An Extraordinary Life

“Death, be not proud, though some have called thee

Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so”—John Donne

On a Sunday in January, 2014, I opened the New York Times Opinion section and stumbled upon one of the most unusual essays I had ever read.  It was written by Dr. Paul Kalanithi, who at the time was a 36 year old neurosurgery resident at Stanford who had been battling metastatic lung cancer for eight months.  Here is a link to the essay, entitled “How Long Have I Got Left?”– http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/25/opinion/sunday/how-long-have-i-got-left.html?_r=0    The author’s point was one well understood by cancer patients everywhere—if the doctors could not tell him whether he had a month, or a year, or ten years, how could he possibly determine what his priorities should be and how best to live his life?  Should he finish his residency?  Should he write a book?  Should he have a child?  In his worst moments he wrote that he fell back on his first love—literature.  In the last sentence of Samuel Beckett’s The Unnamable, Kalanithi found a mantra to live by: “I can’t go on.  I’ll go on.”

As it turned out, he did not have long.  Despite the optimistic and sometimes humorous tone of the essay, Dr. Paul Kalanithi died of his lung cancer 14 months later.  But not without first doing ALL of the things he mentioned in the essay.  He finished his neurosurgery residency as chief resident. He repaired a fractured marriage.  He had a child.  And to our great benefit, he wrote a book called “When Breath Becomes Air” published posthumously in January of this year—a book which despite my oft stated incredible reluctance to read anything I know will make me cry, I grabbed off the shelf the minute I spotted it in a local bookstore.   I was not disappointed, and yes, I cried.

The courage of cancer patients, and of all patients facing life threatening disease astounds and inspires me.  Many go through grueling and exhausting treatments and manage to put one foot in front of the other—they “can’t go on…they go on.”   Paul Kalanithi not only went on…he wrote about his experience in a book that will stand not only as a cancer memoir, but as a profound piece of writing.  When faced with dying, he chose life by completing his training, by having a child, by believing every day that he still had much to offer.  In an essay for Stanford Medicine he wrote words for his infant daughter which were included in his book: “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.”

I hope you get a chance to read his book.  Even if it makes you cry.