“Cauis [Caesar] is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal,” had always seemed to him correct as applied to Caius, but certainly not as applied to Ivan Ilyich. That Caius—man in the abstract—was mortal was perfectly correct, but he wasn’t Caius, not an abstract man, but a creature quite, quite apart from all others. He had been little Vanya, with a mamma and a papa, with Mitya and Volodya, with toys, a coachman and a nurse afterward with Katenka and with all the joys, griefs, and delights at childhood, boyhood, and youth. What did Caius know of the smell of that striped leather ball Vanya had been so fond of:! Had Caius kissed his mother’s hand like that, and did the silk of her dress rustle so for Caius? Had he rioted like that at school when the pastry was bad? Had Caius been in love like that? Could Caius preside at a session the way he did? Caius really was mortal, and it was right for him to die; but for me, little Vanya, Ivan Ilyich, with all my thoughts and emotions, it’s altogether a different matter. It cannot be that I ought to die. That would be too terrible.”
|—||From Chapter 6 of Leo Tolstoy’s Death of Ivan Ilych|
About two years ago, I felt an unbearable need to read Russian Literature. I did not know where this need came from. It was as if the need came from out of a cloud which passed over in a calm, cloudless afternoon. It became an unquenchable thirst. It was endless.
I tried to read Hemingway instead. I carried Hemingway with me throughout high school and tucked him under my pillow at night with a flashlight. We both began our history in Oak Park, Illinois & were inseparable once I discovered him. Hemingway & I traveled through chapters & pages smoothly often until the sun rose. But Hemingway couldn’t stop this desire I had for Tolstoy. I endeavored a compromise then, by giving a fast review of Dr. Zhivago on DVD; Zhivago didn’t quench my need. Down there, deep …. very deep, there was this catch-hinge; It was a truth teller. It was a lock which only one key would fit. This need would not stop until I picked up my Nook and searched it for what it was…
It finally came down to this: The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy.
I read about little Vanya … Ivan Ilyich within three days; And then I read it again. It was my summer, my fall, and in my winter. Even when the New Year hit it’s stride, I was still not finished. I read about Ivan Illych so many times … and still yet, I would feel the need to read it again. It were as though I were presented with a gift, a very sad gift, with a coded answer; Here was a secret that I did not want to know; But yet again, to know it was imperative; It was prerequisite. It was urgent. I downloaded Cliff Notes and became irritated that it did not have my answer. Cliff notes only had for me what a high school teacher might request of a student to pass a test. What I needed was something so much deeper. Whatever it was that I needed, wasn’t within my grasp.
Then, the second September arrived, and on my birthday, September 7th, had I yet to know that my father was falling ill. A sense of fog fell in and I knew Indian Summer would be arriving soon, as it always did in late September. I’ve always loved this month, not because it’s my birth month, but because I love the way it sounds when it’s spoken. September! The sun sets in the sky a different way, and the way the light falls upon the earth is distinctly altered to form a softened naive charm with whatever it touches!
I received a birthday card from Dad, and eased my mind in believing all was well. My phone calls to him came & went without notice; I told myself he was a very busy man, and he had an active social life, ran his business. Later in the week, it came to my attention quite by accident that he had lost a day or two, and attributed it to a mild stomach disturbance and a sore throat. He minimized it in his stoic way & with his iconic trademark smile. I intuitively felt a need to block whatever might be coming … from any direction. He chose not to alarm anyone and minimized even to himself that it was just some bad food he must have eaten at a restaurant. He declined seeing his doctor, as he believed it would all pass and he would be fine.
On Saturday, he called to request that I come over & bring some chicken soup. He said he was dehydrated and chicken soup sounded good. I dropped everything and brought him soup. He didn’t look well when I arrived, but he looked like Dad when he was ill with the flu or was exhausted. Together, we checked his blood pressure and his temperature, both of which were fine. This was confusing to me, because my instinct and intuition told me that he needed medical care & I didn’t want to wait; He resisted. He promised that he would make it through the weekend and see his doctor in office first thing on Monday. It was a tumultuous weekend. On Sunday, he continued to resist seeking even urgent care. He would have none of it. Anyone who knew my Dad, knew that when he said something with conviction, he meant it. I respected that. By Monday, as it turned out, he had pneumonia for about a week & upon admittance to the hospital, was diagnosed with renal failure.
But my father did not die then; He overcame the pneumonia, and he overcame the renal failure. He was a strong, stubborn German / Norwegian who had a long line of ancestors who lived well into their late 90’s and his mother lived one day short of 100 years. Yes, he survived. His entire life, he had so many close calls and he was a proud survivor through it all. He continued to survive despite the odds. So, it’s completely realistic to him that he would survive this time too. Two months later, he died of complications.
In hindsight, I realize now that Little Vanya’s story and my Father’s journey have many illuminating parallels. Intuitively, my deeper self knew what I needed, for the times & moments soon approaching; My process, guided me through an emotionally delicate and complicated passage that was splayed on the landscape ahead. None could know the many layers & the depth the tapestry would intertwine. My father and Little Vanya; Their life stories, one fictional, the other real … both patterned differently, intricately similar.
How delicate the thread we all carry within us called Life. Elusive as it might seem, when suddenly it falls short of our grasp. How vulnerable we are everyday without allowing that vulnerability to touch our consciousness too closely; We buffer ourselves and placate the shadow of possibilities. Each of us exits life and our ends are all deeply personal. our own story, My father’s life, was his story. In all it’s completeness, his life & his exit was deeply personal & belonged exclusively to him. Now, he belongs to the ages, to the heavens, and to the whole of the universe; All that there is, has ever been, and ever will be.
My two-year journey began with Ivan Illych; Along with Ivan’s story came a deeper message; A distinct reminder that there is spirit which runs deeply through us all. We all have much in common. It digs deep through the earth; It permeates the air we breathe and the fires we flame. With us, we always carry spirit … Flame of the Spirit of our ancestors, our past, of the world, of all things greater than us. We are all inevitably connected inextricably to everything that has gone before us…
My regret …
I could not fix the perfect circle of life.