Earlier this week, as a way of remembering Howard Gray immediately after his death, I flipped through a few of the emails I’ve received from him. One of the first that popped up, written a couple of years ago, suggested that I read When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, M.D. It looks as if I didn’t respond to the email, but I think that I had already read the book at that point.
Lucy Kalanithi, M.D. was the other main speaker at the Dayton conference a few weeks ago. The book (which I am not going to review here) details her husband’s experience with lung cancer; Lucy finished it after he died. Paul Kalanithi was a brilliant young neurosurgeon when his diagnosis disrupted his life, and forced him to shift from physician delivering bad news to patient on the receiving end of a devastating report. It’s a must-read for anyone whose life has jolted from one of ordinary dailiness (not that Paul Kalanithi was ever ordinary in the sense of the word which most of us understand) to the high drama of end-stage cancer.
Lucy spoke about the challenges she and Paul faced after his diagnosis, including
- facing one’s own mortality
- questions of identity ~ who am I now?
- facing death and uncertainty
- and the tension between living and dying.
That last one I remember so well from my stepmother’s stage 4 lung cancer diagnosis. How do you deal with in-your-face issues of serious illness and likely imminent death and simultaneously forge a life among your family and friends?
Lucy left us with two poignant reflections, the latter emerging from the Q-and-A period and much discussed at out table.
The first had to do with Paul’s statement of desire: “I want everyone else to take care of Lucy so that she can take care of me.” What a powerful recognition of, on the one hand, the needs of the primary caregiver, and on the other, the need of the patient for someone who can focus her life entirely on his need for care and support, to which everyone else can contribute by providing for the caregiver.
The second had to do with their conscious decision to have a child whose father would probably not live to see her grow up, whose father might not live to see her at all. For the Kalanithis, their daughter was, and is, a life-giving source of joy and, while some shuddered at the thought of the courage required of her mother, most at our table could appreciate the powerful desire for love to break forth in the form of the birth of a child, even, or perhaps especially, in the heart of a sojourn toward death.
Please read this important book. It illuminates an all-too-common experience, and may be the trigger you need to start a much-needed conversation with a loved one.