Animal Writes
16 May 2001 Issue
My Precious Father Lived Dangerously

from The Times of India - May 10, 2001
contributed by [email protected]


My father has died. On my desk are his medals from World War II and a photograph of him as a boy, playing with one of the many dogs he rescued and loved. There is also the wedding announcement of his marriage to my mother in 1942, his memoirs from the years he spent exploring the Indian Ocean, trekking in the Kulu Valley, looking for oil in the Persian Gulf, and watching the antics of giant crabs in the weeks leading up to the Atomic bomb test on Easter Island. These artifacts of a life sit here as I work, but I really don't know what to do with them.

The last time I spent time with my father, he knew he was dying. I didn't realize that we would never sit together again and talk, face to face. All I knew was that I had a plane to catch and there was work piling up on my desk in a distant city. Despite worsening pain, he must have treasured each moment that last evening, asking me to stay and talk to him at the dining room table as the dinner dishes were cleared away. He was too weak to sustain the conversation well and, not unusually, I found the going tough.

I was a disappointing "son," a girl who can only turn on a television, not build one, as he did, from bits. I remember my mother giving us one of "those looks" when she found us sitting on the running board of the car, and kerchiefs tied over our heads to keep out the Delhi sun, my father teaching me the "right way" to spit cherry pits. We got that same look from my mother when Daddy took me clambering over the rocks in the south of England, teaching me to pick mussels, then showing me how to remove their poisonous beards and steam them in vinegar over a camping stove. And I can still see her smiling when my father taught me to drive by digging out his books on how to repair a crank shaft or some such mystery car part.

On that last evening together, we adjourned to the sitting room. I watched him sink into a comfortable armchair, wanting him to do the thing he was struggling to avoid. Close his eyes and rest. I was doing a crossword puzzle when I heard my father struggle to speak. His face had turned purple and he gasped for air. As if in a cruel game of charades, my father was demonstrating for my mother and me exactly what "crushing" chest pain means. This tough man with the "stiff upper lip" actually cried out loud to be allowed to die in peace. This man, who had been so strong he had rolled boulders out of Kashmir roads, waded through flood waters in Bangladesh, fought in France in the Black Watch: my father, who played the mandolin and recited Kipling to his wife, had been made helpless by heart disease.

I have not touched meat and dairy products in thirty years, around the time the plaques in my father's arterial walls were just forming. I didn't push the health advantages of the vegan diet. My father liked his food too much -- from steak and kidney pie to that cholesterol bomb, the boiled egg -- to be swayed by my stories of mother animals mourning the loss of their infants and tales of the fear you see in all animals' eyes at the slaughterhouse. It wasn't that my father was unkind. He was not. But, somehow, I never found the right words to lure him away from the addicting taste of chicken curry and ice cream.

When my father developed prostate trouble, then heart disease, I sent him articles on the link between heart disease, cancers and stroke and a meat and milk-based diet. My admonitions fell on deaf ears. My father believed in God. He also believed that when he died, he would be reunited with his parents and grandparents and all the wonderful dogs he had loved over the years. If he is right, he will be looking down on me as I write this. If so, I want to say, "Daddy, why didn't you listen to your daughter. If you had, you, mummy, the dogs and I would still be traveling together, still watching the sunsets over Marine Drive, Crater Lake or Kensington Park."

Ingrid Newkirk is president, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).

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