These ruminations are as much about my father as these are about Tolstoy’s struggling protagonist, while he grapples with his death in the second half of this celebrated novella. Setting aside the higher-meanings, especially Tolstoy’s propensity to build an intricate narrative, weaving his most cherished themes of historical determinism, human nature and the meaningfulness of life, this brief exposition rather dwells on some more direct and psychological parts. On a different note, I continue to mull over my own existence and baffling questions related to life and death.
Another fortnight passed. Ivan Ilych now no longer left his sofa. He would not lie in bed but lay on the sofa. And facing the wall most of the time he lay and in solitude suffered all the inexplicable agonies, and in solitude pondered always on the same insoluble question: “What is it? Can it be true that it is Death?” And the inner voice answered: “Yes, it is true.” – “Why these agonies?” And the inner voice answered, “For no reason — they just are so.” Beyond and besides this there was nothing. -(Lev Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilych)
A strange and interesting happenstance that I was reading Tolstoy’s little masterpiece, around the same time Abbu (my father) died during last summers; or must I say while he was dying, bit by bit, over the course of those sweltering dog days. Because isn’t reading concurrently about an exquisite experience of death page by page is in some terribly realistic way synonymous to those serially connected real-time instances of death, which due to some absolutely obscure divine reasons, are ordained for some chosen individuals through a carefully crafted process? This is, of course, in contrast to those who just cease to exist suddenly in a single moment; one can’t possibly read a sudden instance of death in black and white.
Being at the helm of affairs usually associated with such fatal eventualities, I didn’t realize this extraordinary coincidence at that time, but within hours of Abbu’s demise, I realized the sheer psychological and prophetic insight of Tolstoy. Just days after Abbu’s death, when I started putting The Death of Ivan Ilych in retrospect, I realized that I have experienced page by page what my father was experiencing day by day on his death bed. Like Ivan Ilych (and most of us), Abbu never wanted to part with this beautiful world, evoking perpetual desire through its dazzle and a characteristic magnetism. He was playing tennis when he first felt pains in his groin and leg. For the next few days, he desperately wanted that pain to somehow vanish; at least, at the time of his evening game. After several clinical sessions, it was finally revealed to him that he had prostate cancer, the prognosis being that its already in a critical stage. But his doctor reassured him that he is fortunate in a sense that even though the cancer has spread to his bones, prostate is among the least fatal cancers around and they would start with the usual vaccine therapy and look for any improvement, and perhaps move to hormonal therapy in few months if the state is improved. “If forced with a choice, one should opt for prostate cancer”, his doctor quipped, in a nonchalant and somewhat witty manner, while adding lightly that people do continue to live for years and years with the prescribed monthly vaccines.
The doctor said that this and that symptom indicated this and that wrong with the patient’s inside, but if this diagnosis were not confirmed by analysis of so-and-so, then we must assume such-and-such. If then we assume such-and-such, then … and so on. To Ivan Ilych only one question was important: was his case serious or not? But the doctor ignored this misplaced enquiry. From the doctor’s point of view it was a side issue not under consideration; the real business was to decide between a floating kidney, chronic catarrh, or appendicitis.
Can you imagine, what could be my father’s first response to this revelation? Just like the good physician, it was amazingly in line with the Tolstoyian narrative. He asked if he can continue with his game in the evening. The doctor riposted, “Sir, do you recognize that you a have a fourth stage cancer and its just a miracle that your bones are not cracking on their own as you walk?” As we shared the usual life expectancy stats on phone that evening, my father – visibly jolted but confident nevertheless – told me that in doctor’s opinion he may continue to survive up to next ten years.
Abbu always had a knack for spooky mysteries and the panache for converting small little eerie events in his life into big stories, with the potential to be related repeatedly to his faithful, and at times reluctant audience. I still remember watching Tales from Dark Side with him when the show was aired on Pakistan television during eighties. Almost every morning after the show, he used to narrate the weird, and sometimes grotesque nightmares where some indescribable creatures were chasing him to the point of waking him up. All his life, almost ritualistically, he made it a point to wake my mother up and relate him his dreams as he was liable to forget some important details in the morning. Unlike me, his interest in the written word was rather tepid but given the choice on my bookshelf, he would always put his hands on a book that would somehow discuss some mysterious dimension of the life. The last I remember, he narrated me some nightmares after reading Kitab al-Ruh (Book of the Soul) of Ibn Qayyim. I recall asking him that day about the thing that intrigues him so much about death; and even though, he was hesitant to find the appropriate words, he told me that it is perhaps the fear of unknown. I remember having a somewhat extended exchange with Abbu that evening; my primary point being that if death is so mysterious to him than why not birth? Because, as far as we are able to recall, none of us remembers undergoing an experience of birth either. But I could never meaningfully articulate the point that was lurking in my mind, regarding the link between the epistemic and the ontological dimensions of our perception.
Despite being very good friends and conversing incessantly, we pretty much remained stuck to our own vocabularies or paradigms of thought due to our very different academic dispositions. Incessantly thinking about death since the second day of August – the day I last seen or touched Abbu – I now realize that all of us do talk about death as if its a completely meaningful concept but none of us actually possess any real ‘knowledge’ of it, other than its absolutely certain eventuality at some point in the future. In its essence, the experience of death carries a necessary duality where it is stringently enmeshed with life. As it probably turns out in the end, while we are illusively experiencing life in the garb of minutes, hours and days, we are also expiring ourselves slowly towards that terminal eventuality. Of course, arguably terminal, with respect to our present notion of time and space. Except when it is kind of ‘emphatically’ foretold as in case of Abbu and to some extent Ivan Ilych as far as his self-realization goes. In that case one sees it coming; perhaps embodied, with its open arms, slowly approaching to make its ultimate claim.
“It’s not a question of appendix or kidney, but of life and … death. Yes, once there was life, and now it is drifting away; drifting away, and I cannot stop it. Yes. Why deceive myself? Isn’t it obvious to everyone but me that I am dying, and that it’s only a matter of weeks, days … it may happen this very moment. There was light but now there is darkness. I was here but now I am going. Where?” A cold chill came over him, his breathing ceased, and he heard only the throbbing of his heart. “I shall be no more, then what will there be? There will be nothing. Then where shall I be when I am no more? Can this be dying? No, I will not have it!” He jumped up and tried to light the candle, fumbled about with trembling hands, dropped candle and candlestick on the floor, and fell back upon the pillow.
I was tele-conversing with Abbu on Skype, when I first saw the frigid recognition of that approaching terminus in his eyes. He had gone to Chicago to see my brother after taking his double than usual dose of prescribed vaccination. Somewhat belonging to old-school, he didn’t want to die and get buried in states; moreover, being cruelly pragmatic, he was kind of reluctant that he would add to my administrative burden by willing to be buried in Pakistan after dying in states. Additionally, I almost certainly smelt the tinge of that recently read Ibn Qayyim’s eschatological import, when he told me on Skype that he would undergo unnecessary trouble during the shift to Pakistan for burial. Trust me, it is dreadfully queer to hear your own father talking about long-distance transportation of his own remains and still employing present tense to describe that presumably annoying experience. Ultimately, he arrived back in Lahore next week in a terribly distorted shape, with swollen and blocked lymph nodes. In the last three days after some quick chemotherapy sessions, he had lost all hope and just waited for it to come closer, though always clinging tight to that iota of optimism that it might turn out well the next day. When I now close my eyes and try visualizing his state, it feels as if he desperately wanted that mystery to finally unveil itself and that battle between hope and fear to ultimately end.
To him all this happened in a single instant, and the meaning of that instant suffered no change thereafter. For those present, his agony lasted another two hours. There was a rattle in his throat, a twitching of his wasted body. Then the gasping and the rattle came at longer and longer intervals. “It is all over!” said someone near him. “He caught the words and repeated them in his soul. “Death is over,” he said to himself. “It is no more!” He drew in a breath, stopped in the midst of a sigh, stretched out, and died.
Today in the evening, lying down in my father’s bed I somehow picked Ibn Qayyim’s traditional masterpiece on the state and journeys of soul and flipped through, till I once again reached the section where he mentions the possibility of communication between the souls of living and dead. Quran mentions that Allah takes away the souls (or selves) of the dead, and of those who die not, during their sleep. But whom he intends to keep alive for an ordained period, their souls are returned back to their bodies (39:42). In my somewhat childish hope in veracity of Ibn Qayyim’s contentions, I sometimes keep lying down awake in my bed late after midnight, with an overwhelming intention to communicate with Abbu one last time as I doze off to sleep. Perhaps, I am being selfish here but rather then his experiences, I am more concerned about my own incessant perplexity. I somehow feel that I have experience multitudes of death; by way of profoundly observing my father going through it and at the same time, on the pages of Tolstoy’s gripping narrative.
I find it hard to believe that moving from existence to extinction is sheerly abstract from the point of view of being able to contemplate, rather empirically. There has to be a complex and layered ontological structure here, with underlying governing principles. But if it is there, why I am unable to experience it despite trying my best? If I am given a single opportunity and allowed one question to my father, I would like to ask him if this life is truly an illusion and whether death is the point beyond which there lies the real experience we ought to have. Its so hard to be on tenterhooks for don’t know how long…