When I was in college my life was defined by holidays, trips home, as though at school I was in suspended animation and when I was home life started again. Christmas, spring break, summer vacation, Thanksgiving. A friend of ours was diagnosed with cancer just after I had returned to school in January; I remember sitting on my bed in shock after hanging up the phone, I remember instant-messaging the news to my cousin in Taipei. At Spring break our friend was pale and thin from the chemotherapy; in the summer he began to look a little better, even though his cancer was very advanced. My last conversation with him was in August, just before I went back for the new school year. I walked him home as he told me about how his wife's cousin had been his college roomate, which is how they met. And he died the day before I went back to school after Thanksgiving. I remember hearing the phone ringing; it woke me up. I didn't need my mother to tell me what happened, I just knew, and I cried for most of the flight back to Rochester. While clearing out my desk a few weeks ago I found the letter our friend had written the year after her husband died. She described the months of his illness, his last days, his last breaths, in such detail that when I read it I began to understand what it would feel like to die.
I have never loved Tolstoy. I loathed Anna Karenina (which I have never finished) as a teenager, and in college I spent a semester studying War and Peace, which was fascinating in its intensity and enormity, the loose and baggy monster, someone once called it, although I had great difficulty in keeping all the characters straight. But it is The Death of Ivan Ilych which I have come back to again and again. It has always given me that curious feeling, that fleeting understanding, of what passes through our minds as we are preparing to die. We read it in high school, and it sent a chill through me; when I came across it again some years later it left me only with a sense of peace.
There is something incredibly simple about this story of Ivan Ilych, yet so detailed and complex; it might as well be called 'The Life and Death of Ivan Ilych," except for the beautiful finality. It begins with the announcement of his death, and how those around him, family, friends, colleagues, can still only think of themselves. And then you are taken backwards in time, into his childhood and youth, how he rose through the ranks of his career, how he married and had a family. And then, the slow passage of his last days, his illness, all the thoughts that flickered through his mind as he consulted doctor after doctor, as he watched his family and servants around him, concerned about their own needs and lives. He looks back to his childhood and all his previous notions about death, how his own life which he always thought of as comfortable and pleasant has actually been senseless and horrible, until, at last, there is no pain and no death, and then...
He drew in a breath, stopped in the midst of a sigh, stretched out, and died.