The Untimely Death Of A New Father

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thecaptionI only met Paul once, at the wedding of my friend, Joanna. Paul was married to Lucy, Joanna’s twin sister.

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.


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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.unnamed-2

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.

18 Responses to “The Untimely Death Of A New Father”

  1. Judy says:

    I am 62 years old and I know how lucky and privileged I am, every single day. I lost my husband of 40 years just two and a half years ago and have since remarried to a wonderful man who was also widowed after 44 years of marriage. We live every day celebrating the lives of the ones we have lost, but also celebrating the love we are privileged to have together. We know we are blessed and strive to never lose sight of that! My new husband is also named Paul (it’s a great name!) and I am pretty sure both Paul’s will impact this world long after they are gone. Thank you for sharing this with us!

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  2. Susan McMillin says:

    My young daughter in law died of a brain aneurysm at age 27, leaving her 6 year old without a mommy. She had a seizure & dropped dead. Three months before this, she was brutally assaulted & raped. My son, her husband misses her greatly. Here today & gone tomorrow!

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  3. Christine Baumgartner says:

    Dear Geri, What a touching and lovely tribute! It is definitely an important reminder to 1) savor each day and 2) try not to sweat the small stuff.

    My husband Tony and I met in 2005 and were married in 2007. He died suddenly in 2012. He was 64 and I believe he would definitely say he lived a very full life. I’m grateful I was a part of his life even though it was for a much shorter time then I could have ever imagined.

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    • GeriFOF says:

      Hello, Christine,

      It is inspiring to me that you look at the joyous side of your relationship with your husband, rather than your loss. I wish you health and happiness for many many many years.

      Geri

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      • Coach Christine says:

        Thank you Geri. You had mentioned in an email to me that you thought you’d like to interview me. I’d welcome the opportunity to chat with you.

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        • GeriFOF says:

          Hi Christine, I would like to interview you. Where are you located? Give me a few days and times later this week or next week when you can do it.

          Geri

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          • Christine Baumgartner says:

            Hi Geri, I came across our previous communication and wanted to reach out to reconnect about your suggested interview opportunity. I’m available every day this upcoming week before 12:00 pacific time. I hope to hear from you soon. Christine Baumgartner

          • GeriFOF says:

            Hi Christine,

            How about Friday at 10 Pacific Time?

            Geri

          • Christine Baumgartner says:

            Geri, Friday 10:00am pacific time is perfect. My phone number is 714-290-6166. I’m looking forward to meeting you over the phone. Christine

          • GeriFOF says:

            Great Christine. Have a great week!

          • Coach Christine says:

            Hi Geri, I moved and got a little behind in my emails and following up with people. I wanted to check in to see if you published the interview we did together. Christine

  4. Barrie says:

    Both is articles are moving. So sad but I love “I can’t go on. I will go on.”

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  5. Cindy Aiton says:

    My mother was killed by a drunk driver when I was just 5 years old. Her death has affected me more than I will ever be able to explain. There are things that are normal to other people, but are so foreign to me. For instance, the word “mom”. i

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    • Julie says:

      My mother died of breast cancer at 30…. my sister and I were 12 and 8yrs old. It has a “huge ” impact losing your mother that young, especially when you get a step-mother who didn’t want you or your sister as a “package deal” with her sexy new husband. Bless little Cady, I hope she has a wonderful life as her father would have wanted for her…

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      • GeriFOF says:

        Hi Julie,

        I guess the term “wicked stepmother” was created to define women like your stepmother. Sorry you and your sister had to have someone like her in your young lives. Geri

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  6. ezrasmom says:

    As a mom of 4 older kids, the youngest turns 21 next week I’m fortunate I got to watch my kids grow up. What a sad loss for Lucy and Cady. My thoughts and prayers are with these two.

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  7. Karen Smith says:

    Most of us have the luxury to lose sight of many things in the flurry of activities that mark our days. Hearing about Paul’s journey will help me be more mindful today — thanks, Geri.

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    • GeriFOF says:

      you are welcome, karen. very welcome!

      Geri

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