A few weeks I discovered a growth/tumour on my lowest right rib. Painful to touch. I was having a haircut when I first felt it. I finished the haircut then called a Dr friend of mine. He put me onto an onco-surgeon friend of his. When I reached there they were surprised when I introduced myself as the patient. The test would return in a day and the damn thing is benign. That’s a good thing. It’s growing and hurting more which is not a good thing. But that one day & night forces you to think of many things. Of living with cancer. Surviving. Or not. Of death and dying. But for the longest time these are operational problems, not scary ones. For a little scared boy, how did I get here?
My childhood was spent in hospitals. I’ve had rheumatic heart disease very early in childhood. Survived a heart attack early in my life. Have suffered brain disease and arthritis for years. I live with 2 blocked carotids. I’ve broken my back and some days, it just gives way. None of those things is near dying though. That is when you know you have a few seconds, and only a few, and then the lights will be out.
I was not just sick, I was a very scared child. I was scared of pretty much everything. Including dogs. But I remember hating it. Wanting to be brave. My parents wanted to shelter me to the point that none of my ‘conditions’ would be spoken about. The constant living with needles and incisions gave me a tremendous capacity for pain. And to prove myself a man I’ve done some extreme things, but that’s a story for another time (you can see more here). The days and nights at home, in hospital wards, in ICUs, in ICCUs and neuro-surgery I remember thinking what would it be like to die. Not what happens after when you die, but the moments leading to when you do. Does your whole life flash in front of you? Are you scared shitless? Do you have regrets of unfinished business? Do you feel sorry for yourself that it was worthless? Are you brave and you smile because it was a good fight?
I have seen people die. Some I loved. I have seen the fear in some eyes, acceptance in others. I have retrieved bodies from autopsies. I’ve cremated them. I remember never feeling emotional about it but saw it with a detachment. I also know nothing in life is the same as till when it happens to you. If you live long enough and dangerously enough, and most of all if like Siddhartha/Herman Hesse said ‘find truth your own way’ you face the moment of dying, and knowing who you are.
The first time the moment I was about 5 or 6. In Simla we lived on the top of a hill called Craigdhu and there was a small play field. On the far side was a wall, and the other side of the wall a few hundred feet down there was a sliver of a road, beyond which the hillside continued. We all knew not to cross the wall. Each time someone hit the tennis-cricket ball went over the other side the side the game was over. Those times were not like today – you had a ball you made it last a year. This one day the ball went over and the game was over. But I decided to climb the wall and I could see the ball about 15-20 down. My friend Shekhar Kapoor aka Dimpu kept telling me not to, but I decided to cross the wall. It was the only time he left my side. After the first few feet, it was a steep downward slope covered with dry pine leaves. And I slipped. My head was clouded by panic the first few seconds then it became very quite. I remember not screaming because there was not one to help. And I remember seeing the road I was going to fall on and die rushing towards me. And I remember telling myself try and hold onto something. I spread my arms and caught the first clump I hit and held on for dear life. And I stay still for a while. But there was the job of climbing back up. When I finally reached the wall it was getting dark and there were people including my father calling my name. I never told anyone what happened. I developed the habit of standing at the end of heights. it helps control the fear and the thrill is still indescribable.
You don’t think about it then but you know the feeling and impression it leaves with you with. I learnt that it is OK to be scared but it’s essential that you don’t panic and that most of all when chips are down you are left by yourself. And you can never give up. Because I was lucky I had not fallen but I still had to climb back up.
The second time came about 2o yrs later. I was about 15km upstream of Rishikesh on the Ganges and I fell off the raft just as it hit a rapid. As I got sucked in and the water closed over me it was sheer panic. When I came back up, it must’ve been a few seconds but it felt like minutes. Everything then is in ultra slo-mo. I realised my helmet was gone and my watch was going to come off! I clasped the watch with my other hand. And I screamed as much as I could – but you can’t – I took in more water and realised to survive this I need to focus, steer and not hit any rocks with my head. I saw the rafts recede in a distance as I raced ahead. I was picked up about a km downstream in an eddy. The next year I returned. And before we came to same rapid I jumped off the raft by myself. I had to learn to control the fear of drowning.
The third time was about 2 yrs after the second. I was on my bicycle cycling alone from Manali to Leh. The steep hairpin sections between Palchan and Marchi had been covered by a Star TV crew for a travel program because they couldn’t understand this loony man going up alone, when the few cycling crews were coming down. The anchor asked me why are you doing this – going there. I said I don’t know really, but because it’s there. And because I need to find myself. This was end April-early May & Rohtang was closed. When I reached the checkpoint past Marhi the army man allowed this loony man on a bike, a bunch of Isreali’s on Enfields and a lone American on foot. I got caught in a snowstorm as I was about to reach the top, and would not climb down to Koksar in the night so I had spent the night in a tent on a snow field on top of Rohtang La. After the uphill of the last few days, I was making great progress coming into Keylong from Koksar and I was just short of the confluence of Chandra & Bhaga and going steeply downhill when I saw the first stone fall in front of me. There was like a hailstorm of small grit size stones. I looked up – rock slide. I could turn back and go about 50 feet up to clear but it was a steep 50 feet and it may be too late. Or I could go downhill about 300ft, but and miss braking on the steep twisty and go down into the river before being hit by a boulder. Or both. I went downhill. By the time I cleared that section and stopped to turn back I could see the road covered with rocks the size of tennis balls and small cars. I had discovered Shiva. But that is also the story for another time.
The fourth time was 10 yrs later after that. I was in the boondocks in Kerala. It was late evening and Helen and I was the only guests in this ancient lakeside luxurious home. When a large ant bit my toe. First I started coughing a dry cough. A few minutes later I started being itchy and breathing heavily. I realised suddenly this is what an anaphylactic shock. I will die not from the allergy or anything, else but from chocking. The nearest hospital was in Allapuzha if we could make it. There was no Google Maps that time and I knew I did not have the 30-40 minutes. I told Helen to empty every antihistamine tablet on the bed (which I carry for my numerous allergies including to dog dander 🙂 ). Then I had to take them one at a time because I could hardly swallow by now. I must’ve taken 15 forcing one at a time. Then I lay down to force myself to breathe even as there was a melee around me. In a half hour, it was like it never happened but for the thick rash that covered my body.
Are there any lessons in facing death? One is, it’s nothing to be scared of. No matter how you look at it, it’s a change of state. I worry every day about my hundreds of children but I also know the hundreds that wait for me when I go across.
I have learnt that those qualities that that love the most in people character, valour, control of fear, being collected, I had none of them, to begin with. But they all can be acquired. I learnt that I do not have the fear of dying that I have seen in the eyes of so many and in the very last seconds, I do not have the dissonance of having been worthless. Unfortunately, it has shown me is the other side of me I am not proud of. The great impatience I feel for those who do not try to control fear or pain. It has caused me the loss of many folks I otherwise valued.
If you made a real contribution to the world you can smile when the lights go out. If you didn’t, now’s the right time to start. The experience of dying well, most of all teaches you, to live well. Rakesh Shukla