A year on

The anniversary of mum’s death has come and gone. Oddly, there were no feelings on the day, no profound moments or tears. Perhaps my life is too full of other things. It certainly moves on.

I did visit the graveside the month before. I took flowers. It was a visit of choice, not need. Truth be told, I didn’t want to go. All that dirt and grass and quiet. I walked. I stood. I knelt. I even prayed. But it was just a grave. A simple plaque was laid to mark her spot and I was glad of it. Dad’s choice and just enough. But the day itself was grey, the ground damp, and all around the plots filled by strangers.

I do miss her. A year on and I miss her smile and the soft, loose skin of her cheeks. I miss her hands, her touch, those clandestine whisperings of pride and devotion. For mum there was never a thought or a feeling hidden for long. I do miss her. But for me there are no particular days that contain her, no sites that hold who she was. Somehow I find her most clearly inside of me. She inhabits my life. I look in the mirror and I see her. I look at my daughter and I see her. I look at my dad and I know her presence so tangibly … and her absence too.

Theologian David Ford suggests that the question ‘Who am I?’ leads us straight to the people who are part of us: ‘We find ourselves partly by remembering those who are most deeply woven into us.’ It’s true. My mother is woven into the stuff of who I am. To remember her is to know myself better. The Irish poet Michael O’Siadhail writes of someone similarly woven into his life. With a small change of pronoun, the words say something about mum that resonates.

I probe the essence of this energy;
no blandishments or blind approval,
her unblinking trust enticed me,
fingered some awareness of worth;
in her praise all is possible.

Though at first a copy-cat tremor,
after many storms I’ll still
strum the chord of her assurance,
that music I’ll make my own,
an old resonance I’ll summon up.


David Ford, The Shape of Living, Baker, 1997, 31.

Michael O’Siadhail, Hail! Madam Jazz, Bloodaxe, 1992, 84.

Not at home

Why aren’t you at home?
Why aren’t you there when I come by?
You don’t answer when I call
or play your scrabble move once I’ve played mine.
You’re not there to smile when I walk in the door
— as though just by being me I made your day.
‘Simon Carey’, you would always say.
But not now.
Now the chair is empty
and you’re not there.

I shouldn’t need you.
‘Need’ is a gratuitous word.
I’ve had my share.
I have enough —
a home of my own and a family too.
With hair that’s thin and joints that ache,
I’m long past needs
under warranty.
Your job is done.
My cup is full.
But I still look for you.

I want you to call, you see.
I need you to answer.
I need to drop in and have you hold my hand,
to ask about my beloved ones
and take me on the family tour.
And those questions I always tried to avoid —
I want you to ask them again
so I can deftly weave around them
as I always did.
But you can’t,
so neither can I.

You’re not at home anymore.

She’s gone

My mum has gone. It is as hard to say as it is to feel. She is not here anymore. Gone from me. Gone from our lives. Gone from her chair and her garden, never to return. The finality of death is overwhelming. Whatever else there is, what’s now is finished.

I was there when she left. I was sitting beside her stroking her forearm when her laboured breathing stopped. It was sudden. There was no warning, no fanfare, not even a solitary violin. Just silence. It’s a quietness I’ll never forget.

I was not meant to be there. Of all the family I was the one far away. I was sitting on a train in northern England when the phone connection kicked in and I learned how close to the end she was. It turns out my brothers had gathered the night before expecting her to go by the morning. But now a reprieve. Hurried phone calls, flight changes, cancellations and apologies. I exited the train in the old city of York feeling gutted and confused. I had a long day to wait before the journey home could even begin.

I did my best to be positive. I walked. I drank coffee and took photographs. I even bought a hat. I wandered the outside of the colossal Minster, awed by its bulk though joining the queue to go in was more than I could do. Instead I found another place – a little parish church not far away. There was a small plaque on its wall that dated its beginnings in the 12th century. There was no queue outside, not even a sign of welcome. The entrance was littered and un-swept.

I pushed on the door and ducked my head to go inside. As the door creaked closed behind me, the silence was wide, the space empty, the air musty and still. I stood for a while, glad of the quiet. I looked up and saw the ancient stone arches spread out in formation. I looked down and saw the aisle underfoot paved with gravestones – anonymous saints, their names worn away. I edged my way into one of the wooden pews. Seated, I noticed a series of garish little Icons on the outer walls marking the Stations of the Cross. They were not pretty, but awkward, and so very much at home. I closed my eyes and felt an odd sense of peace.

With tears I remembered … I remembered sitting beside mum in church when I was a boy. We sat on a wooden pew. I liked it there. There were no Icons for us, no gravestones underfoot. We Baptists were not into ‘graven images.’ But when I looked up at mum I knew without a moment’s doubt that God was real and that all would be well. For fifty-two years of my life mum has been the one through whom I’ve seen God – my own personal Icon; my Stained Glass; my Saint. It’s as though she wrote God’s name upon my life and kept reminding me it was there. ‘You are a man of God,’ she would say with such conviction I almost believed it. ‘I am so proud of you.’

But now, now she is gone, her breathing stopped. My Saint has gone underground. My reference point has disappeared and my reassurance silenced. I feel so very sad. Yet so very, very grateful.

Taller than me

He’s taller than me. I said it couldn’t happen, but it did and he is. He’s my son and I look up to him.

Before having children, I imagined having children. In particular, I pictured my role in raising a son and the impact I’d have upon his life. My responsibility was to shape his mind, character and faith. For me it was a calling and one I approached with equal parts privilege and trepidation. When I first held him in my arms, I understood my vocation afresh. Fathering was a sacred trust. I would be his dad — his guide and provider, someone he could always depend on, a man to emulate and look up to.

It’s all true of course. At our best, we fathers are those things and more. So are mothers. Deliberate or not, we are formative agents of influence. As a pastor, I see it played out every day. The gulf between those who have been parented well and those who haven’t is wide. But what is equally true is that as we shape our children so they shape us. Now as I look up to my son, I know more deeply just how much he has formed me. The truth is, I am a different person for having him in my life.

I am more humble in expectation. My son has taught me that good parenting has so little to do with grand vistas and life plans. For the most part, it is borne out in the most ordinary commitments made and remade every day. As an idealist, this has been a hard lesson for me. It still is. Taking each day as it comes, showing up again tomorrow when I’ve dropped the ball today, and, more often than not, accepting that ‘good enough’ is really the best I’ll ever be. And as for those aspirations I had for his faith … they may never be exactly as I had planned. I know that now. But when I look up at my son — when I see his goodness and beauty — I am reassured that all of this is ok.

I am more present to life. Children, especially in their earliest years, have a way of grabbing you by the shirt collar and wrenching you into the moment. Even when you’d rather be elsewhere. And they do it over and over again. Nappies, nap times, feeding, laundry, reading stories, bedtime routines, homework, hockey games, and midnight taxiing — all of this shapes your focus and draws you in time after time. So much so that as they get older, the attention they once demanded from you transforms into the time you crave with them. When I look at my son I know, more forcefully than at any other moment, that now is the time.

I am confronted by my own fallibility. In so many parts of life I am competent. I speak, I lead, I write, I envision, counsel, direct and manage, and in all of this I’m affirmed. I like it that way. But then I come home. In parenting I routinely feel incompetent. In one of the most important and long lasting roles of my life I am mostly at sea. I fail as often as I succeed. All that is less than it needs to be in my character and skill-set is cast in stark relief. But when I look up at my son, I see grace in human form. I see grace at work in him, in me and in all that really counts.

I know heartache, joy and longing more intimately. No one could have told me just how much I would love my children, how deeply and passionately I would care, how proud I would be and how cut when things go awry. Sometimes love for my children makes my heart sing, and other times it hurts. Frankly, there are times when I really wish I didn’t care so much. Because love, deeply felt, can manifest in unhelpful ways, trampling over boundaries essential to growth and good relationship. Love’s most natural instinct is to step in when, sometimes, stepping away is what’s needed most. But it is love of this depth and drive that forms us as nothing else can. I look up at my son and I know that I am different for it.

Parenting is not the only path to maturity and change. There are so many other ways to travel. But it has been significant to me, a pathway on which I have been formed as much as I have formed. No doubt, this fathering business has shaped my character, highlighted my frailties and honed by understandings of faith and life as much as anything else I have done.

Perhaps looking up to him is more appropriate than I had thought.

[Thanks to my brother Mark for the photograph and to an article I read twenty five years ago that’s still worth reading: David E. Nowak, ‘Formative Parenting: Formed, Forming, and Being Formed.’ In Studies in Formative Spirituality, 1986, 7 (1): 75-90.]