Vale Rohin Kushwaha (1999-2019)

The diseases which afflict the young are particularly fearsome; they take the soaring bird in flight, bringing home the indifference of this world to our fates and fortunes vividly. Rohin Kushwaha, who passed away last week on Friday, January 11th, was not yet twenty years old; he had but completed a year of studies beyond high school, commencing that learning that seemed destined to bring his undeniable and visible talents fully to fruition. His intellectual ambition was vast, speaking of a vision and a scale not normally associated with one so young: he studied computer science and dreamed about writing a different kind of video game, complex, based on rich narratives with complicated characters; he would bring his own novels and stories to life with the games he wrote. He had completed work on one novel and had begun work on another; he was talented and prolific and organized and hard working, the perfect artist. He was comfortable with both science and literature, with both technique and emotion, a marriage he worked to realize in himself and his writing. In school, besides the usual complement of classes and activities, he played tennis and guitar; he made many loyal friends, a cohort bound by shared interests and talents. At home, he mentored his many cousins with patience and affection; he sparred affectionately with his doting and loving parents and sister, who were well aware they had a gem on their hands.  He was quiet and determined, impatient with the social niceties that forced him into predetermined patterns of behavior; he wanted to be his own person.

That he certainly was. He lived his brief life on his own terms with dignity and fortitude, qualities especially on display once his formidable foe, a glioblastoma multiforme stage IV tumor in his brain, was diagnosed. He bore his many onerous treatments with patience and good humor; he trusted his caretakers, his parents and his sister, would do right by him. They did; they fought as hard as they could, with him, for him.  He underwent surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, electrode-based treatments, and cannabis tinctures; they were all of limited efficacy. He observed the effects of these treatments on himself (and those around him) quietly; he was well aware, at some important level, of what was underway and what its almost unfathomable consequences were. As the end approached, and as his body gave way, he remained strong and calm and collected; his strength reassured those around him.

When he finally passed away last week, a merciful deliverance from his discomfort, he was mourned deeply by his family and friends all of whom gathered with his parents and sister to reassure them of their love, to reminisce about a life that was too short, and yet that touched so many, in so many ways, with so much love and intelligence. I will miss you Rohin, you were a great kid, one of the best, and I looked forward to talking more with you as you went along on your own adventure in this world. You won’t be forgotten. With all my love, Samir Chacha.

‘The Spring is The Autumn’

In ‘Henriette Wyeth: Scenes from a painter’s life’ (from A Certain Climate, Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, 1988, pp. 164) Paul Horgan makes  note of, and subsequently quotes Wyeth on, the wellsprings of her work:

Ideas added to feeling, then, inform both her still lifes and portraits, and the most constant impulse is the desire to record that which must change and go.

“The reason I paint flowers is that I see them fading. This reminds me of the eternally renewed, the spring time, all of that, because I feel death and disaster lurk right behind them.” Her work is testimony to the enduring power which abides strongly in certain forms of fragility. In a flower detail of a still life, in a child’s wrist, she makes a little essay on mortality, but one reclaimed from morbidity by its celebration of present beauty.

Shortly before my mother passed away after a five-year encounter with breast cancer, she began writing small bits of poetry: fragments of poems, solitary lines, couplets. She wrote these on scattered pieces of paper, sometimes the pages of a notebook, sometimes the margins of a magazine–as and when thoughts, reflections, came to her. She wrote with pen or pencil, as either came to hand; she wrote in English or Hindi, retaining the form in which these thoughts were cast. She told me she did so without ever directing me to read anything she had put down on paper. I did not ask to look at her work, presuming she wanted to keep her thoughts to herself; she, for her part, gave me no indication she wanted me to do so. We might have collectively presumed–at some only dimly sensed level of intersubjective awareness–that I would read her work ‘later.’

But she did tell me about a line that ran through her head once, as winter rolled away and spring moved in, as her treatments for a metastasized cancer entered their fifth month. Then she had seen, on one of the short walks she took in the early evening, glimpses of the coming full bloom: buds and blossoms making their first tentative appearances. In response she had written a single line: ‘the spring is the autumn.’ (The emphasis on the assertion of identity is present in the original formulation–in Hindi.) As my mother put it, at that moment, as she saw a fledgling leaf pushing its way up, poking its head out, she saw it too, as fully grown, and then again, a little further on, she saw it change color and form, yellowing, wrinkling, and falling, drifting down; the new leaf wore its life on its sleeve; the inevitability of its eventual fate was present at the moment of its birth. That, or something like it, was what she wanted to say as she wrote that line down.

I never saw that line written down in her handwriting. But I still remember it–in both its original and translated forms–as it was said to me that day.

 

Cancer, Medical Marijuana, And A Personal Account

This page at the website of the National Cancer Institute, which describes some of the medicinal effects of cannabis and cannabinoids in cancer treatment regimes serves two salutary purposes for me today.

First, it confirms for me, yet again, that opposition to the War on Drugs and advocacy for the legalization of marijuana are A Good Thing[tm]. Indeed, knowing what we know about the War on Drugs and its implication in the mass incarceration monstrosity that stalks American life, opposition to the legalization of marijuana marks you as a, how you say, racist tool.

Second, in a kinder and gentler dimension, it reminds me of a great interaction with my mother three weeks before she passed away from a metastasized breast cancer (she had been in remission for four years before it returned.) On hearing from my brother that matters were not looking good for her as far as her treatment was concerned and that the ‘terminal stage’ was possibly around the corner, I had flown back from the US to the Indian Air Force station in Pune, India, where she was receiving treatment. (More precisely, she was being treated at the nearby Military  Hospital while staying with my brother on the air force base.) One day,  at home, between treatments, I was lying next to her on the bed she was resting on and chatting about sundry topics. At one point, as my mother described some of the pain and nausea that were now her lot, both before and after her chemotherapy treatments, I said to her, “You know mom, marijuana is supposed to be really helpful with that sort of thing. It reduces pain and helps combat nausea too.” My mother looked at me and said, “Have you tried it?” I replied, “Yeah mom, I’ve smoked it a few times.” She then leaned over, poked me in the ribs, and said, with a bit of a twinkle in her eyes, “Hey, we should go to that Osho Ashram [the central ‘offices’ of the organization affiliated with the Indian mystic and teacher Osho, which were located in Pune] and pick up some of that charas [hashish] they are always smoking.” We both collapsed in a fit of giggles. Honestly, if I had had the time, I would have scored some for her. In edible form, baked into fritters and consumed with tea, she would probably have been able to enjoy a great snack, and get some relief from her suffering too.

Meanwhile, medical marijuana has become legal in New York state, but unfortunately, it has been introduced with so many restrictions and bureaucratic hurdles that a) many sufferers from uncovered ailments will continue to not find relief and b) the state government will enable its own self-fulfilling prophecy that there is not enough demand for it. The folks in the New York state administration who have dreamed up this scheme stand indicted of the same charge I made above against those who oppose the legalization of marijuana with the additional knock of being indifferent to the sufferings of the sick.

A Small Remembrance

Over the weekend, I lost a friend to cancer. It was a rare, aggressive varietal, one that claimed her life all too soon. She was diagnosed in November last year, underwent surgery and adjuvant chemotherapy, but the onward march of the malignant tumors within her could not be halted, and so finally, this past Sunday, in the company of her loved ones, she breathed her last.  A few days before, I had understood that she had, to use the language which is so dreaded in cancer treatment, ‘gone terminal’ but I still expected her to be around for a few months at least. But on that fateful morning, when I awoke from a disturbed sleep, made some coffee and sat down at my computer to check my mail, I read the dreaded news: matters had taken a fatal turn, and she was no more.

I had come to know about her illness in January, and after spending a few weeks trying to set up a Skype meeting–the fifteen hour time difference with Australia considerably complicated matters–we finally spoke in March.  She looked well; there was no hair loss, even though she had lost some weight. Her spirits were high; though her cancer was a deadly one, certain features of her particular case had given her doctor and her hope. My wife tried to join the conversation but our toddler daughter was insistent and demanding and distracting, so she dropped in, said ‘hi’ and promised to write an email to say more. (She did.) We bade each other farewell, with a promise that we’d try to talk again sometime soon.  That never came to be.

My friend was an academic, an accomplished psychologist, who wrote acutely and sensitively on–among other things–emotions, narcissism, and psychoanalytic theory; she was a polymath who could talk comfortably about art, literature, and poetry; she practiced yoga well enough to be a teacher; she made ceramic pieces which bore the imprint of her distinctive style; she was a connoisseur of good food and wine; she was a loving partner and mother.  She lived far away from me, but when we met it always was as if the years would roll away. She gave good hugs, she was interested in what I had to say, and she was unfailingly kind and encouraging. She was, to drag out that dreaded cliché, one of those that prove the bitter truth that only the good die young. There was nothing she could have done to prevent the cancer; it is rare, not hereditary, and has no known causes or indications in physical predispositions. She was, in a word that expresses our ignorance of this terrible world’s secret workings the most acutely, unlucky. As were all of those who loved her and cared for her.

All the verbal consolations I send to her partner and her daughter are of scant comfort; their grief is immense, their loss irreplaceable, and I can only offer bromides from a distance. Her death makes this world into a colder and crueller place. But she lived a good life, and she made those she met and worked with and made a home with happier. Those are not insignificant blessings. May her spirit live on.

No Atheists In Foxholes? Plenty of Atheists In Cancer Wards

In writing about Brittany Maynard, the twenty-nine year old cancer patient who has scheduled herself for a physician-assisted suicide on November 1, Ross Douthat asks:

Why, in a society where individualism seems to be carrying the day, is the right that Maynard intends to exercise still confined to just a handful of states? Why has assisted suicide’s advance been slow, when on other social issues the landscape has shifted dramatically in a libertarian direction?

This question will predictably be answered by some variant of the usual Douthat analysis. To wit:

Because liberals misunderstand the American soul, if not the human condition, which is offered more soothing, palliative balm, more existential comfort, by the religiously infused conservative spirit, the true heart of America, and really, perhaps all of humanity. This Godless, cold, uncaring cosmos of the liberal imagination–where it ultimately fails is in being able to address La Condition Humaine

With that in mind, let us press on.

It does not take us too long to encounter Douthat’s current version of the answer I supplied. Here it is. ‘Liberalism’, in the context of the assisted suicide debate, is:

[A] worldview ill equipped to make sense of suffering that’s bound to lead to death, or that does not have a mountain-climbing, op-ed-writing recovery at the end of it.

Thus, unsurprisingly, in the Maynard case:

[W]hen it comes time to make an affirmative case for what she actually has to live for, they [liberals] often demur. To find that case, you often have to turn to explicitly religious writers — like Kara Tippetts, a mother of four currently dying of her own cancer, who wrote Maynard a passionate open letter urging her to embrace the possibility that their shared trial could actually have a purpose, that “beauty will meet us in that last breath.

But perhaps liberals demur because they don’t think they can articulate a rationale for continuing a life of pain and discomfort, with no possibility of relief, one that saps the soul of those left behind, without descending into dishonest turnings away from the suffering at hand. I’ve read Tippett’s letter. It reminds me of theological solutions to the problem of evil that I often discuss in my philosophy of religion classes: they don’t work; they only do on those already convinced of the theses the suffering find inexplicable.  Tippett has found her solution to her crisis; she should respect Maynard’s.

Douthat continues:

The future of the assisted suicide debate may depend, in part, on whether Tippetts’s case for the worth of what can seem like pointless suffering can be made either without her theological perspective, or by a liberalism more open to metaphysical arguments than the left is today.

I have news for Douthat. Assuming that what he means by ‘liberalism’ is just ‘atheism’ or ‘secularism’, as he so clearly seems to, he should realize it is a metaphysical platform: its ontology is bereft of a Supreme Being, of a non-human scale of value, of a purpose that  somehow transcends human strivings and value-construction.

Let me offer my answer to Douthat’s question: Because political debate in this country, one in which an atheist will never be elected president, is still, all too often, susceptible to, and hijacked by, the religiosity on display in Tippett’s letter, one which infects all too many of our political representatives. Where the ‘landscape has shifted dramatically in a libertarian direction,’ it has done so in those spaces where its progress is not so impeded. The legalization of marijuana is a good example; the abortion debate shows the limits of American ‘individualism’ in a domain where religion and sexism rule the roost. (Gay marriage is a notable exception.) Perhaps too, physician-assisted suicide is a complicated issue in a country where healthcare costs–especially end-of-life ones–are astronomical, where the terminally ill, besides not being mentally competent to make such decisions, might feel the pressure to end their lives to not be a financial burden on those left behind. It is in these issues that the real complexity lies. Here, the theological will have little to contribute, transfixed as it is by a vision of a purpose to human suffering invisible to all too many.

Walter White’s Rage Against The Dying Light

Ross Douthat ponders the question of what makes Walter White the target of such sympathy–and perhaps even affection– even as it became clear that his criminality and amorality had run amuck:

The allure for Team Walt is not ultimately the pull of nihilism, or the harmless thrill of rooting for a supervillain. It’s the pull of an alternative moral code, neither liberal nor Judeo-Christian, with an internal logic all its own. As James Bowman wrote in The New Atlantis, embracing Walt doesn’t requiring embracing “individual savagery” and a world without moral rules. It just requires a return to “old rules” — to “the tribal, family-oriented society and the honor culture that actually did precede the Enlightenment’s commitment to universal values.”

But people don’t subscribe to moral codes in the abstract; rather, they find a set of practices and customs that best express the instinctive, visceral emotions and drives that animate them, and get behind those.

What groundswell of passions is evoked by Walter White? First and foremost, Walter is a dying man. And he isn’t dying in the sense of being a ‘marked man,’ one who is destined for death by the hangman’s noose or the assassin’s bullet; he carries his death, his decay, inside him. His body has turned traitor and betrayed him. But Walter has not decided to lay down and face death with calm, resigned acceptance; he has not stood by and let that quisling,cancer, do its dirty work in peace. Instead, he has raged and raged and raged. The diagnosis that Walter received in Breaking Bad‘s first episode lit a fire within him, and it has not been quenched; it made his sense sharper; it reanimated his quiescent sexuality (as evinced in his almost feral lovemaking to Skyler soon thereafter).

It is this straining at the leash, this savage slapping aside of the Grim Reaper, that so provokes our admiration.  We know our death can come in many ways: perhaps suddenly, painfully, brutally; perhaps silently, while we sleep; perhaps we will receive a proclamation like Walter’s. We wonder how we will respond: will we fall to our knees, groveling for mercy, soiling ourselves, shaking at the knees? Will we retreat into a sullen silence and in shocked disappointment, refuse further intercourse with this world? Or will we, like Walter, snap back hard, every ounce of our being straining for one last demonstration that we can still resist the inevitable fate that awaits all human beings?

A minor weakness in Breaking Bad has been its refusal to make Walter’s illness more prominent. Perhaps a few more exposures to the other science, besides the cooking of meth, that is now ever-present in Walter’s life: the chemo, the radiation. Perhaps a little more visible pain and discomfort, forcing more awareness on the viewer that Walter is a fatally ill man. But these are minor omissions, because we have known for a while that every act that we see on the screen is, despite its running counter to many norms of ours, an act of visible, angry resistance to a preordained fate.

We might express our resistance differently, and that is why we disapprove too, of Walter. But the rage against the dying light? That will always  evoke our admiration.