When Breath Becomes Air

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In his foreword, Dr. Abraham Verghese closes with: “Be ready. Be seated. See what courage sounds like. See how brave it is to reveal yourself in this way… But above all, see what it is to still live, to profoundly influence the lives of others after you are gone, by your words. In a world of asynchronous communication, where we are so often buried in our screens, our gaze rooted to the rectangular objects buzzing in our hands, our attention consumed by ephemera, stop and experience this dialogue with my young departed colleague, now ageless and extant in memory. Listen to Paul. In the silences between his words, listen to what you have to say back. Therein lies his message. I got it. I hope you experience it, too. It is a gift. Let me not stand between you and Paul.”

And here’s Janet Maslin in her NY Times Book Review where she quotes Verghese and continues: “Dr. Verghese suggests not only reading “When Breath Becomes Air” but also listening to the overwhelming response it prompts in you. I guarantee that finishing this book and then forgetting about it is simply not an option.”

I completed Paul Kalanithi’s memoir this weekend and agree with Verghese and Maslin – waves of Kalanithi’s words are still lapping my shoreline. And they won’t let me go.

The book is a selection of Amazon’s Best Book of January 2016“At the age of thirty-six, on the verge of completing a decade’s worth of training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. When Breath Becomes Air chronicles Kalanithi’s transformation from a naïve medical student “possessed,” as he wrote, “by the question of what, given that all organisms die, makes a virtuous and meaningful life” into a neurosurgeon at Stanford working in the brain, the most critical place for human identity, and finally into a patient and new father confronting his own mortality.  Kalanithi died in March 2015, while working on this book.”

Here’s an excerpt:

“The morning commuters began to animate the distant South Lake Tahoe roads. But craning your head back, you could see the day’s blue darken halfway across the sky, and to the west, the night remained yet unconquered— pitch-black, stars in full glimmer, the full moon still pinned in the sky. To the east, the full light of day beamed toward you; to the west, night reigned with no hint of surrender. No philosopher can explain the sublime better than this, standing between day and night. It was as if this were the moment God said, “Let there be light!” You could not help but feel your specklike existence against the immensity of the mountain, the earth, the universe, and yet still feel your own two feet on the talus, reaffirming your presence amid the grandeur.”

And another: [Read more…]

Just, so much (too much) here…

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Photo: A U.S. service member salutes her fallen comrades during a memorial ceremony for six Airmen killed in a suicide attack, at Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan on Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2015. The deadliest attack in Afghanistan since 2013 killed six U.S. troops on Monday, including a family man from Long Island, New York; a South Texan; a New York City police detective; a Georgia high school and college athlete; an expectant father from Philadelphia; and a major from suburban Minneapolis with ties to the military’s LGBT community. They were killed when their patrol was attacked by a suicide bomber on a motorcycle near Bagram Air Base, the Defense Department said. (wsj.com: Tech Sgt. Robert Cloys/U.S. Air Force / Associated Press)

 

I wonder what she prays for, and if you hear her.

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[…]

When I got to the waiting room I saw your mother perched there with her incurable stare. She was in that place where the high probability of failure intersects with a two percent chance of success. Hope at its most corrosive. […]

How is your boy

She didn’t move or look at me, but there was graciousness in her tone when she said

He’s just not so good

When I returned the next day I peeked in to see my dad and then I darted over to look for those feet of yours. When I didn’t see them I stopped a nurse and said, the boy, the tall one, where is he? It was a nurse I didn’t recognize and she clearly didn’t know that you were supposed to be a big basketball star and live to be eighty, she clearly knew none of that because she did not look up and said flatly that they had taken your body away.

That day was over twenty years ago. I’ve been witness to great tragedy since but I’ve never forgotten you. I created different details to your narrative to go along with what I knew and it never seems like what I assume is inaccurate. I feel like by having some understanding of your latitude I can deduce your center, like quantum gravity, which I can comprehend about as much as I can a mother burying her son, but if certain scientists are correct and it becomes possible to bend time, then I’ll be able to ask you if any of my assumptions were correct. I don’t need answers until then, unless the idea of God becomes willing to explain itself, in which case I am up for that Q& A. Where your story intersects mine is at my refusal to accept things too sad for me to process; my reimagining endings that haunt me. It’s hard to reconcile that God is either entirely too secretive or has a totally deficient ability to prioritize. I hear people say, “It happened for a reason,” or “It’s part of God’s plan,” and I wish that made sense to me but it doesn’t. I carry you around still and who knows why. Perhaps there are no answers for us poor humans, but we know a handful of things. We know there exists a planet with four thousand versions of songbirds. Because that is possible and because on that same planet can exist sentient beings made up almost entirely of stardust, and because bonafide poetry erupts mightily from some of those beings, and there is music, sex, and babies that laugh in their sleep; because we are roaming a universe that may be a hologram, with another dimension consecutively projecting itself outside this construct of relativity and gravity; because of all that, there is no reason why my prayers shouldn’t be able to reach your mother whose name I didn’t even know. There is no reason why not, when nothing is completely harmonious with its description, not really, and there is a flaw in every theory of time and space.

From time to time I picture it. I see her watching while you go flying down that court. I see her shoulders moving almost imperceptibly to mimic your bobs and weaves around the other players. She is going where you go without thinking about it, tied to you, following and winning when you win, until you turn to wave and that puts her on her feet and beaming. I do know that if your mother is alive today she is thinking of you right this minute. I wonder what she prays for, and if you hear her.

~ Mary-Louise Parker, “Dear Mr. Big Feet” from Dear You 


Photo: derrosenkavalier titled Feet part ten

Instantly we are scanning Twitter, calling out estimates of the dead.


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Notes:

Sunday Morning: The Sabbath, the day of rest

Oliver-Sacks

In February, I felt I had to be equally open about my cancer — and facing death. I was, in fact, in the hospital when my essay on this, “My Own Life,” was published in this newspaper. In July I wrote another piece for the paper, “My Periodic Table,” in which the physical cosmos, and the elements I loved, took on lives of their own.

And now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual, but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life — achieving a sense of peace within oneself. I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.

~ Oliver Sacks: Sabbath. The Seventh Day of the Week. The Seventh Day of Life

Postscript:

Oliver Sacks died this morning. He was 82 years old. His work here is done and may he now rest in peace.

The story in NY Times: Oliver Sacks Dies at 82; Neurologist and Author Explored the Brain’s Quirks


Notes:

A dog’s love


“Heartbreaking photos show grieving Bird and stray dogs attend funeral of woman who fed them.

These heartbreaking photos prove that a dog’s love knows no bounds as a collection of stray pooches pay tribute at the funeral of a woman who showed them kindness. Lying in the floors and trotting through the aisles, the dogs congregated at the funeral of Margarita Suarez – much to the surprise of the woman’s friends and family. Margarita, from Merida in Mexico, frequently took time out of her day to care for stray dogs and cats by giving them food in the morning. She would also take a bag of food out with her during the day, and treat other stray dogs she passed to a tasty treat. Dogs from all around the area would huddle around the caring woman when she passed them by, but they were evidently left heartbroken after Margarita passed away.

According to Misiones Online, the caring woman, who’s age has not been revealed, died after her health took a poor turn at the beginning of March. The family then began organising the funeral but were stunned when animals began arriving at the parlour where her mother’s body was being kept. Workers at the funeral home denied any knowledge of the animals and said they had never seen them before.

Amazingly, on the day of the funeral, a large number of stray dogs slowly followed the hearse carrying Margarita and even returned to the funeral home. They only left when the body was being prepared for cremation, but not before the family had one final treat. A bird, that was not thought to be native to the area, flew into the service and tweeted away contently. Margarita’s family have told how they believe the animals had an instinct that they wanted to be there to say goodbye to someone who had been so good to them.”


I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective

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Oliver Sacks: My Own Life. Learning of Terminal Cancer

…It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me. I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can…

…While I have enjoyed loving relationships and friendships and have no real enmities, I cannot say (nor would anyone who knows me say) that I am a man of mild dispositions. On the contrary, I am a man of vehement disposition, with violent enthusiasms, and extreme immoderation in all my passions.

I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is no time for anything inessential. I must focus on myself, my work and my friends. I shall no longer look at “NewsHour” every night…

I have been increasingly conscious, for the last 10 years or so, of deaths among my contemporaries. My generation is on the way out, and each death I have felt as an abruption, a tearing away of part of myself. There will be no one like us when we are gone, but then there is no one like anyone else, ever. When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate — the genetic and neural fate — of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.

…Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.

Don’t miss reading the full essay by Oliver Sachs: My Own Life. Learning of Terminal Cancer


Notes:

I find them evenly lit

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NY Times: Mark Strand, 80, Dies; Pulitzer-Winning Poet Laureate:

Mark Strand, whose spare, deceptively simple investigations of rootlessness, alienation and the ineffable strangeness of life made him one of America’s most hauntingly meditative poets, died on Saturday at his daughter’s home in Brooklyn. He was 80. Mr. Strand, who was named poet laureate of the United States in 1990 and awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1999 for his collection “Blizzard of One,” made an early impression with short, often surreal lyric poems that imparted an unsettling sense of personal dislocation — what the poet and critic Richard Howard called “the working of the divided self.”…“He is not a religious poet on the face of it, but he fits into a long tradition of meditation and contemplation,” said David Kirby…He makes you see how trivial the things of this world are, and how expansive the self is, once you unhook it from flat-screen TVs and iPhones.” Reading Mr. Strand, he said, “We learn what a big party solitude is.”…To critics who complained that his poems, with their emphasis on death, despair and dissolution, were too dark, he replied, “I find them evenly lit.”

He has too many favorite poems to share…so I have shared links to short excerpts, morsels, to enable you to feel the genius of this man.

  • Luminism: “And though it was brief, and slight, and nothing / To have been held onto so long, I remember it…”
  • Black Maps: “…A scar remembers the wound.” 
  • The Guardian: Why do I love what fades?”
  • The Triumph of the Infinite“All I could hear was my heart pumping and pumping.”
  • The Coming of Light: “..Even this late it happens: the coming of love, the coming of light.”
  • Dark Harbor: “…Sending up stars of salt, loud clouds of spume.”
  • The Continuous Life: “…You are slipping away with nothing completed, nothing / To prove you existed.”
  • Not Dying: “…On windless summer nights I feel those kisses…”
  • Sleeping With One Eye Open: “…We all have reasons for moving. I move to keep things whole.”
  • Lines for Winter: “…Tell yourself in that final flowing of cold through your limbs that you love what you are.” 
  • The Remains: “…The hours have done their job. I say my own name. I say goodbye.”

Credits: Photo – jrbenjamin.com

They bust you by being grateful for the day

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The worst possible thing you can do when you’re down in the dumps, tweaking, vaporous with victimized self-righteousness, or bored, is to take a walk with dying friends. They will ruin everything for you.

First of all, friends like this may not even think of themselves as dying, although they clearly are, according to recent scans and gentle doctors’ reports. But no, they see themselves as fully alive. They are living and doing as much as they can, as well as they can, for as long as they can.

They ruin your multitasking high, the bath of agitation, rumination, and judgment you wallow in, without the decency to come out and just say anything. They bust you by being grateful for the day, while you are obsessed with how thin your lashes have become and how wide your bottom.

~ Anne Lamott, “Prelude: Victory Lap“, Small Victories: Spotting Improbably Moments of Grace


Notes: Quote Source – Brainpickings. Portrait: Kamil Zacharski by Opaqueglitter


 

R.I.P. Birdie

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This morning, I shared a gif of a parrot taking a shower.

I then check my emails and receive this message, the first of the day.

Good morning. I am very sorry to tell you that Birdie passed away this morning. She had been just fine until about 6 months ago when she began having occasional seizures. We are assuming she had one last night. Jessica found her at the bottom of the cage this morning and it seemed like she was hanging on for her to get home. She died shortly after Jessica picked her up. She spent most of every day on Jessica’s shoulder or inside her shirt during the winter months. Jessica is devastated. She lost her best animal friend.

In case you missed the original post on the background of Birdie and our family, you can find it here: “I Miss Birdie.”

Sad Day. Yet, what incredible joy this little creature brought to our family.

RIP Birdie.

All the variety,
all the charm,
all the beauty of life
is made up of light and shadow.

~ Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina


 

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