“You ready to go kayaking?” I said to my high school friend, Paul, early morning in June 1994.
“Uh, David, your dad just died,” Paul replied.
I grew up on a small farm where every creature was a pet. We had several sheep, goats, horses and hamsters, dogs and a donkey, a cow, sixteen cats and two crows. Eventually, I outlived and lost them all.
For weeks I kept a feather from my crow Jack underneath my pillow and would smell it each night. The feather still smelt like him, a mix of chalk and honey. Our goat Buttercup-Kate fell sick after eating poisonous yew tree leaves. I lay next to her in her little shelter until she passed away. Why didn’t we know yew was toxic for her? Why did she eat it? Popples, a mottled, dark brown cat had been missing for weeks. I found her in our attic, her body writhing with maggots. I cried, guilty that I hadn’t checked the attic sooner.
I grieved the death of a pet over and over, yet I never found mourning any easier. But when my mum told me that my dad had died from a heart attack while he was working away in Germany, I felt nothing. Instead, Paul and I hoisted our kayak on our shoulders, hiked across the fields and down a tractor path to the River Tweed.
My dad bought us the two-seater inflatable kayak a year or so earlier. I spent a lot of time around the river during the summer with my brother and sister and friends. We lept from the rocks into deep pools and splashed around looking for trout and eels. But with the kayak, we could explore much further up and downstream of our usual splash pools.
On the day my dad died, Paul and I spent the whole day messing around on the river with the kayak, carefree and mostly chatting about girls. We never talked about my dad’s death. On Monday I went to school, just a normal day.
I disliked school but loved learning at home. I read a good amount as a kid and would often scan my mum’s bookshelves for something new to learn. She had all sorts—everything from history to gardening, cooking, hypnosis, self-development, cultural anthropology, biographies and religion.
Sometime after my dad had died, the title of a book caught my attention – The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche. I suppose I was starting to process my dad’s death and was looking for some advice. Why did I feel so differently toward the death of my crow and the death of my dad? What was it going to be like to have no dad?
The book was the first text I read on Buddhism. I don’t remember reading the whole thing, but I was impressed by how the author learnt to accept the death and dying of those he loved. He understood that suffering and pain are a natural process of purification and are vital if we want to live a satisfied and tranquil life. It was in this book that I first learnt about meditation.
Although I was intrigued by this way of thinking, I was successful neither in meditating nor applying these lessons to deal with my dad’s death. Instead, I imagined my dad’s death as a dramatic conspiracy plot straight out of a Hollywood movie.