One of the considerations Fiona and I had while planning this trip was the health of our parents. We are both very close with our families. The difficulty of the decision came in weighing our desire to go on this adventure against the potential that something might happen to one or more of our parents while we were gone. We were told individually not to worry and that if something did happen our parents would rather it happened while we were following our passions than staying home waiting for them to die. One of the most rewarding things for a parent is to see their child enjoying life.
The Urquhart family has a history of heart issues. They are good hearts in the figurative sense, but they don’t seem to be particularly well made in the literal sense. Perhaps there is a more humorous onomatopoeic etymology to our last name than we know. Maybe ‘Urqu’ pronounced ‘Erk’ is the sound one makes when the ‘hart’ stops beating. My dad had thought about coming with us on our Pacific Crossing in the New Year. He and my mum jokingly got into a discussion of what would happen if he had a heart attack and died on the trip, or, for that matter, if anybody died on a long oceanic crossing. How do you preserve a body for 2-3 weeks in the heat of the tropics?
The etymology of the phrase ‘tapping the Admiral,’ which nowadays means to take a small drink of strong liquor is thought to come from one solution to this problem. The story goes, when Admiral Nelson died at Trafalgar, rather than bury his body at sea, the first mate instructed his remains to be preserved in the store of brandy. The brandy would work as a make shift embalming fluid to preserve his body during the transport back to Britain. But sailors being sailors, upon arriving in Britain and opening the cask in which the Admiral had been placed, he and it were found to be bone dry. A small hole, a tap if you will, was also found drilled in the underside of the barrel with a plug in it. Hence, tapping the admiral.
As much as we worried that something might happen in our absence, we didn’t think there was a high likelihood. Then I received an email on a morning early in December that my dad had had a heart attack and died. He was making the morning coffee for my mother and him, which he would then take back to bed while they chatted and read. It was a ritual of theirs. My mum heard a bang and rushed out of bed to find him lying on the floor. She attempted to revive him, but to no avail. The coroner’s report suggested, due to the condition of his heart, that he died within seconds. What we feared could happen, actually happened.
My father was a gregarious man. He was well respected in the North for his environmental advocacy, work with First Nations, long-running cartoon strip and his lively personality. Some of the First Nation governments with whom he worked closed their offices for the day as a sign of respect. He and my mother, Judi, had many adventures in life and strongly encouraged my sister and me to have our own.
Grieving is as individualistic as there are individuals. We were taught in school that there is a five-step grieving process that a person follows; denial, bargaining, anger, sadness, and resolve. This process didn’t apply only to the death of one close to the person, but to any loss in his or her life, even something as small as the car breaking down. The depth of feeling and time to complete the process was thought to be proportional to the change in lifestyle that the loss caused.
I can sympathize with this process in many instances. I once got mad at my saxophone when I was 13 and bent one of the keys. It was an expensive instrument and I feared my parent’s reaction. I at first tried to bend the key back, then I pleaded with it to work properly, then I got mad and bent it further, then I dragged myself across the floor on my knees in utter distress, then I accepted the fact that it was broken and went outside to shoot the basketball and wait for my demise. It all took about 5 minutes.
This time is different. The process doesn’t seem to apply at all. More than anything the first emotion was shock. This lasted a couple of days and then dissipated, giving way to a sense of…I’m not sure what the emotion is, or even that we have a word for it…loss mixed with happiness mixed with pride.
Two weeks before his death we were playing basketball together just as we had done since I was a little boy. The handicap I enjoyed as an eight year old he now used. His points were worth double mine, he could travel or push me when he wanted. Any time anybody scored he would get the ball back. I wasn’t allowed to post him up, or get my own rebounds and sometimes I had to play left-handed. But the great thing about handicaps is that they make things fair, so we were still able to play against each other. He won the last game we played and I wasn’t even playing left-handed.
Big events in our lives, like the death of a parent, really test our belief systems. Sometimes what we think is true is really what we want to think is true and when push comes to shove we find out what we truly believe. My dad was a scientist, a stoic and a Taoist. He wasn’t any of these in a systematic sense, but harmonized with the perspectives of each and found a synergy that was his own. He believed in being kind towards others, in accepting life as it came, in establishing principles and living by them, and in the belief that ultimately life is meaningless. When he died he thought he would cease to exist and this didn’t scare him. His perspective is that we are comprised of matter that when organized in the right configuration produces an electrical connection that we call consciousness. The configuration of matter is ever changing and the elements of which we are comprised were at one time part of a dinosaur’s knee or a rock on a mountain or a massive explosion at the beginning of how we measure time and after our configuration is dissolved the matter will become other things. In this sense we are matter, but we don’t matter. As a scientist he held this perspective as an hypothesis not truth, but up to the point of his death had not found enough evidence to falsify it.
“Life and death are one thread, the same line viewed from different sides.” – Laozi
I find it comforting to think that our time on Earth, by which I mean the time for which our electrical connections are active, is fleeting. The most we can do is try to figure out how to enjoy it. My dad figured it out for himself. His actions, his principles, his worldview coalesced into the creation of a life he truly enjoyed. Surprisingly, to me anyway, the feeling I am left with in the two weeks since his death is one of confidence and optimism. For me, the way my parents lived their lives is like seeing somebody perform a task, which at the outset seems complicated and daunting, but when you watch them do it, you realize the simplicity and the beauty of it and say to yourself, “well, I can do that.”