Lucy and Paul met at the Yale School of Medicine, and eventually went on to do their residencies at Stanford University Medical Center, he as a neurosurgeon, she as an internist. Exceptionally smart, they also made an exceptionally handsome couple. They had a daughter last July 4th, named Elizabeth Acadia “Cady” Kalanithi.
Although I only knew Paul through Joanna, I, like countless others, read an essay he wrote for The New York Times last year (How Long Have I Got Left?) that revealed his personal thoughts about his terminal illness. I strongly urge you to read the essay if you haven’t already. Some passages:
“I began to realize that coming face to face with my own mortality, in a sense, had changed both nothing and everything. Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. But now I knew it acutely. The problem wasn’t really a scientific one. The fact of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live.”
“What patients seek is not scientific knowledge doctors hide, but existential authenticity each must find on her own. Getting too deep into statistics is like trying to quench a thirst with salty water. The angst of facing mortality has no remedy in probability.”
“I remember the moment when my overwhelming uneasiness yielded. Seven words from Samuel Beckett, a writer I’ve not even read that well, learned long ago as an undergraduate, began to repeat in my head, and the seemingly impassable sea of uncertainty parted: ‘I can’t go on. I’ll go on.’ I took a step forward, repeating the phrase over and over: ‘I can’t go on. I’ll go on.’ And then, at some point, I was through.”
Paul also revealed his feelings about his baby daughter, in another essay, Before I Go, for a Stanford publication:
“There is perhaps only one thing to say to this infant, who is all future, overlapping briefly with me, whose life, barring the improbable, is all but past.
“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.’”
It is difficult to read Paul’s words without thinking about the depth of emotional pain I would have felt had I gone through such an experience, as a 37-year-old mother with a 5-year-old son and a 2-year-old daughter. I am so sorry he will not see his daughter grow up, as I am blessed to see mine. His baby girl, as well as patients whose lives he would have “touched” throughout his career, are forever deprived of his passion, compassion and brilliance.
The death of a young man or woman, in the prime of his or her life, is a cruel reminder that we have not a single guarantee in each of our lives, except, as the adage goes, death and taxes. Yet we argue, we anguish, we anger, we provoke each other in countless ways, even those we love. We waste precious time. Being lucky–and privileged– to live beyond 37, indeed, to live at all, is not license to squander the time we do have.
Still, I know that no matter how much I think of Paul, I’ll still become exasperated over countless petty situations, like when my dog interrupts an important call with his yapping, or when David arrives home an hour after he promises.
Thanks to Paul, though, there will be more times when I keep myself in check and remember the proverbial bigger picture, when I calm down and can laugh at myself and my “problems”, because, as Paul taught me, most of them are usually pretty small.