What a powerful tribute to living and dying in love with integrity! I just finished listening to the incredibly powerful book (and #1 New York Times Bestseller) When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, including a beautifully wise epilogue by his wife Lucy Kalanithi.
At age 36, just as his career as a neurosurgeon and neuroscientist was about to take off, Paul learns he has lung cancer. Over the next two years – until his recent death in March 2015 - he and his family work to face death and life with integrity. This book is a gift of wisdom that Paul and Lucy offer to those who have hearts to hear and respond. If you want to learn about facing death, life and love with integrity, consider this book. It will make you laugh, weep and wonder as you are dared to live and die with integrity and gratitude.
I will share with you my some of my responses to my first hearing of this book.
The first things I was struck with are the layers of similarity between my life and Paul’s. I have never met Paul or Lucy but feel a kind of deep kinship with them.
Here are some of strands of connections (the links below connect to some of my previous writing on the topic):
- Perpetual students of high achievement with university degrees in a variety of different fields - his in Medicine, English Lit, Biology and History, mine in Law, Conflict Transformation, Theology and Religious Studies.
- Young (relatively) academic with a promising career cut short by terminal illness (his lung cancer, mine Huntington’s Disease)
- Sought in life the sacredness of caring work to meet people where they are, respecting who they are and bringing them as far as you can.
- Struggle to apply to what you hoped you were doing in your work to your own living and dying.
- Struggle with the question of life’s worth?
- Avoid battle/fighting ways of dealing with death
- Life is not about avoiding suffering
- Grieving the loss a planned for future while at the same time accepting a new one
- A thinker and lover but not a fighter
- Accompanied by loving life partners who are wiser than us
- Unlocking the wisdom of living in the moment
- Share the perspective of ongoing crumbling between life and death
- Had children whom some thought should not be born, given the nature and timing of our diseases
- Writers consciously sharing in the face of a world afraid of death.
Two powerful takeaways from this book for me concerned his child and his life partner.
The Eyes and Heart of a Loving Parent
Paul - days from dying - writes the final words of his book to his baby daughter Elizabeth Acadia.
“That message is simple: When you come to one of the many moments in life when you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more, but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.”
Chasing desire does not quench it thirst. Rather, thirst and desire deepen as they are pursued. Paul’s love of and from his daughter is different. It is the joy so deep that just a sip satisfies, the kind of joy that beholds, beloves and satisfies. What I powerful message to hear from a parent: Behold, this is my daughter with whom I am well pleased. You make my joy complete.
Reading When Breath Becomes Air, I know I need to live into this same love with my daughters. Paul’s challenge was to love his baby daughter who he would not see growing up. My challenge is to find ways of living into this same love with my almost 15 year old twin daughters who are growing up and very communicative, especially when it comes to my failings. Please don’t get me wrong – I have fantastic, awesome daughters whom I do behold, belove, and with whom I am well pleased. However, we also live together. They are 15 and I have holes in my head. We can get our swords crossed at times. Paul’s book challenges me to love my girls now in the way that I want them to remember later. I try to work at this every day. Most days, it is a lot of fun.
Concerning life partners
In the book we learn Paul and Lucy joke between them that “the best cure for marriage difficulties is one person having a terminal disease.” You need to read the book to really understand what this means but at least it means it brought them together. As an outsider to their stories it seems that theirs is a love story which gets put on the backburner as life becomes more and more stressful. Terminal illness teaches us to see in a new light. In this new light they rediscover what is most important. They rediscover their love for each other.
As one with a terminal disease and with a great life partner, I think the partners have the much harder road. I get to lose my mind. This is a relief. And at some point I won’t care about how I appear to the outside world. My disease is a part of my reality. I can choose how to relate to my disease but I cannot choose life without it. For Rhona, my partner, this is different. She can leave this path but chooses to stay. She does not lose her grip on reality, even as mine dissolves. So for her to stay, to stay present and to love, this is a truly remarkable and courageous kind of love.
Reading When Breath Becomes Air and especially the Epilogue by Lucy, I felt dared to fall in love again with Rhona. I don’t think we had fallen out of love but somehow in my reading of the book a new horizon of the possible emerged. I saw a beautiful way we could remain lovers.
When I was still a professor I would tell my peacebuilding students that peacebuilders should be better lovers. They would giggle, knowing that a double meaning was fully intended. I am still in the process of learning to love anew.
This book freed me to love again. What a gift! I highly recommend it to any who dare to love.