The following is a reposting of Lives Lived: Jehangir Saleh published in the Globe and Mail on January 20, 2014
Jehangir Saleh, the eldest of three children, enjoyed movies, plays, poetry and all types of music. “I was probably the only first grader in the world who was madly in love with Paul Simon’s Graceland album,” he once noted in a letter to a friend.
Jehangir was born with cystic fibrosis, which caused his lungs to fill with thick mucus and made every breath an effort. When he was 12, his illness caused his growth to stunt and he was bullied at school. One of his first jobs during high school was at his parents’ coffee shop, located near a retirement home. He charmed the senior customers on walkers and wheelchairs, many of whom came to the shop just to chat with him.
At 18, his illness forced him into frequent stays on the sixth floor of St. Michael’s Hospital, which became his home away from home. While enduring several hours of treatment and physical therapy each day, he pursued an undergraduate degree in philosophy at Ryerson University. He also followed his passion for music, practising drums and tabla in his room to the delight of other patients, who were accustomed to the monotonous beeps of health monitors. He bought a fish to keep him company and started a contest to name it; “Oscar” won out.
Many looked at his illness and shortened life expectancy with pity, but Jehangir saw it as a reason to live life to the fullest. He launched a website where people could propose activities to do if “they were dying tomorrow,” and then made them happen; this led him to adventures such as singing Christmas carols in the Toronto subway and creating a community art canvas in a local park. He once crammed a group of 30 patients, philosophers, and friends into his hospital room for a talent show turned dance party. He surely breached many hospital rules in the process, but his nurses overlooked them.
When hospital stays began to last months rather than weeks, a chasm developed between Jehangir’s boundless energy and the ability of his lungs to keep up. He said he felt as if he were living in someone else’s body. It robbed him of the chance to do the things he loved and led to several bouts with depression.
Jehangir studied philosophy as a way to understand and cope with his condition: “If God made the trees and water, then he also made cystic fibrosis,” he once said. “There must be some lessons, some aspect of human life that having an illness speaks to. I want to figure that out.” Using himself as the subject, he won several scholarships for his study of the experience of the body in chronic illness. When he was 22, he presented his work at a philosophy conference in Oxford, England. He started a master’s program in philosophy at the University of Guelph, but had to take a leave of absence due to his worsening condition.
He demanded that those around him make the most of their lives, and worked to help them find meaning so they would live well after he was gone. He confronted friends and relatives on issues they were avoiding – a bad relationship, a mental illness, a family dispute. “My sense is that …” was his gentle way of guiding you to face your challenge.
Jehangir’s memorial service included heartfelt farewells, a performance by his tabla ensemble, and readings of his poetry. His friends and loved ones are exploring starting a lecture series dedicated to his philosophical quest on the meaning of illness. They are comforted by the hope that he has finally reached his own Graceland, where every breath comes easy.