Paul Kalanithi’s wife, Lucy, quotes C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed in her epilogue:
Bereavement is not the truncation of married love, but one of its regular phases — like the honeymoon. What we want is to live our marriage well and faithfully through that phase too.
Beyond all the gore and responsibility of the OR, all the climbing of towers built upon literature reaching for meaning, Kalanithi’s story is a testament to the simple fact that love transcends death. There is perhaps no cliche truer than this: despite the tragic notion of a neurosurgeon succumbing to the very cancer he has spent an entire lifetime learning to fight, Kalanithi’s love expands, blossoming in Lucy’s tender epilogue, his final paragraph dedicated to his daughter, the countless pre-medical students wishing to better understand the moral cross they must bear, and all other readers ranging from those who wish to find camaraderie in a similar experience to those who wish to better understand that common end we all share. In witnessing Kalanithi’s progression towards death we all draw a little closer to one another, family and strangers alike, bound by our common human reality that we must all follow that same path.
The beauty of literature to simultaneously allow for the perception of an individual experience (or perhaps even more: to step into an experience) yet amplify understandings of our own idiosyncratic lives, is never more apparent than it is in the discussion of death. In the past week I’ve spent with Paul, carrying this book around my travels, my trip felt more like a gift than it would have otherwise: a chance to reflect on my own privileges of being alive and elsewhere, away from routine, seeing the world. I began this book early morning (for Korean standards) in a Starbucks in Seoul, bagel in hand, coffee to the side. Workers trickled in for a moment of quiet, sending emails and reading the news, students scratched their heads and tensed their eyes as they struggled with a problem set, and others nestled into comfortable chairs with books. The quiet morning, filled only with light chatter and clinking of cups and spoons, is something I’m sure all early risers (of which I have only recently joined the ranks) cherish. But perhaps we feel most alive in such moments because the air is gently woven with a mutual understanding that we are all here, preparing for another day filled with its own chaos and emergencies (whether we are surgeons or not), and for now we can simply be together even without saying a word. If that much human relationship can be fostered by unity forged against a single day’s burdens, it only follows that we draw nearer in the face of death. Lucy observes the way death fuels life:
Although these last few years have been wrenching and difficult — sometimes almost impossible — they have also been the most beautiful and profound of my life, requiring the daily act of holding life and death, joy and pain in balance and exploring new depths of gratitude and love.
When Breath Becomes Air is a complement to Lewis’ journal entries following the loss of his wife, Joy Davidson, to cancer. With both books we are able to bear witness to both dying and bereaved, and come to understand that dying is not so different from living — to die we must be alive, and to be alive we must die. But despite all of this, we casually fling aside memento mori and continue to live as if we are the exception. Lewis notes:
“We were promised sufferings. They were part of the program. We were even told, ‘Blessed are they that mourn,’ and I accept it. I’ve got nothing that I hadn’t bargained for. Of course it is different when the thing happens to oneself, not to others, and in reality, not imagination.”
Similar to what I had written in a reflection to Death Parade, I naturally spent a lot of time, on trains and buses, taking a break from the weight of Kalanithi’s words and contemplating the role of literature in my life and the imperatives that come with really knowing you will die. To avoid making this post too long and unnecessarily autobiographical, I’ll be brief.
One quote in particular rang particularly true for me, which pithily captured what I felt around this time last year:
Throughout college, my monastic, scholarly study of human meaning would conflict with my urge to forge and strengthen the human relationships that formed that meaning. If the unexamined life was not worth living, was the unlived life worth examining?
Even in reading and giving myself assignments to reflect through this blog, there are times when I wonder if spending an evening at home, clutching the writings of someone so far removed from me at the expense of spending time in the company of people who add fullness to my life, is a huge mistake. The cliched quote from Good Will Hunting comes to mind, but somehow fits nicely into this conversation about love and loss:
So if I asked you about art, you’d probably give me the skinny on every art book ever written. Michelangelo, you know a lot about him. Life’s work, political aspirations, him and the pope, sexual orientations, the whole works, right? But I’ll bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You’ve never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling; seen that. If I ask you about women, you’d probably give me a syllabus about your personal favorites. You may have even been laid a few times. But you can’t tell me what it feels like to wake up next to a woman and feel truly happy. You’re a tough kid. And I’d ask you about war, you’d probably throw Shakespeare at me, right, “once more unto the breach dear friends.” But you’ve never been near one. You’ve never held your best friend’s head in your lap, watch him gasp his last breath looking to you for help. I’d ask you about love, you’d probably quote me a sonnet. But you’ve never looked at a woman and been totally vulnerable. Known someone that could level you with her eyes, feeling like God put an angel on earth just for you. Who could rescue you from the depths of hell. And you wouldn’t know what it’s like to be her angel, to have that love for her, be there forever, through anything, through cancer. And you wouldn’t know about sleeping sitting up in the hospital room for two months, holding her hand, because the doctors could see in your eyes, that the terms “visiting hours” don’t apply to you. You don’t know about real loss, ’cause it only occurs when you’ve loved something more than you love yourself. And I doubt you’ve ever dared to love anybody that much.
It speaks to the immense depths of human experience that even I, as extremely privileged as I am to have traveled so much of the world, doubt that I have experienced nearly enough — it’s why I continue to read and take risks when venturing out. But closely related to this question of what we have and want to experience is the question of identity, and I find myself at times saying “that’s not something I would do.” In many cases it’s our formation of identity that prevents us from chasing experiences or following through on our goals. Experiences form our identities (“I’m a neurosurgeon”) but our identities also often dictate our experiences, and I’ve found myself growing to challenge such limitations, however gradually.
*Featured photo is from a trip to the Pyeongchang Olympics I took just this past week. The ice games were in Gangneung, and I was fortunate to go to the beach before heading back to Seoul. The beach showcased some local and international pieces of art, the most captivating of which was this giant skull.