Lucy Kalanithi creates meaning in the wake of loss
An internist at Stanford University’s Clinical Excellence Research Center, Solo Mom Lucy Kalanithi composed the epilogue to her late husband’s book, When Breath Becomes Air (Random House, 2016). Written by Paul Kalanithi when he knew he was dying of Stage IV lung cancer, When Breath Becomes Air is a beautifully observed memoir that asks questions such as “What makes life worth living in the face of death?” and “What does it mean to have a child, to nurture a new life as another fades away?”
Those are questions Lucy and Paul faced as a couple. They learned of Paul’s diagnosis after 10 years together, when Paul was 36 and both were finishing years of medical training at Stanford. They had planned to start a family and, after absorbing the sobering news, elected to move forward. “[W]hen we were deciding to have Cady, it was clear to us that she likely wouldn’t know Paul, and that I would be a solo parent,” Lucy told the New York Times in January 2016. “I said, ‘Don’t you think [having a child] will make your death more painful?’ He said . . . ‘We agreed that life is not about avoiding suffering.’ It’s about creating meaning.” Their daughter, Elizabeth Acadia (“Cady”), was born three days after Paul returned from a weeks-long hospitalization. He loved his daughter deeply; during the eight months they shared, Paul said that Cady filled him with “a joy unknown to me in all my prior years.”
Paul had trained to become a neurosurgeon, but he wrote, too: his 2014 essay for the New York Times about learning to live with uncertainty in the face of a cancer diagnosis led to a book proposal. When he became too sick to continue working in the operating room, he pressed on with writing. “He was working really hard,” Lucy recalled to BookPage in January 2016. Of the time when Paul labored on the manuscript, Lucy said, “It was very purposeful; we loved each other, and we loved Cady.” Before he passed away, Paul asked Lucy to help guide his book to publication.
She did. Paul died in March 2015. When Breath Becomes Air was published almost one year later, in January 2016.
Lucy continues to navigate the strange confluence of loss and new life as a Solo Mom. She describes the grief process as “unexpected and unpredictable,” even as she celebrates the upward trajectory of Cady’s life. “Paul would have loved that her first word was ‘dog,’” she told BookPage. “There are all these little things that are just so bittersweet because he’s not here.”
She understands that part of her role as a Solo Mom is to help Cady have a relationship with her father. “It’s my job going forward to help shape [Cady’s] narrative in a way that makes sense for her,” Lucy told the New York Times. She’s honest about the fact that the road ahead isn’t necessarily clear. “I don’t know what [Cady’s] relationship with Paul—understanding Paul—I don’t know what that will be going forward. I have to let her have that, too.”
But Lucy is learning to move ahead. As Nancy Sharp describes in the ESME feature, “The Shifting Tides of Identity,” it’s a journey to integrate the identity of widowhood with life’s other roles, including that of parent, career woman, and friend. Lucy has returned to work. “[A]s I prepare to watch Paul’s work take on a life of its own, I begin to take on a life of my own,” she said in a January 2016 New York Times piece for The Opinion Pages. “Our home is now a home for our daughter and me.” She continues, “As a child, I was always told that a grave should be stepped around, not onto, that only flowers should touch it. With Paul, the rules feel reversed. . . . [I]t feels right to bring friends [to his grave] now, to watch the sunset and pour a beer out for him. And it feels right for our bright-eyed one-year-old daughter to crawl among the flowers I’ve placed on the grave. We are making this place ours, and his.”
thumbnail image screen grabbed from A Strange Relativity: Altered Time for Surgeon-Turned-Patient
Janice Deal is a writer, an editor, and a lover of found objects. Her short-story collection, The Decline of Pigeons (Queen’s Ferry Press, 2013), was a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. Her first novel, The Sound of Rabbits, was recently named a finalist in the Many Voices Project Prose competition. Janice lives in Downers Grove, Illinois, with her husband, daughter, and three disreputable cats.
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