Ħallejtna bħall-Erbgħa fost il-ġimgħa

by Sergio Grech

published by Merlin, 2022

It is said that Sir Winston Churchill died fearing he had underachieved and let his father down. His whole life had been devoted to restoring his father’s legacy and attempting to make him proud – despite the fact that he had passed away in 1895.

The relationship between parents and their children is complex. As the child grows, the relationship evolves. Sometimes, these tricky relationships can be a breeding ground for some other feelings – perhaps some resentment, jealousy, power struggles and even huge misunderstandings.

Sergio Grech’s new book, Ħallejtna bħall-Erbgħa fost il-ġimgħa, explores the consequences of a testy relationship interrupted in an untimely manner by death.

The author is not new to the theme of fatherhood. In his book U tisbaħ missier…, Grech explored the more humorous aspects of his relationship with his children.

This book is different. It tackles a more serious aspect of the father-son relationship; one overshadowed by death but also by an underlying sense of unease, disappointment and an overwhelming need for acceptance and redemption. The feeling of failure associated with the death of a loved one permeates throughout the book.

It begins with a dialogue in the run-up to the doctor’s appointment, where the final diagnosis is made. We get a sense of the tension in the relationship. For example, the father asks the son to switch on the radio; the son obliges because he wants to make him happy.

However, the author comments on his father’s opinion that he was a “disappointment” and a “rebel without a cause”. This time, he obeyed; however, there were instances in the past where he did not do so. In this case, there were consequences. His father would turn into a “ferocious lion” who would demonstrate who “the man of the house is”, adding that “there can only be one man in every family”.

However, given his terminal illness, these arguments take a new meaning. The author tries to understand what drove a wedge between the two. There is an innate desire to initiate a meaningful conversation. However, the dying man showed no willingness to engage.

The author recalls his childhood prize day ceremonies and how his father never congratulated him on his achievements. All he wanted was his approval and his congratulations; instead, he was told that this was what he was expected to do and that anything he achieved were for his own good.

All that was left unsaid matters more than what was said. It matters more than the arguments, the shouting and the lack of understanding.

Grech’s book is a brave exploration of specific themes. It tackles head-on the difficulties that arise between parents and their offspring

This book permeates with the feeling of unfinished business. However, much of what was left unsaid also included the sense of admiration the author has for his father. Regardless of his shortcomings, he was still someone to look up to. Despite the apparent differences, the two were closer than what first met the eye.

This book, however, is not just about this complex relationship. It is, in some ways, the recollection of a journey of acceptance, reconciliation and closure. It explores the clash between the past and present and the helplessness in the face of death.

For example, the character of Miss Callus emerges as a significant character the author recalls from time to time. She was the strict primary school teacher of the old school who took issue with how the author expressed himself. It soon becomes apparent that her comments pierced the author to the point that they still torment him during the saddest moments of his life.

The clash of generations can be seen in the different views held by the author and his father. On one level, there are differences in political outlook, such as, for example, their views on hunting and trapping.

This book permeates with the feeling of unfinished business between father and son. Photo: Shutterstock.comThis book permeates with the feeling of unfinished business between father and son. Photo: Shutterstock.com

On another level, there is a radi­cal chasm in the interpretation of fatherhood. Now that the author is also a father, he can lay out the differences bare. They are equals. On the one hand, his father ruled his family like a god – the typical ‘padre padrone’ – an authoritarian fatherhood which allowed no dissent. Yet, he understands that this was also the way he expressed love. On the other hand, however, it is a style of fatherhood that he distances himself from; for example, he praises his children for everything they do – no matter how insignificant it may seem.

Despite all the differences, the author still wants his father with him.

The author himself rages against the dying of the light more than his father does. While his father seems to meet death with resignation, the author argues with death and its apparent finality.

When death finally comes, the author argues that his father found his freedom from his pain and the illness that afflicted him. The author, however, does not have this luxury. Instead, he must grapple with the imperfection of humanity and the trickiness of human relations.

Grech’s book is a brave exploration of specific themes. It tackles head-on the difficulties that arise between parents and their offspring. It is not afraid to voice anger, hurt and resentment. It explores the psychologi­cal traumas unwittingly im­planted by adults during childhood. It also bears the horrific effects of terminal illness and death on family members.

Though the author’s questions get no answers, the book seems cathartic, leading the author to take another step towards closure.

For the reader, this book is likely to raise questions about their relationship with the themes explored – parenthood, illness and even death. However, the silence the author faces is no stumbling block to dealing with these significant issues.

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