[I have thought (as someone is asking me how I’m doing yet already looking at me with sad puppy dog eyes before I’ve actually replied) to say, “I’m good and in great spirits right now. Don’t be sad for me unless this crap comes back in the next 5 years and kills me.” Then I thought – What if I were good and in great spirits even when it came back and killed me? Why is survival the key to happiness? What if it was heart wrenchingly sad but ok and funny and meaningful too? Fucking hell, wouldn’t that be terrific?! Then Paul Kalanithi’s book came out and I scooped it up and devoured it. What beautiful perspective. I am lucky to have my small glimpse. I am forever altered.] January 22, 2016
I first became aware of Paul Kalanithi through A Cup of Jo, his sister-in-law’s wildly popular blog. In January 2014, she wrote about Paul’s essay for the New York Times called How Long Have I Got Left? He had just been diagnosed with Stage 4 metastatic lung cancer at the age of 36 as he was finishing up his neurosurgery residency at Stanford.
I was so heartbroken by the story that I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I immediately felt the all-too-familiar fear of my dad’s diagnosis and subsequent battle with cancer wash over me. I had come so far in my own emotional journey dealing with this cancer diagnosis and being in the midst of treatment, but I realized I was still susceptible to my fear of death.
Paul’s story made me realize two things:
One’s story can be painfully heartbreaking and wonderfully fulfilling at the exact same time.
If my cancer comes back to kill me, I will reach the point where I am ready to die.
I think most of us feel like we deserve one thing out of life despite all else – TIME. We say it isn’t guaranteed but it feels like we’re just going through the motions in saying the words because we are angry when children die or newlyweds or young doctors. It seems so unfair.
But why is more time always assumed to be the ultimate goal?
Don’t get me wrong, there are great injustices in the world in terms of people suffering early deaths, painful deaths, and wrongful deaths. But, Paul opened my eyes to living the fullest life possible with the time you have and finding happiness and meaning in that. So much so, that he and his wife decided to have a baby. And he wrote his book.
He wouldn’t live to see his daughter’s 1st birthday or see his book get published, but he did it anyway!
There was an interview with Paul’s wife, Lucy, where she talked about Paul being ready to die at the end. This was a lightbulb moment for me as I realized, “Yes. Of course he was ready.” Despite loving his family and not wanting to leave them, despite having so much work he still wanted to do, despite his book not being complete, he had endured so much. There is only so much fight in each of us and then it simply isn’t worth it anymore. I certainly reached moments during my treatment that I cried to my husband that I was done – with the side effects and with the mental and emotional challenges of the physical abuse I was enduring. I could clearly see myself getting to a point where I wanted no more treatment despite that meaning my life would end.
I did some pivotal processing back in October when I came to terms with my chances of (metastatic cancer) recurrence and this felt like a continuation of that. If that initial processing quieted the demons in my mind, these new realizations allowed me to breathe again. Thank you, Paul.
I hope to be here for my girls as they grow up and I want nothing more than to see my husband grow old in the meaningful lives we have chosen to share with one another. But if that doesn’t happen, I hope I am as brave and thoughtful as Paul until the end.
Paul wrote another beautiful piece called Before I Go.
This essay by his wife is equally touching.