Yesterday, inspired by many of my mentors and my own affinities, I finally read Leo Tolstoy’s legendary short story The Death of Ivan Ilych. It is often used as a literary example of the costs of living for others rather than following your own muse, and The subject’s deathbed realization that his entire life may have been “not right” can be a heartbreaking way to inspire us to listen to our own hearts rather than the expectations of parents/friends/teachers, etc…
Ever since first hearing this comparison, I’ve thought that perhaps I would see something different in Tolstoy’s tragic magistrate, and today, less than 20 hours after finishing my first reading, I can unequivocally say that I was right: Ivan Ilych is, in many ways, my father.
Both were men of duty. Duty to nation, to family, and, tragically for both, to expectation.
I loved my dad, and I do to this day. I still speak to him daily, and I see him quite frequently in my dreams. In these dreams, I am occasionally a small child, frequently a teenager, and often I am the adult of today, who has lived longer than Dad himself did (he passed a month short of his 48th birthday, and I will be 50 in four weeks time). But loving and honoring him as I do doesn’t blind me to the realities of the bitterness and unhappiness in which he lived much of his life.
Ron Jarrett felt himself a man out of time. His daydreams were alternatively of the wild west and the far-flung future. He pined away for simpler times even while wondering what it would really be like to be abducted by aliens (a subject which commanded much of his television viewing in the late 1970s). He longed for the adventures of his childhood; crossing the nation with his buddies, traveling the world in the U.S. Navy, and racing through the fields of central Indiana on Babe, his beloved quarter horse.
Dad also loved his family; I never doubted that, but at the same time he was pretty lousy at concealing his resentment of us.
Family was what was expected of him. Like Ivan Ilych, once he settled into his job, as was (and largely still is today) expected of him, he married. He purchased the house in the suburbs. Children followed, one after the other, and work weeks lengthened. Eight hour days could become ten with no more warning than would allow for a call home to warm Mom that he’d be two hours late. If life were like television, Mom would’ve argued and accused, wondering aloud about fidelity and honesty, but this was real, and Mom knew the truths of commitments of working and familial responsibilities.
Dad’s vacations weren’t the happy, anticipated affairs of our friends’ families; when he took his time off, Dad traveled out west with his coworkers to hunt or north to Canada to fish with his brother and their dad. Mom didn’t get vacations, and, aside from summer off from school, neither did we kids. I cherished my Saturday fishing trips with Dad (until he ran out of coffee and started in on the beer), and those are memories I’ll always treasure, but his incessant need to escape his family obligations always stung. More for Mom than any of the children, I’m sure, as she was stuck at home with even less reprieve than usual while he was away, and damned little appreciation for what she contributed at any time.
Even as with Tolstoy’s classic character, Dad took his duties as father and breadwinner very seriously. When the steelworkers’ union went on a protracted strike, he took three part-time jobs to fill the gap, and was deeply insulted and hurt when Mom had to go to work to help make ends meet. I believe he was even more upset when she refused to quit after the strike was settled and he went back to work. His upbringing insisted that the husband work and the wife care for the home, and watching circumstances (and the radically changing times as well–cultural shifts he frequently and vehemently cursed) make this impossible was emasculating. He bore this quietly, for the most part, but his always ready temper grew more and more frayed at this time, and slips of angry epithets weren’t uncommon. I was frequently admonished not to repeat to Mom what he had said while we were alone.
In hindsight, I suspect that by this time his growing transparency was at least in part related to the illness eating away at his body. His cancer had to have been growing for a very long time before it was ever diagnosed, and I’ve no doubt he knew something was amiss.
Mirroring Ivan Ilych’s 1880’s-set path, Dad was struck ill in 1981. Where the fictional Magistrate had injured his kidney in a household accident, Dad had advanced Multiple Myeloma, an aggressive and then-unstoppable bone cancer. In reality, it had been in his system for many years prior, as it had already essentially destroyed much of his skeleton by the time of his diagnosis.
Ill and failing, Ivan Ilych spent his final months fighting and flailing against the unfairness of death. Shamed and embarrassed by his growing dependence on servants and family for basic needs he felt he should have been able to see to himself, Dad likewise lashed out at his wife and children seemingly without reason, then retreated to silent contrition as quickly. To apologize would, again, violate the principles upon which he was raised. “Never apologize,” said the standard-bearer for his generation, actor John Wayne, “it’s a sign of weakness.”
The look inside Ivan Ilych’s mind which Tolstoy provides was a profound experience for me. It felt to me as if I was living from Dad’s perspective as his body failed him, and the pain stole his mind away, bit by bit, as well. I recall an evening when the younger of my two sisters (I was the youngest of three and the only boy) and I were monkeying around in the evening and Dad’s hoarse, profanity-laced shout silenced us and sent us fleeing tearfully to our beds. Even as I cowered, shamed and cowed, in my bed (keep in mind that I was sixteen by this time, not the seven years old I felt at that moment), I could still hear his furious grumbling. This wasn’t the same man on whose lap I had dozed while watching Tarzan Theater on Saturday late night TV, and the differences frightened me.
Ivan Ilych couldn’t come to grips with the inevitability of death, and as each successive doctor offered new and empty platitudes of healing, he latched onto them and wrung what little hope he could from each until its futility was proven. It just wasn’t fair! He wasn’t old and used up, he was only forty-five! He had lived his life exactly as he was supposed to, and had achieved significant professional station. He longed for the happiness that his illness had stolen…
…and his consciousness answered that longing with a question. What happiness? At what time since earliest childhood had he honestly been happy? When, in all his adult life, had he done something because it made him happy? Exactly when had he done anything strictly for himself? Always, always, there had been in the back of his mind, a knowledge that this wasn’t really his life. It was his father’s life; it was his superior’s life; it was the life he had been expected to live, but it had never been any life that he had wanted to live. His entire life had been “Not Right”.
Ivan Ilych fought this realization with all his waning faculties, as I now believe my father did, as well. As he wrestled with the truth of his failure of himself (as he perceived it), he grew more and more bitter towards those he saw as having held him back from his potential. It was only in his very last hours that Ivan Ilych realized (or admitted) his own role in his fate, and the innocence of those at whom he had railed and scorned. When finally he could look at his wife without anger and behold his daughter’s new fiancé without outright contempt, he could go softly into his long night without resistance or fear.
My father’s final moments were passed with his hand in mine, as I sat beside his bed in the C Ward at Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis. Ivan Ilych came to his realization, his epiphany if you will, when his high school aged son crept into his room in the middle of the night, cradled his hand, and wept, much as I did in the moments before Dad slipped away on December twentieth of 1982.
The Death of Ivan Ilych is indeed a tremendous parable of “The Half-lived Life”. It serves a powerful, if unsubtle, warning of listening to one’s soul rather than surrendering to societal and familial pressures. For me, though, Tolstoy’s tragic short story will always be so much more than that; it is a window into my father’s final days, into his fears and his follies, and into his redemption. I fully realize the rampant assumptions I’m making as I attempt to look into a mind gone these thirty-three-plus years, but I feel my own truths here, and I find deep peace and comfort wrapped therein.