I haven’t been back to Britain for more than three years. The pandemic and a minor surgical procedure were the impassable and impossible barriers, and it means it’s the longest I’ve ever been away from my homeland. I was born there and didn’t leave for Canada until I was a 28-year-old.
It also means that this is the first time since their funerals that I’ve visited the graves of my parents, Phil and Sheila Coren. Because they died some time ago this might sound strange, even perverse, but certain family issues and complications made it the case. I am, I assure you, not proud of it. It’s eaten away at me for a very long time.
As a priest I’ve taken numerous funerals, and see loss and death on a fairly regular basis. But this encounter on a rainy day in a rural setting was something profoundly different. I speak not of grief, that entirely natural grab and grip of pain, but something even sharper and darker. A spinning combination of guilt, self-realization, and sobering nostalgia. I wasn’t prepared for it, and was taken by emotional and even physical surprise.
Guilt because I took my mother and father for granted. Yes, yes, that’s supposed to be the way to a certain extent but my children treat their parents with far greater awareness than I did mine. I loved them, I told them I loved them, but did I show them that I loved them? No, at least not to the extent that they deserved. When I blithely left for Canada to marry a woman I’d met in Toronto, I didn’t give my parents a second thought. Of course they wanted me to be happy, encouraged me, but everything that I did was defined by my needs and my wants. That just wasn’t good enough.
Self-realization because as I grow older as a father and now as a grandfather, I’ve come to understand what family and sacrifice are about, and to relish the star-soaked symbiosis of relationships. I failed at that with my parents, whose graves I now look on with so much remorse. No, I’m not being too hard on myself. I’m being honest!
The self-realization that floods me isn’t comfortable, and it opens wounds that were never healed but ignored and forgotten. The pain is suddenly reignited, and the tears I have are as much self-pity as sorrow for mum and dad. So, once again it’s about me.
Sobering nostalgia is tied in with a sense of mortality. There was once a time when I never discussed health with friends—now it’s often the first subject we speak about. Death doesn’t frighten me, my faith is strong I hope, but not being able to see my children and their children grow to maturity certainly does. As it must have for my parents, whose concerns I failed to grasp—didn’t even try to—because of my lack of empathy. If I were writing from an experience of familial abuse or neglect it would be more linear—horrible but clearer. But no, my parents cared for me, protected me, and gave what they could seldom afford to make my life easier. I should have acknowledged that so much more energetically and enthusiastically.
They gave me crimsons, purples, and royal blues, and I replied with the colours of complacency. Now they rest in dull, colourless places and I want so much to put it all right, and to repair the damage. But that can’t be done, at least in this land of shadows. I sincerely believe in an eternal life, and perhaps other words and other gestures can be made in times to come. I certainly hope so, with all of my heart and soul.
There are Hebrew as well as English texts on Phil and Sheila Coren’s graves, but neither language can do justice to them, or in any way expunge my deep melancholy. In the years I have left I will try my best, will likely often fail, but will, I pray, carve this visit into my psyche. It is, in every sense, the very least I can do.
I should have done and been better, could have done and been better, and now look for forgiveness rather than sympathy. I’m in the forgiving business, of course, and I’m confident in the embrace of Christ Jesus, but this is something beyond my control. I’m so sorry, mum, and I’m so sorry, dad. I loved and love you, and always shall.