They say it is the experience that makes a man what he is. They also say that wise men learn from others’ experiences (or mistakes, if you prefer).
Let me narrate a couple of incidences that I believe have modulated my outlook towards life and death; for whatever they are worth. I will start with the later incidence first.
It was immediately after I got released from Indian Air Force. 19 years that began when I was still 15 days short of my 18th birthday, had finally come to an end. Such a long period in a protected and regulated environment is enough to make anyone complacent about his existence. One starts to take life’s necessities such as food, housing, healthcare for granted. Then, finally when you walk out into the bad world, one is easily lost!
Within a week of my release, I joined the legal profession; beginning a life that alternated between court visits, research and ghost-writing of legal books. For the first time since I left my home, I was staying in a rented house, all alone! With no more timely meals from the Air Force Mess; I was forced to eat out.
Merely after a month of this new life style, I developed a pain on the left side of my chest. Initially it was a nagging pain which I refused to acknowledge. However, one night the pain became so unbearable that I was convinced it was nothing but a heart attack. I was sweating profusely; not sure whether it was due to the pain or the stress.
If it had still been my Air Force days, I would have merely reported to the Sick Quarters and then it would have been their headache to do all that was necessary. But the one month made a huge difference. I was tensed about having a heart attack within such a short time of leaving Air Force and that got me thinking about the implications on my fragile finances, budding family and a career that is yet to take off!
Having rented the new house in a new locality of a metro city, I had nobody to seek help from (Even now making friends out of strangers offline is not one of my strong points). As the night progressed the pain became more and more unbearable. I was worried and that only added to the stress. Then, I remembered an earlier incident of my life (which I will describe in a short while) and some promises that I made to myself at that time. That changed the whole situation.
I was calm... ready to die peacefully... left the door unlocked... chose to sleep in the hall, close to the main door so that anyone who opens the door will see me lying down... in all probability dead and gone!
I was no more worried about dying at all. I was only happy that my death was coming in this manner. Believe me, in about 15 to 20 minutes I was fast asleep, with all that pain!
However, I survived the night. Next day, I went to office and from there to one of the finest diagnostic centres, using our office connections (we were into medico-legal practice). Got all the checks carried out and the doctor informed me that my heart was very fine and the pain was only due to acidity caused by the quality of food that I was eating of late. Doctor prescribed some tablets but insisted that I stop eating out. That advice forced me into experimenting with cooking and to my surprise; I found that cooking tasty food is not that tough a job as it is made out to be.
What caused this sudden change? Well, I spoke about remembering a previous incident when I had thought of death.
It was some three years earlier. One Friday I was in the office, busy clearing all pending jobs as I was scheduled to go home on a vacation, that evening. At about 10 o’clock, I received a call from the nearby Air Force Hospital, asking me to report to their blood bank immediately. Couple of days ago, I had donated blood there on the request of a colleague whose wife was to undergo a surgery.
I reached the blood bank and met the in charge who incidentally was a friend of mine. He said there was some problem with my blood sample and would have to draw more blood for further tests. After much cajoling he agreed to divulge the secret that the problem was my blood had tested positive for HIV. He reminded me that he was not supposed to share that information with me before further testing but he was still doing so because of our relationship and his confidence in me.
However, his confidence in me was rather misplaced (though I managed to continue showing a sort of nonchalance in front of him). I felt devastated. In spite of his assurances that 3% of the test results are statistically proved to be wrong and therefore I don’t have to worry, I couldn’t help worrying. Should I have more confidence in 97% or the 3%? Well the answer seemed very obvious.
Then I requested him to carry out the test immediately. He assured me that it will be done at the earliest and the result will be made available by Monday (Sunday being a holiday!). That was simply not acceptable to me. I told him that I need the test to be completed on the same day as I have to decide whether to continue or to cancel my vacation. There was no way that I will go and face my wife and my 2 year old son; with the cloud of an HIV+ uncertainty hanging over my head.
He then promised me to do whatever best he can and with that assurance I left the blood bank. I was riding my scooter as if in a dream or stupor; my mind having stopped working rationally. I couldn’t make up my mind and I decided to go to my quarter which was on my way to office. I went and lay down on the bed and started thinking. If the result is still positive, what would that mean to my life? How will I face my wife and family? How will the society judge me?
I knew there were number of reasons that could make me HIV+. The mass inoculations at the time of enrolment (with the same needle as the disposable needles were yet to get introduced) or very primitive style of blood collection at donation centres etc were some of the immediate reasons that came to my mind. However, a biased society would definitely condemn me as guilty for promiscuous engagements. My position as a soldier, who lived most of his young life away from family, at different parts of the country, would make it impossible to convince anyone.
Not that any innocence or guilt would matter much. But the stigma would get attached even to the family and subject them to all kind of social issues. While we all know about the need of inclusion of HIV + persons into the society, when it comes to reality, our people have not been very much open minded. We keep hearing about the stories of children of HIV+ parents having to go through hell, in their schools.
Then the thought of suicide came to my mind. How about just ending it all so that I don’t have to face either my family or the biased society? I considered that option quite seriously. Then luckily I thought about the other side of the story. I can escape it all... but what about my family? How do I know if my wife is not affected by the same through me? How about my son? Do I leave them to the fancies of fate and escape like a coward?!
That thought put an end to the option of suicide. Then I was forced to consider other options. Do I again live like a coward hiding from the world? Or do I take whatever comes and continue to lead a life as normal as it can get? When I started thinking along these lines, the answer was again crystal clear to me. I have to face the life, even if it is a short one. Whatever it takes, I won’t quit at all.
Then I decided to go back to office and be as normal as possible while waiting for further results. When I reached office, my boss and all my colleagues were eager to know why I was called by the blood bank. I merely stated the truth. Did not hide anything and then went on to do my job. There was almost pin drop silence in the office.
While trying to concentrate on my work, thoughts kept on passing through my mind. I made a pact with myself; if the test results turn negative, I will never ever worry about my death again. I will live my life as if each day is a gift and would accept death with open arms, whenever and in whichever form it might visit me. I remember I was even ready to barter for blood cancer or heart attack at that very moment.
It was at about 2 o’clock when my friend from blood bank called me again. He said there was nothing to worry and the result was fine. He said, “Go and enjoy your vacation. You are absolutely fine”. Then I got up from my seat and said the same to all those who had by then surrounded me. There was an immediate celebration in the office. Everyone felt relieved and extremely happy. Each one of them, beginning with my boss, hugged me and I started drinking water. I drank about 6 or 7 glasses of water and the muscles of my legs started aching.
I had not realised the extent of tension that was being built up in my body, until that moment. My whole body was aching and I kept drinking more water. To cut it short, I went home happily. But I guess the impact was so much that as soon as I reached home my wife knew there was something terribly wrong; that too seeing my face (usually I take pride in my poker face). I shared the entire incident with her which in a way became therapeutic, for me.
These incidents and my reactions seem silly and laughable today, after all these years. But they were the absolute realities for me at that point in time. These encounters made me approach death as a subject, more deeply. I realised we human beings take death rather too seriously. While we all know that death is inevitable, we try to wish it away as far as possible and when finally it catches up with us, we are not prepared. On the one hand we mourn even such deaths that are actually a relief to the person and on the other, resort to suicides even for reasons that are well within our controls to manage. This dichotomy does not allow us to objectively look at and accept death, as a matter of fact.
When we start taking death less seriously and accept it as a matter of fact, the life becomes more enjoyable. It prepares us to be more responsible about our commitments to ourselves, our family and our society. Also it makes us more courageous to face the realities of life than preferring to attempt escape, like a coward, through suicide.
Let me conclude; Know your Death so that you can Live your Life better!