Neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi died on March 9 of lung cancer. He was, as I am, 37 years old. He had, as I do, a young daughter. (I also of course have a son.) Before he died, Kalanithi wrote about his mortality, the change in his experience of time, and what held meaning for him in his last days.
Time for me is double-edged: Every day brings me further from the low of my last cancer relapse, but every day also brings me closer to the next cancer recurrence — and eventually, death. Perhaps later than I think, but certainly sooner than I desire. There are, I imagine, two responses to that realization. The most obvious might be an impulse to frantic activity: to “live life to its fullest,” to travel, to dine, to achieve a host of neglected ambitions. Part of the cruelty of cancer, though, is not only that it limits your time, it also limits your energy, vastly reducing the amount you can squeeze into a day. It is a tired hare who now races. But even if I had the energy, I prefer a more tortoiselike approach. I plod, I ponder, some days I simply persist.
Even to those of us whose end is not impending (as far as we know) this is a satisfactory state. To persist and ponder.
Kalanithi writes of his goals and achievements now belonging exclusively to the past, and I’m glad that at the same age as he, I need to not succumb to that feeling, though at times I can feel like being 37 means that all meaningful opportunities are now lost. It is a fallacy, but one whose fiction I must constantly remind myself of. Kalanithi’s piece helps.
Here’s part of why there is meaning in the middle ground, of reaching a point where, as he puts it, there is less “ascending” and more of a plateau. It’s a good plateau. (Forgive me, this is his final paragraph, so, I suppose “spoiler alert”?)
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.
When my 2 1/2-year-old daughter greets me when I pick her up from daycare, she greets me with her whole self, throwing so much joy and love at me I can hardly take it all in. Things quickly move on to her inquiring frantically about the immediate availability of fruit snacks, but in those tiny welcoming seconds, I feel a lifetime of meaning.