By Jehangir Saleh
Written: July 26, 2005
Read! And thy Lord is Most Bountiful, –
He who taught (The use of) the pen
Taught man that
Which he knew not.
– The Quran, sura 96 (Al-Alaq), 3 – 5 translation A. Yusaf Ali
An illusion by which we can become / More real.
– Ben Okri, Mental Fight
When you’re new to dying, time becomes the ultimate commodity; much time is spent trying to preserve time. Activities are measured carefully against one another and are ranked in terms of the predicted amount of happiness they will produce. Then you begin to question your idea of what happiness really is. Inevitably all this questioning and calculation will only lead to the ultimate question: is this all there really is? Today I answered yes. Yesterday I answered no. I hope I live long enough to answer yes, and it’s all I could possibly need.
But the doctors make you wait. It’s waiting that often takes up all of your time.
“I’m sorry I’m late. Let’s get right to it.” I could describe my doctor but she isn’t terribly important. Just use your imagination. “Take a deep breath,” she says.
She listens to the two dying dogfish flopping about in my chest cavity. “I think we should change your meds and wait a couple of days, see how they respond”. She makes some notes while I wait, sucking on stale examination room air.
“How long?” I ask. She pretends not to hear my question.
“The nurses told me you’re writing a story. What’s it about?”
“Don’t think like that”, she warns, “it’s not going to help. Try and be positive”.
“I know. It’s just a story”, I say.
As I look inside each patient’s room while walking down the hallway made narrow by garbage bags of dirty hospital gowns and bed sheets, each is in familiar tableaus. Doctors in white lab coats holding their clipboards look serious and reflective, while the nurses with their sympathy apply comfort like hand cream. Family members hiding behind hero masks to ask “the tough questions” while the patient, the protagonist of this production, feels that these theatrics are silly. All plays have the same ending.
Consider Ms. Azim who is knitting light blue booties for her grandson while she waits for the TB that immigrated with her six years ago from India to make each breath feel and sound more and more like her lungs are full of rusty nails. She sits on her chair knitting with mechanized movements while she considers how all of her actions, life experiences, people she’s met, have lead up to this very moment where she has become utterly unhappy and alone. I imagine her to be visualizing the history of her life backwards, reviewing the images as they are displayed, burning her mind, trying to figure out why she ended up here. But there’s nothing she can do. There never was.
We are all robotic; look closely, you can see the forces silently exerting their control. Just sit and endure. Most patients understand this; they have stopped pretending to be free.
I am reading a myth that Terry gave me called The Legend and Destruction of Kash. It was about the city of Kash where priests watch the moon and stars to determine when God wants the king to be killed. The kings choose a companion and the priests choose a flame keeper that die with him. The story begins with the succession of a new king named Akif, who chooses Far-li-mas, a slave and storyteller, as his companion of death. The priests appoint Sali, youngest sister of the new king, to maintain his flames. One day God allows the king to realize that the constellations could soon dictate his death. He is scared and summons Far-li-mas to tell him a story. The stories are so powerful they cause Akif to enter a deep unconscious state. With stories more potent than hashish the slave storyteller becomes as popular as a king.
One night before telling the king and his company a story, Far-li-mas notices Sali and they fall in love. She doesn’t want to die and Far-li-mas agrees to help save her. Sali goes to see the priests and convinces them to hear one of Far-li-mas’s stories, arguing that these stories are greater than the writing of the constellations. When the priests hear Far-li-mas’s stories they forget to watch the stars and the moon and are no longer able to tell when the king is supposed to die. Akif, Sali and Far-li-mas do not have to die prematurely. Storytelling saves the day.
Terry believes in stories. We always seem to end up the hospital together. When I see him outside his room he has taken the oxygen prongs out of his nostrils and is resting his heavy body – full of steroids and retained water – against his IV pole. He has a round face, bald head and reminds me of a dying prophet who poorly attempts stand-up comedy.
Terry was breathing heavily, trying to squeeze the oxygen out of the air and into his lungs. Together we sounded like a lawnmower engine running out of gasoline.
“Good day to you sir,” he said smiling. “How is the poet laureate of ward six?”
“I’m ok. But I’m not sure this writing thing is going so well.”
“That’s what you said last week.”
“I feel like I’m pushing all the blood into my brain the words on the page are going nowhere”.
“Maybe you should stop thinking about living up to the entire canon of English literature and just write about what’s around you. What was the first word Gabrielle spoke to Mohammed?”
“God said ‘read’, not write.”
“To read is to write. Both acts search for and construct meaning in a system of reality made up of the words on a page. It is all that we can know to be real. Every man is born a scribe. It is already in you.”
“But Mohammed couldn’t read.”
“He did not need to know how. He ran home scared to Khadijah. Maybe he never read at all. But he told someone about the experience, and it was written down, turned into a story” I do not understand what Terry is trying to explain. He paused, took some quieter breaths, and smiled at me.
“Did you read that legend I gave you?”
“Yes I did.”
“Let’s talk about it tomorrow. Say around lunch time?” No one called it “lunch time” anymore except Terry. Confronted daily with processed, canned or preserved food, eating had become a necessity.
“I will bid you a good day sir”, said Terry. “I’m off to the library before it closes.”
“There’s a library in the hospital?”
“You didn’t know? It’s mostly full of romance novels and outdated medical books. But there are some comics and the occasional classic.”
Terry starts to wheel his IV pole and oxygen tank down the hall. He makes it a couple of doors down, lets out a rusty sigh, and puts his oxygen prongs back in his nostrils. Terry looks back at me and says, “If you don’t believe me, maybe you should think about where this so called urge to create comes from”. I nod, he smiles, turns around and carries on down the hall.
There is something about writing. Each time I end up in the hospital, I take an inventory of everything that I believe to be intrinsically valuable. Last time I took sex off the list. Before that family didn’t make the cut. This time, I was down to only human beings, until I decided to add writing. I’m not sure I can explain the logical process that allowed me to arrive at this conclusion. It seems impossible to argue for the intrinsic value of anything; there is nothing you can appeal to that proves writing is good in itself except writing itself. I keep writing this story but I’m not really sure why.
At night King Akif becomes scared. He remembers that any day, through the language of the cosmos, he will be summoned to die. He calls Far-li-mas to begin a story. The king listens; soon he is in the deepest sleep. Far-li-mas continues and king forgets to breath. Every night Far-li-mas tells the king a story. No longer is the king afraid to die.
At night I listen to the orchestrated breathing of the respiratory ward patients who are entering various stages of sleep. During sleep the body uses less oxygen, breathing becomes shallow, organs calm down and we move toward death. Most deaths occur at night when the ward is still and quiet.
In the room across from mine is an old man with his two daughters who are watching the hockey game on mute. Images of strong, dominant men are projected on their tired and frightened faces. Last night, without the hockey game, his daughters sat on chairs around their father’s bed in a strange, silent tableau. Tonight they are grateful that the Leafs are not yet out of the playoffs so they can watch the game they hated as young girls with their father who is soon going to die. I do not know their father’s name but I feel I should give him one. Terry is already taken so I’ll call him Alex. Alex is on a respirator and cannot leave his room. There is a part of me that wants to meet him.
I read over what I’ve written. It’s pretty terrible. “It’s getting late, you should go to sleep”, says the night nurse peaking in through the doorway. “I’ll bring you some sleeping pills”.
I sit upright in my bed while I wait for the little blue pills to absorb into my blood stream and carry the drowsiness to my brain. I wait, lay down, and close my eyes. The collective breath of my fellow patients is the struggle of a pile of overweight sparrows whose wings have been torn off unintentionally by a curious twelve year old boy. I open my eyes quickly and keep them open until the air burns my retinas. I imagine myself as a dying bird, no wings, twitching for air. And then I fall asleep.
Everyone is given a needle first thing in the morning; no one would wake up if they had a choice. The ambulatory nurse this morning is a Filipino woman whose breasts almost touch my head as she leans in to draw one of the four required vials of deep red blood. I watch my life flow into a little glass container. She doesn’t speak, alternating between smiling at me and looking out the window. “All done”, she says, and smiles at me again before she leaves.
Those vials will be taken to the lab downstairs where the blood will be spinned until it separates. Its composition will be analyzed to determine at what rate the body is losing the battle. Or, as Terry says, how fast the body is learning to stop its resistance and accept that soon it will be free.
Terry came to see me just before noon. His breathing was a series of long, wheezy whistles and, unlike before, he kept the oxygen prongs in his nostrils. We went to the patient lounge, which was always vacant. It harbored some out to date medical equipment, a fridge and two sofas, one light blue, one dark red, which must had been donated a long time ago. The room was occasionally used for patient birthday parties – although turn out was usually bad – and more often for large families who wanted to be with their family member as he or she died.
“This is as close to home as we get”, said Terry with a smirk as he arranged his oxygen tank and IV pole to get into a comfortable position on the red sofa.
“Still struggling with your writing?”
“Words are coming out like burnt toast. The ink bleeds though the page.”
“The legend I gave you originates in Sudan. Does it change how you feel about the story you’re writing?”
“Storytelling saves the day?”
Terry hesitates. His breathing had become a calm whistle now that he was sitting down. I can see him try to match my response to whatever he was planning to say.
“It is not until the priests are exposed to the stories of Far-li-mas that they stop looking to the heavens for rules to conduct their society. They are forced to give up determinism and start to make decisions themselves. Far-li-mas gives them free will. Through telling stories they learn to be free.”
“I always thought free will was just an illusion”. Terry laughed, his face turned red quickly and he started breathing more heavily to compensate for breaths air wasted by laughter.
“Are not stories just illusions? The moment we die our lives become stories. We cannot help but write stories – they write themselves like history as we live our lives,” says Terry.
“But I can prove that free will doesn’t exist.” I start to draw a timeline on the back of my notepad. He starts to laugh again.
“What’s your proof? Logic? You’re going to draw a linear regression? Ok, go ahead. I’ll watch. And when you’re finished, ask yourself, ‘in that what truth with there be’? Darwin and the Bible might be logically incompatible, but are they not variations on the same theme?” I wasn’t totally sure I understand what Terry is saying, although I nod like I do. “I doesn’t matter whether free will exists or not – it is a language of responsibility we use to conduct our lives.”
“Ok, but where does death fit in?”
“Once we believe in freedom, we have become immortal.” Terry paused; I waited for him to connect the dots. “No longer having God, or fate, or any other force, to control everything, we must use our imaginations to construct options and decide which is best. These decisions and their resulting events become recorded as history, a story that lives beyond those who participated in it. History becomes the story; it will remain and evolve even after we die. So at night when you sit down and write, you’re inserting yourself into a grand narrative of all the stories that came before you. In this way, you will live forever.” I felt I understand what Terry is saying, but I don’t think I could explain it to myself. Terry looks at me warmly, his pupils became smaller, his heavy breathes, long and rusty, were almost comforting to hear. “Our story like every story,” he says as if telling me a secret, “where something happens to somebody, again and again, until the end of time”.
Sali asks the priest: “How do you know when the king is supposed to die?”
“We watch the stars and the moon. If a night should pass when nothing can be seen, we would not be able to understand God’s message,” replies the head priest.
“God’s writing is great”, says Sali. “But the greatest writing is not in the sky, but the stories told by those on earth”.
“You are wrong”, says the priest.
“The stories of Far-li-mas are greater than the writing in the sky. When you hear them you will forget to watch the constellations. Come hear them and decide for yourself which are better.”
I try to do some writing before bed. Across the hall in Alex’s room one of his daughters is helping him sit upright in his bed while the other is flipping TV channels. Lindsey calls before I have a chance to re-read what I have written the night before. I am pleased to hear her soft voice and gentle breathing. She asks me the usual, mundane questions about how I was feeling and what the doctors said. Her questions were an incompatible narrative to the scene across the hall in Alex’s room. One daughter was clutching her father’s head as if it was about to roll away, and the other was furiously clicking the nurse’s call button and holding her chest like her lungs were about to explode. “You know I’m thinking about you”, Lindsey says, as I watch both daughters hold their father’s shaky body, faces slowly shifting from pretend heroicism to the stark pain of grief.
The nurses do not run, but walk briskly into Alex’s room. Lindsey keeps talking softly but I do not care for words; I want to hear her breathe.
I remember an explanation of Einstein’s relativity theory from high school where he claims that the speed of light is fixed for all observers; as you watch something approach the speed of light it will appear to be moving in slow motion as time relative to it slows down. The characters around Alex, two nurses, a resident doctor, crying daughters, are slowing down like a rapidly freezing river, as if time relative to them is moving much slower, not in sync with the pattern of the breathing coming through telephone receiver that I push hard against my ear.
“I am watching him die”.
“The man across the hall”.
“I’m sorry you have to see this dear. Close the door. Watching will only make you feel worse.”
Lindsey waits. I listen to her breathe. His youngest daughter starts to sob. As I look into the space of the room, I know there is something less where something more had been.
“Are you still watching?”
“I’m sorry dear”, she says. “You shouldn’t have watched. How are you feeling?”
I don’t say anything for what seemed like a long time. It is selfish, my ear pressing hard against the phone until her breath resonates loudly through the air of the hospital walls that were inhaling, exhaling like massive lungs.
“Your breathing is very shallow,” she says. “I know you are there, but I can barely hear you. I am worried. Maybe you should call the nurse. How do you feel?”
“I don’t know if I can describe what that was like. I know he died, probably his lungs failed, but nothing actually happened. It’s like an event that can only be marked by a presence before and the lack of presence after.”
“Do you feel sad”, she asks.
“Maybe. I’m not sure.”
“It’s ok dear. Don’t be sad. I’m here for you.”
I tell Lindsey to hold while I close the door of my hospital room. I don’t want to see them bring the body out and watch his malfunctioning daughters, crying on and off, on and off. Those images are sad. But what I just saw wasn’t, and I am having a lot of trouble deciding whether it fits into the categories of good or bad. Maybe value judgments are useless. Maybe it was free.
I wake up the next morning before the ambulatory nurse comes. Across the hall a new patient has already arrived during the night. She is sitting in a wheel chair that holds a two gallon oxygen tank at the back, which she was wheeling back and forth slightly as she watches a twenty-four hour news channel on TV. She smiles when she notices me standing in my doorway across the hall. She slowly wheels herself across the hall, as she comes closer I can clearly see the outline of her skull shaping her small face.
“What are you doing up so early?” she asks. Her breaths are so shallow I can barely hear them.
“I didn’t sleep well last night.”
“Not even with those little blue pills?”
“Sometimes they don’t work”.
“How long have you been here?”
“Almost a month I think. It’s easy to lose track.”
“I’m going to be here for a long time,” she pauses, I listen I can’t hear her breathing at all, “I feel like I’m going to die”, she says without expression. My brain scans all the possible replies: remorse, regret, comfort, apology, but none seem appropriate. “It’s ok. I think I’m ready”. Her bony hands clasp the wheels and she turns herself around, moving slowly back to her room, returning to the scene as before as if our conversation never happened. I was hoping she might look back at me so I can wave or smile, but I wait and she doesn’t.
I went to Terry’s room three times today. Once the nurse said he was meeting with the doctors. The other two times the door was closed so I assumed that he was sleeping.
At night I let the story write itself. The ward is especially calm tonight. I imagine that some greater being is listening to the collective breathing of all humankind like we listen to crickets. I start to read what I have written but before I get too far to make any judgment about it, Cathleen wheels into my room, “Something’s happened”, she says, there was a robustness in her usually thin voice.
“Something’s happened to somebody. Come and see,” she points down the hallway.
I get up from my desk quickly and move toward the door, but the IV line inserted into the viens of my left arm jerks me back and I felt a strange sensation of internal pain. I grab my IV pole and wheel it with me quickly down the hall. Cathleen stops outside Terry’s room and peers inside. A nurse pushes her chair, telling her to go back to her room. I see the resident doctor step out of Terry’s room with his clipboard.
At that moment I know it. I am about halfway to the room but I can’t go any further. I try to take deep breaths, the two slimy fish in my chest shake madly against my rib cage, but I can’t seem to suck in enough air to feed them. Cathleen is a skeleton staring at me in her wheelchair. I can feel someone coming from behind but I refuse to look. A warm, sweaty palm touched my shoulder, “Its ok”, the female voice says. “Go back in your room. I’ll come to check on your later”. When they wheeled Terry’s body away he looked like a rotting pile of pumpkins underneath a thin white sheet.
When King Akif dies, he is succeeded by Far-li-mas. The land is prosperous and its citizen’s joyful. But when the storyteller dies, neighboring regions break their treaties and declare war on the kingdom of Kash, which is destroyed. All that remains is the illusion, a story of a storyteller, which moved on to the East, and beyond the sea.