My father died on a Thursday night alone in his bed. I spoke to him that same morning about random stuff, asked him to keep me updated on the medicals he was waiting for, but then they arrived too late to be of much use. My brother, Sam, discovered him lying in bed, forever out of breath, late Friday after a neighbour had called. His cat was sitting on his chest when he entered the room; the whole place filled with books, cobwebs, and signs of a life in decay.
As a Buddhist, death is supposedly something to be accepted as inevitable, as natural, yet unexpected death is not just the end of a human life. Like life itself, death is encircled by a rich ecology of meaning, associations, endings and beginnings. Unforeseen subjective spaces emerge upon discovery of the loss of a loved one, relationships associated with that body shift, change, remerge, or become meaningless. Loss is there always and the vacuum left by that familiar world, face, feel and interactions calls for some kind of closure, of transformation. For me, at least, writing a few words is part of this process.
My father was a committed atheist. Not one of those rational moderns that states they are, but then secretly holds out hope for a sequel. My dad was all-in. In my earlier days as a new age Buddhist I believed in reincarnation, tied to evolution, and coupled with the fantasy of ongoing progress: We would all be reborn to become better versions of ourselves, and strive ever onwards to contributing to global awakening. I debated this with my dad, a Marxist through and through, as he exhibited one of his more patient moments and tolerated my youthful naivety.
I’m calling him my dad but he was in many ways more of an uncle figure than a father, though I later learnt to admit to myself that he was my most direct biological kin, and accept the consequences of such. My mother having left him with two young boys in tow before my first birthday, I never really had a dad in the house, apart from a few torturous years with a step version who was even more alien to the parental role and its demands. I would see Boris, that’s my dad’s name, one weekend a month and he’d inevitably drag us out on political protests, anti-government marches and occasional weekends away in Wales with radicals, hippies, and leftovers from the 1960s, who’d failed to turn that cultural moment into a money making opportunity. To be with my dad was to be in a world apart, close to the turmoil of wider society, but always as an outsider, raging at it for not being good enough. A rage my older brother would eventually turn towards our deeply flawed father.
Boris was forever a rebel, forever indulging his own frustrations with his adoptive mother (a woman I never met) and making them political. She was a surrogate for Maggie Thatcher (or was it the other way round?) and was hated for representing the status quo, conservative politics, and the establishment norms and expectations of the time. My dad enrolled me and my older brother in hating her too and shouting it out on the streets of Bristol and London until we reached adolescence, when we found our own battles and adventures, and became too embarrassed to march those streets. There are worse ways to spend your childhood I guess, but while the rage was going on, parenting was forgotten. There was no mention of “Brush your teeth boys” or “Have you done your homework yet?” And there were consequences as a result, as all those with absent fathers know.
My brother dealt with Boris’s death by ploughing into work, not his work, but the thankless task of clearing out an apartment inhabited by a hermit and hoarder that had long lost sight of cleaning products or recycling. The flat was a mess, the sort you see on reality TV shows that make you gasp and wonder “How could anyone live like that?” Habit makes anything palatable it seems, including piles of dusty books, filth, and unwashed clothes strewn across floors and furniture. Couple it all with denial, and the dirt, stink and decay become the walls of normalcy that an old man wakes to each morning and shrugs at.
I cried for three days and then some more later on when I got the news by phone. I’m crying writing this. I’ve always been more emotional than my brother and I was one of the few who weren’t at all surprised by his need to just get on with it. I’m still not sure he has shed a tear and when he speaks there is a sense of relief in his voice. That’s something people often fail to tell you; it can be a weight from one’s shoulders when certain folks pass, and I’m not talking about death by hideous, long-fought disease. But as Sam said, people grieve differently, and he’s right, and I would never judge a person for how they go about living the aftermath of loss.
The depths of emotion are the most delicious and terrifying of human experiences and death can be a reminder of this. Moments like these are precious and that’s no cliché; it’s true. We spend so much time managing our emotions, keeping so many flavours of human subjectivity at bay, moderating those we do feel, indulging others, banning others more, and telling ourselves stories about them all the while. We have an impoverished collective understanding of emotions, the way we feel them, are taken over by them, by how we can share them, feel each other’s emotional undercurrents, infect each other with our grace and our ugliness, and experience catharsis beyond the confines of our own minds and bodies. Loss and funerals are one of those rare occasions where many disparate folks let go for a moment, feel together and allow themselves to be shaken. The air can be so heavy with emotion at such times, it feels like you could reach out, grab and hold a piece of it in your palm, and stow it away in your heart as a souvenir.
The great Tantrikas knew a thing or two about all this, as did many of the great psychoanalysts. Many cultures around the world can teach us a thing or two about powerful emotions too, especially grief. In all cases, in the practicing life, emotions are worlds to be inhabited, and learnt from. It is true as some religious believers would want me to note, that emotions can be treacherous things, drag us into our worst instincts and cause nations to fall, and death to follow. We are privileged, many of us, that we can explore an emotional life not encumbered by moral judgements, or separate from the rational; that old and unnecessary foe. In the practicing life, emotions are rivers of tangible meaning that can transform and liberate. They are unpredictable and for this so many folks pull back when they emerge and fill the spaces of their lives. It may be better to view them as invitations to discover a life enriched, one drawn into a denser, more unpredictable, frightening, yet life affirming ecology, populated by unexpected wild things.
In all our busyness, commitments, connections, dreams and fears, we are captured by the familiar. Our emotional life is similar to a landscape in which we travel into spaces of feeling and emotional intensity, and insensitivity; deep, dark, icy cold caves contrast with lava spewing volcanoes, the lushest of forests with prickly bushes spread across barren rockscapes. Many of us are trained to feel and honour only certain features of the emotional life, to valorise some over others, to deny the value or worth of others, and elevate a mere few to great heights. This is almost universally the result of cultural indoctrination. As there is a direct link between the emotional landscape and our experience of being alive, the denial of some emotional features is an act of denying life. A denial so often translated into a noble act, a rational choice, the sensible thing to do.
The great Tantrikas remind us, in their stories, of the need to transcend the conventional; the adherence to norms of what we should be, feel, think and do. Hyperbolic stories passed down to us often romanticise the supposedly pure, awakened activity of these madmen and women, but the recognition that emotions are fuel for fierce living, overwhelming compassion, or all-consuming love as a break from our habitual patterns of subjectivity, is one of their greatest gifts, at least it is so in my humble opinion.
Loss is an emotion that many of us avoid. In fact, this avoidance is woven into our daily routines of survival and maintenance of the everyday. We are constantly losing the moments and days of our short existence as they pass and fade out of memory. We are losing opportunities and rich moments spent with other fragile creatures with each breath. Rather than be anxiety producing, however, this is merely a reminder to appreciate, and live more fully, but there is a warning needed here too. In the great heights of felt, lived experience (those precious moments that come about through peaks and troughs), there is often found the recognition that each moment is so precious, that each moment holds such wealth, that we could live them for eternity, even as we sense them fading away. This can, oddly, lead to a sort of attachment, a subtle grasping, or excessive valorising of the moments of our days. In some cases, this has become a new religious practice of indulging the present, a sort of over-sacralisation in which we force feed moments with too much meaning.
On a good day, Buddhism reminds us that this is a fool’s enterprise, that meaning is not fixed and that attachment to anything is always a problem. We must live fully as best we can, but we must also remember to let go as fully as we are able: There in the middle is an opportunity for liberation from our stifling ties and curated existence. The great shame is that many of our religious traditions and spiritual practices are starved of one half of this equation.
As my dad had accepted and recognised, there is no meaning other than that which we humans give to life for us as social beings, yet life itself is constantly bursting with available meaning without us having to do much at all. Life and death, change, decay, and unavoidable connections vaster than we can imagine, and greater than our capacity for control, are the stuff of our existence. There are a million lifetimes worth of meaning right there for you to pick and choose from. Yet, we house ourselves off from this world, each other, and maintain boundaries within which we carefully manage and curate our emotional and perceptual lives. Renunciation is an understandable step when one is struggling with existence, as is the indulgent desire to merge with it all. But, in the middle of those two flights of fancy, the messy muddle of a human life is to be enjoyed, suffered, and embraced, as it passes and fades.
My father’s death was most revealing in discovering his past. Trawling through his massive collection of photos and seeing this odd, curious being transform through images taken over six decades was an unexpected meeting with a person I only partially knew. Who was this man? Well, he was many people in many moments as we all are. How did he live his life within his own experience? It’s hard to say. Though some evidence betrays great suffering, frustrated desires, lessons learnt slowly, and a thirst for justice and political revolution that was always and forever on the horizon. Seeing these images, soaking up the remains of fragments of my own memories and studying the face of this fragile man was cathartic, of course, but also an experience of gaining lost pieces that had been forgotten; not thoughts or even concrete memories, but sensations scattered throughout the history of this man’s life, only part of which I was ever involved in.
The great religious traditions that celebrate and honour ancestors know all too well the power of deliberate connection to dead ones through the invocation of their fragments and moments of existence. It is the sort of practice that doesn’t sit well with modern folks; far too irrational they say. It can, of course, be a morbid business, the creation of a gollum or ghost, but it doesn’t have to be. Memory is one of our greatest burdens, but also one of our most important treasures. It, along with the messy emotional landscape, is one of the best antidotes I know of to the individual spirituality and future orientated practices of our age and their unique flavour of denialism. They are both reminders that stream-lined simplicity, although desirable, is too often a practice of forgetting, and ignoring and that a well lived life shows many signs of wear and tear.
I don’t want to forget, I want to remember, and through doing so find my being saturated by the preciousness and precariousness of a short human life with no promise of an after-life or anything resembling it. To talk of it is not enough, to theorise it is not enough, it has to be lived to the point that it shakes your being, disrupts the norms of a curated existence, so that change is real and tangible, and loss can play out in its own way, just as the heart does.
My father died on a Thursday night alone in his bed. So I am grateful for that phone call the morning before. Grateful to feel so sad. Grateful to have had an imperfect father, any father, who eventually tried his best. Grateful for his sharp mind, outrageous humour, basic humanity and acceptance of my own many and varied faults and shortcomings.