A life-changing friendship

First published in The Porch Magazine

In memory of my dear friend and colleague, DAVID DRYSDALE, who inspires me daily to embrace who I am and live life as a gift.

I FIRST met David Drysdale in the year of my 40th birthday, at a time when being a man still felt to me like a guilty admission.

As father of a newly adopted son, I was determined to defy gender stereotypes and throw myself joyfully into shared parenting, but I found the exhausting front-line reality was triggering all kinds of emotions I struggled to process.

My resulting male shame was not helped by Homer Simpson or the image of patriarchy playing out in the evening news: perpetrators of most wars and violent crimes, oppressors of women, and unfairly advantaged in almost every sphere, men were also killing themselves in a seeming epidemic of suicide and loneliness.


So I was intrigued to hear about a men’s “initiation” in the Scottish Highlands. Run by the Mankind Project, it promised to be a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, to challenge your limitations, your wounding, and your impaired vision of your life as a man.” Wary but desperate, I met the organiser for coffee, seeking reassurance that it was not misogynistic, health-endangering, or toe-curlingly woo-woo.

A friendly, progressive, and smartly-dressed Scot with a distinctive mane of reddish hair, David heard my anxieties but playfully refused to rescue me from them, in a way that made me absolutely trust him. I signed up to the weekend even though he told me almost nothing about it.

I’m not going to reveal much either, except that it was the strangest, wildest, most difficult, sacred and liberating 48 hours of my life. It stripped me down and rebuilt me, earthed and transformed the male shame I felt and plugged me back into my own emotions and shared humanity.

It was the same rite of passage David himself had undergone at the age of 40, after his outwardly successful life as a multimedia designer left him inwardly lost and unequipped to deal with the apparent suicides of two male friends.

He had resolved never to be a stranger to his own emotions again, and even on our first meeting he encouraged me to check in – to cut through the surface banter and say what I was feeling. It became one of the rituals of our friendship, and of many men’s meetings we attended together.

The emotion David most often checked in with was joy – a rarer emotion for me, but he believed all of them were to be welcomed: fear, sadness, shame, and anger as much as joy. He could not have known back then that this spiritual discipline would soon undergo the ultimate test.


In the meantime, welcoming cropped up again in his inclusive vision for Fathers Network Scotland, of “a safe and compassionate Scotland where all children, their families, and communities are enriched and strengthened through the full and welcome involvement of their fathers.”

He had started his charity after his determination fully to share parenting of his baby son with his wife revealed a societal bias against men as caregivers. He saw this simply as the flip-side of the inequality women experienced in professional life – and avoiding the polarizing arena of gender politics, decided to do something about both at once.

By the time I joined him to help with communications in 2014, his little start-up was a widely-respected, gender-balanced organisation with its own research base and funding from the Scottish Government for what he was calling Year of the Dad.

2016 was to be an inclusive celebration of the difference a great dad can make, with family events, media campaigns, conferences, and creative collaborations showing how supporting dads as nurturing caregivers benefits everybody: children, families, and society as a whole.

What none of us knew was that David would not get to see its successful conclusion. In March 2015 a persistent backache turned out to be Ewing’s Sarcoma, a rare cancer which left him paralysed from the chest down.

How do you welcome cancer? From the initial blow of his diagnosis, and then paralysis, David modelled something extraordinary in the way he chose to react to his illness. He drew a distinction between pain and suffering. “I wouldn’t say I’m suffering,” he told me after months in hospital. “Because I don’t waste energy thinking this shouldn’t be happening to me.”


We continued to check in each time I visited, and now he often named feelings of sadness or anger or fear as well as joy. Moved by the “miracle” of his baby girl, conceived only days before his paralysis, he nevertheless grieved the loss of his hands-on role when she was born in November 2015; he hoped, right till the end, to regain the strength to get back in his wheelchair, go home and be an active dad – because he loved his family more than anything else in his life.

When it became clear that wasn’t going to happen – the initial tumour disappeared only to be replaced by inoperable lung cancer – and even his fall-back playfulness was threatened by the steamroller of his exhaustion, I think he faced his biggest test.

But the last time I saw him, a week before he died, it seemed to me that even that dark weather had passed through, and there was a lightness about him, a sweet surrender to something bigger than him. “I’m looking forward to what’s after,” he told me. “Because it’s either nothing, or it’s something spectacular.” I hope it’s something spectacular.

I hope that even now he’s getting the welcome he deserves. I hope he’s got his legs back, that he’s dancing.

Because when he finally checked out, halfway through Year of the Dad on July 4th 2016, aged just 50, my friend David had done more than anyone I know to celebrate the beauty and positivity of being a man.

“Become who you are,” ran his favourite quote from Nietzsche. “Make what only you can make.” I think David Drysdale died knowing he had done both.

Written in 2017 for The Porch, a magazine and community made by and for people who are hungry for a hopeful vision of the world. Click here for David’s obituary in the Scotsman newspaper. 

Posted on: 19 May 2017 in Features, General, Journalism, Menswork, Parenting, Spirituality

  • Follow Nick

    • RSS Feed
    • SoundCloud
    • Facebook
    • Twitter
    • Pinterest
    • LinkedIn
  • Latest Posts

  • Blog categories