: the square, strong fingers, big enough to once cup both of my small hands inside them.

That night, as I lay in the hotel bed staring at the bulb on the ceiling, the mattress crinkling through the thin sheet beneath me, I dreamed of my brother, Jimmy.

It was a kind of wakeful dream.

But it must have been a dream.

* * *

He was there in the room with me, looking just the same, the same soft skin on his cheeks, but his glasses were new, or at least I didn't recognize them. He was sitting on the vinyl chair beside the bed, leaning forward, reaching out to pass me something he held in his hand.

It was a large, smooth stone, as big as a fist.

I turned onto my side and looked up at him. I didn't even say hello, I just told him straight out:

"Dad died," I said. "A few hours ago."

He said nothing; he just held the stone out for me.

I suppose he already knew.

When I sat up to reach for it, when I felt it firmly in my hand, I must have woken. He was gone and there was no stone, but my hand could still feel the weight of it, as if it had just been there.

And I knew right then what that stone had been for.

* * *

When we were little, our parents bought a cabin on Cluculz Lake from an old woman who had loved the cabin for twenty years.

"Just don't move those stones," she'd said, pointing her arthritic finger to the small circle of stones at the bottom of the hill, toward the lake. She was giving my mother a few directions before she handed over the keys.

"The flowers come up there every year, about the same time as the Blue Martens come back," she said. "The stones protect them, you'll see. Just don't move them."

I believed her. I didn't need to know then that from the beginning of time, women in quiet corners of the world had carried stones and made circles with them for protection, calling down the sacred and the divine, like some force field that would stand guard against what they feared.

Her words were authority enough. The stones would not be moved. They would circle the place the flowers belonged without wavering, without rest, through every cold winter and every long night. And every spring the green shoots pushed through the earth in the center of the circle of stones about the same week that the birds came back to live in the summer birdhouse.

When I was brave enough to explore the forest on my own, in the places where twigs snap and pine needles softly blanket the forest floor, I found a clearing, an opening in the woods, dark and gentle, circled by the trunks of strong trees. It was a place that would become mine, a place that I would carry inside myself for the rest of my life, the trees marking out a boundary, familiar and strong.

One spring, I found something in the clearing that frightened me. There were soft white feathers scattered all across the space that was mine. And when I looked further I saw a tangle of twigs up against a stump at the edge, eggshells scattered and smashed, a rounded basket-like indent in the earth, shaped by twigs and feathers, more egg shells, more feathers. And then I knew.

A terrible thing had happened.

I ran from the forest to get my father. Someone should know about this, I thought, running for help.

"Something terrible has happened!" I shouted to him.

He ran with me over the logs and through the branches and ducked inside to stand in the clearing. He stopped and scanned the ground, then looked at me with gentle eyes, relief, a look I was too young to understand. He was always good at this sort of thing.

"What do you think?" I said finally, when I'd caught my breath and been quiet long enough. "Maybe a wolf?"

He was quiet, thinking. He touched my hair with his hand and then bent down.

"Looks like a fox got in," he said, taking his hat off and reaching for a piece of white shell, studying it.

I was amazed. How calm my father seemed in the face of this. He placed the shell in my small hands and cupped them inside of his.

"But how could it?" I asked him, incredulous that this could be true. I felt my lip quiver and my eyes grow blurry with tears. "How could that happen?"

"Well, sometimes these things happen," he said.

I was certain it had been a wolf.

We were quiet.

"Do you think the mother and father were killed?"

I tried not to think of them being eaten. I tried not to notice all the feathers, scattered violently around the clearing.

He was thinking about what to say next.

"No, they're probably all right," he said. "They must have been out getting food."

I thought about what he said for a long time before I asked, because I wasn't sure I could bear the answer:

"But why did they leave their babies alone?"

"Well," he said, pausing, thinking. "Sometimes they just have to."

* * *

He could not have known then, how things would turn out.

* * *

Later that afternoon, I felt I had to do something; that there was something that should be done. And so I filled my t-shirt with stones from the lake and carried them into the forest, making trip after trip until I had enough stones. I gathered the shells and feathers from the ground and put them inside the nest. Then I made a circle around the nest with the stones, marking it, protecting it. The stones would not be moved.

Many years later, when I was married with children of my own, I went back to find that place, and there, up underneath, in the same clearing, was the circle of stones, standing guard, marking the place that had once held a family.

The night my father died, I felt in my hand the stone that Jimmy had kept for me, for the circle of stones in the clearing.

This, I have come to realize, is why I write these pages. They are the stones I carry from the lake to tell this story: to lay the questions we could not answer on the soft ground; to mark the place on the earth that once held a family. Through every winter and every long night, the circle of stones remains for those who come to the forest long after we are gone.


We grew up in a tall house on Highland Drive off the Hart Highway. The town knew our neighborhood as "The Hart." The Hart was north of Prince George, straddling Highway 97 to Alaska with a handful of run-down shops that once were hopeful delicatessens or florists but had ended up trying to make a go of it as Hart Video and Hart Laundromat. By the time we grew up, the Hart had paved roads, fewer bears on the streets, and its own McDonald's.

Trees towered in our backyard. My mother used to complain that she couldn't plant a thing back there because the light from the sun never reached the ground. The backyard was a forest of thick branches and moist ground. Not even grass could find a way to grow in some places.

This is what made me bury things there, back in the darkest corner by the tire swing we never used. I buried beautiful creatures there, a soft brown bird I'd found on the side of the road, a dragonfly caught in the spokes of my bike, sometimes small treasures. Mostly the ground served as a secret graveyard.

I buried things as deeply as I could dig, which was not very deep, but you'd never notice the little graveyard unless you actually went looking. No one did. The ground was made mostly of the rot of old stumps that used to be trees long before my father built our house there, so the graveyard was covered in a thick layer of nearly black forest soil that never felt dirty to me, not even in my fingernails.

Neither the moon nor the sun could see through the trees in our backyard, at least not all the way down to the forest floor. I liked that. It was private and somehow appropriate, I felt, for burying small boxes, coffins for butterflies and mice our cat brought home. No one knew about the graves — not the sun and not even the moon. I used to think that the sun and the moon watched us, not like God, but still observing.

And perhaps it's true. Some days I still believe it, wondering what it's like to be the sun, really only ever noticing the world fully lit, always bright-edged and daylight, the right time for lemonade stands and piano lessons, for watching robins hatch from pale blue eggs in spring. This is, I think, what it means to be a child: to hold hands with the sun and look at the world together, smiling.

But the moon is different; the moon sees the world both in the day and in the night. The moon is not a stranger to darkness. The moon is silvery, cold and wise, slipping out of sight when the sun arrives. Nothing gets past the moon. Growing up has something to do with accepting the world as the moon sees it: in darkness and in light.

And when the time has come, when a child has passed from that endless sunny band of light, he slips, by force or by choice, bravely past the edge, into the place where the sunny afternoon is over and dusk begins. It is here, at the edge of darkness, where the sharp blade of night slices open the world, where the child first hears the steps of a stranger coming behind him in the dark. It is here, at the edge of night, that a child must have the courage to stand close to the moon, even if he can't bring himself to hold the moon's hand — even if the moon feels cold.

* * *

But God is different. When people come to know God, it happens, I think, in as many different ways as there are leaves on the ground after an autumn wind. I was like a child gathering dry twigs in the forest in the way that I first began to think about God, assembling them branch by branch into a fort that defined my place in amongst the tall trees, but with no roof to block the sky. It was lopsided, carefree, messy; a secret hideout, hardly distinguishable, at first, from a brush pile, unless you were the one who'd built it.

As I grew older and stronger, the branches I could carry were bigger, gathered from farther away, laid with design and attention to strength, and the fort became an elaborate structure that may not have been much to look at, but it was my own.

Still I find myself there some days, inside the meandering structure of twigs and branches. On a good day I lie flat on my back on the soft earth and peer up through the tallest trees, to the clear blue of a summer sky. Occasionally, a hummingbird or a dragonfly or some other miraculous creature dances across my view; sometimes a flock of wild geese honk their way in proper formation to the lake nearby, flying toward the voice of the one who calls them, perhaps not ever wondering whose voice it is they hear.

When I first heard this kind of voice, I was very small. Was it a voice, audible in the room, or more the feeling of a voice? I don't know. I have no idea how old I was, but I remember standing in the playroom seeing the doorknob right next to my eyes. I didn't tell anyone, of course — I seemed to know even then it might be private. I had a kind of reasoning about this strange feeling, this sense of God right there in the playroom. It wasn't logical, but I'd tried to make sense of things, the way small children do.

Perhaps, I'd reasoned, babies are born with thin, invisible ribbons attached to them, dangling them down from heaven until they find a home. And when they are safe, someone — maybe an angel — snips the ribbon. For a long time, I was certain that I was still attached somehow, that someone had forgotten. I didn't mind, of course, but my brother, I could see, was not attached, not in the same way. He seemed breakable even then.

Did I try too hard not to notice?

* * *

I was swimming front crawl in the pool to practice for my orange badge. Our family was away together on a holiday — we were at a motel. I wanted to pass the swim test when I got home, so no matter what, I kept swimming. There was someone walking along the edge of the pool trying to talk to me as I swam, an older boy with pimples, maybe a summer lifeguard. He was walking along the edge and crouching toward me, shouting at me. I think he must have been trying to correct my stroke, if I had such a thing, telling me how to move my arms, but I could only hear a word or two occasionally because my head was under the water.

I ignored him. He disappeared when I turned my face back into the water. When I lifted my head to breathe, I would notice him again. I would notice the world on the deck around him — how it went past slowly, how it all went on without me while my face was in the water, like a slow-motion movie. I liked that the boy disappeared when I turned my head. He walked away after awhile, gave up trying to talk to me.


Excerpted from Fireflies by Heather Gordon-Young. Copyright © 2015 Heather Gordon-Young. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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