Musings on Loss and Death following the Crash of Flight 752

There is a scene in Paul Auster’s Sunset Park (2010) where on New Year’s Eve the acclaimed publisher, Morris Heller asks himself how many dead bodies he has set eyes. In the midst of the funereal phantasmagoria that unfolds in his mind, he envisions the putrefying body of Hollywood heartthrob, Steve Cochran drifting across the ocean with three young women accompanying him prior to conjuring up the images of the lifeless bodies better known to him. How could one blame Heller for such thoughts? New Year’s Eve happens to be a time for such meanderings of the mind as one contemplates the figurative death of one year as it gives way to the next. Perhaps, in a spirit akin to that of Thomas Hardy who on the final hours of the nineteenth century imagined the “Century’s corpse outleant” while being mindful of a darkling thrush which despite hovering over the detritus of the dying century becomes an emblem of “blessed Hope,” we, too, will eventually find some respite in the midst of darkening clouds. 

On New Year’s Eve, I, too, thought about the number of dead bodies I had set eyes on. To my surprise, there had been only three: all in their prime. The first belonged to Nathan Cirillo who gained posthumous fame upon succumbing to a senseless shooting at Parliament Hill in 2014. I recall shedding copious tears as I imagined how he could have been making it to middle age; how he could have blossomed in his role as a guardian of the nation… Images of a life that could have been but was no more came to haunt me for days on end. In February 2015, I found myself standing before another promising life that had been snatched away too soon: the brother of a classmate of mine, a twenty-eight-year-old psychology student of Carleton University who had gotten off in the middle of the highway in Montreal to check his car engine only to be struck by oncoming traffic. “… any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.” The third and last body in mind bore marks of a self-willed death. As I stood by her body I found it hard to believe that what was before me was but an earthly husk destitute of life despite looking more destined for the bridal chamber than the funereal crypt. I hoped for an unio mystico on a more sparkling plain than the one she had departed from.

Those deaths had been especially poignant in the absence of the praemia vitae that punctuate our lives as hallmarks of success; as milestones that ought to be traversed in order for life to gain some meaning.

Indeed, New Year’s Eve is the time of such reckonings as we take stock of how many praemia vitae we have acquired and how many more lie before us. 

Little did I know at the time that in barely over a week, there would be another round of existential reckoning, albeit on a more substantial level, upon the loss of so many promising lives, who, mostly, shared my own hyphenated geographical identity. Although John Donne’s citation that “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…;” continues to hold water, the fact that fifty-seven of those who perished on Flight 752 en route to Kiev were Canadian citizens made all the difference in terms of shedding light on the real cause of the crash. Once it was determined that the tragedy had come about as a result of human and not mechanical error in the midst of the US-Iran military showdown, the event felt all the more poignant. The relatives of the victims remarked as to how their grief had transformed into anger; how it was as if they were reliving the loss of their loved ones yet again. Another element that compounded the grief of the afflicted relatives was the great promise that each life embodied. There had been young men and women who had recently got married; teenagers who were looking forward to a colourful future; and children who had been expecting to fall asleep in the loving arms of their parents. And then, the inexplicable occurred, the unfathomable … the “punch in the face” as noted by a loving father/ husband who has lost his daughter and wife in the crash…

Although one may qualify particular milestones in life as praemia vitae, as Philip Carey in Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage (1915) muses, it is, ultimately, the “complexity of the pattern” that constitutes the tapestry of one’s life that matters. One would have expected Atropos to grant the victims a chance to continue weaving the story of their lives, to add more colour to their patterns… Knowing full well that the Fates are a figment of our ancestral imagination, we turn our focus to the reality on the ground instead to find answers, but there are none… 

The 176 people who perished in the plane crash had been full of hopes and aspirations which came to a screeching halt in the wake of US-Iran tensions that culminated in the downing of that ill-fated plane. While their surviving relatives found their hopes dashed, they found some comfort in the words of the Canadian prime minister, who assured them how, “Your entire country stands with you.” There is hope that here in Canada, they would not be treated like second-class citizens…

The moonscape on whose surface their bodies ended up being scattered was just as outlandish as the ocean in whose fold Cochran’s corpse had been floating decades ago. However, that is as far as the analogy goes. While the excesses that threaded the life of the latter could have been responsible for his demise, in the case of the former, their bios indicate a totally different story: one marked by diligence, intelligence and buoyancy. 

Whereas, as already noted, I had earlier been able to imagine an unio mystico, such an image did not emerge in the case of the victims of the Ukrainian airliner. I found myself too overwhelmed by the physicality of death to be able to sketch an Afterlife. There were fragments of their belongings such as children’s books, singed pages of a passport, a blackened boot, the woeful sight of a family album… all of which brought about nostalgia for a wholeness that could be no more… Yet, a modicum of that longing has been translated into a sense of unity binding the members of the Iranian-Canadian community in this moment of grief and anger. That sense of unity has come to the fore in a series of ceremonies held across Canada in honour of the victims including those held on Sunday at UofT and UofA; in the facebook stories shared on social media; in the multimodal messages exchanged amongst us… 

May we further strengthen our unity and may the relatives of the victims gain “blessed Hope” from knowing that the collective body of their compatriots is standing with them in their moment of grief and sorrow.  

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