Archive for the ‘Dreams’ Category

Day 125: Paul Kalanithi

In Dreams, English Major, Friendship, God, Happiness, Holstee Manifesto, Humanity, life, literature, loss, Love, Meaning, People, Relationships, Teaching, Writing on September 20, 2016 at 11:51 pm

The physician’s duty is not to stave off death or return patients to their old lives, but to take into our arms a patient and family whose lives have disintegrated and work until they can stand back up and face, and make sense of, their own existence.
Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air

In reading Paul Kalanithi’s story there are two quotes that stood out to me. One is listed above. While Paul is recounting his perceived role as a neurosurgeon, I think the poignant thing about that quote, is that you can change the words, and, in doing so, you will see something very beautiful:

The individual’s duty is not to stave off pain or return others to the position before they felt pain, but to take others into our arms, those whose lives have been disinegrated, and work until they stand back up and face, and make sense, of their own existence.

While Paul was most certainly a beautiful doctor in his lifetime, what I found most touching about his book was his ability to see (through the lens of his profession) the meaning behind living. The part of life that drives and perpetuates us, if we’re lucky. The precious ability we have to connect with others and enrich their lives through the experiences we make with them.

I have degrees in English literature. Paul did too. I have spent years disconnected from books, from authors that once touched me so deeply I felt a definitive passion to share their words with others and, hopefully, contribute to the world by helping their ideas, failures and successes to live on. My life got in the way though, and I lost that passion, I quit reading, I quit writing and I chalked up the time spent in academia as a waste. What I never in my wildest dreams thought I’d learn from reading this book, a book about a neurosurgeon’s life, is that what I’d studied, and how I felt about it, and how I can still feel about it, is meaningful. You can bring that passion, that meaning, to other aspects of your life, just as Paul had done. He was a neurosurgeon, but he was also a lover of Dickenson poetry and Emerson’s Leaves of Grass and Eliot’s The Wasteland. He found a way to beautifully intertwine his passion for works and authors such as the above with his equal, but different, passion for medicine and the brain. In fact, I believe, the two were codependent in his life. He was such a great physician because he had read the words of the grieving, of the loving, those who struggled to understand their own mind, such as Hemingway, and thus with these literary experiences he was able to further understand the element of humanity that must be present for a great physician to exist. He understood, like he states above, that he wasn’t God, his role wasn’t to stave off death, but to show those patients he encountered, how to live, how to love, how to grieve, how to be supported, how to find meaning – all things he learned, and, eventually, put down into a book of his own. 

This idea leads to my second favorite quote of the book, when he and his wife Lucy discuss the idea of having a child after his cancer diagnosis:

Will having a newborn distract from the time we have together?” she asked. “Don’t you think saying goodbye to your child will make your death more painful?”

“Wouldn’t it be great if it did?” I said. Lucy and I both felt that life wasn’t about avoiding suffering.

Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air

Life isn’t about avoiding suffering, it’s about fully living which includes suffering. When we read literature, some of the greatest works, or, on a personal note, some of the works that have touched me most, it’s been the books, the poems, the historical recounts of people that suffered, that experienced something that hurt them and then took the time to write about it. Those are the ones that make you see life differently, those are the ones that remind you what living is really about. This is a subtle reminder that hardship is beautiful and to avoid it would equate to a flat life. A life absent of deep seated meaning. 

Paul’s book is one that will leave you in tears, but in a good way. What struck me most about this book was, oddly enough, the cover of it (I am oftentimes drawn to book covers and their hidden messages). 

Paul was a leading neurosurgeon at Stanford University. He was up and coming and he was a “great” doctor. I thought of my own grandfather who passed away just last year. I remember visiting him in his hospital room before he had lost the ability to communicate. He was a surgeon, not a neurosurgeon, but he lived his life in the same professional circle as Paul. I remember distinctly looking at the white board in his room, the one where his name and conditions were listed alongside his current medications and their dosing, it read: “Dr.” with my grandfather’s first and last name following. Each time a nurse would enter the room, he’d emphatically remind him or her that he was indeed a doctor, a surgeon, and that they should refer to him that way. He’d go on to let them know the years he’d spent in the operating room as if it somehow mattered while he lay in bed dying. Perhaps it did, perhaps it brought him meaning, but what this story is meant to point out is what’s written on the front of Paul’s book, a memoir of his life, is just his name – no lofty Dr. title preceding it. Just Paul Kalanithi, that’s it. Surely, someone who spends years of their life training to be a physician, a neurosurgeon, didn’t leave that title off by mistake or as an oversight (my own grandfather taught me that). Perhaps though, Dr. is omitted because Paul saw himself as more than just that. In reading his book, I think it’s quite apparent he did. 

When there is no place for the scalpel, words are the surgeon’s only tool.

Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air

A whit.

Day 105: Dreams

In Dreams on March 13, 2014 at 2:17 am

It has been a long time since I have written anything on this blog because, to be honest, I haven’t known what to write. Not because things haven’t been happening to me–they have. It’s been more a matter of fear, fear that my words written on here might somehow change my dreams.

Today I realized fear cannot govern this blog, and so here I sit ready to write again.

I’ve been thinking a lot about dreams lately and, coincidentally, so was this person. In fact, everyday when I need an uplifting moment I turn to this blog and just the right words appear on my screen. A small miracle for me.

Opposite to her, I never dreamed of being solely a mother. I knew I wanted to be a mom, but I knew I also wanted a career. Sometimes our long hoped for dreams get away from us and we realize the ones that replace them are “better” for us. When I think of all the things I do well in my life, I can’t think of one job I’ve done better than being a mom. This was never a painstakingly imagined dream that I scoured over everyday of my young adult life, being a mom, but it’s one I’ve come to know I needed just as much as it needed me. It’s a dream better than any of those that I had envisioned; ones of me working in a suit and bossing a bunch of professional men around. In fact, I’ve actually come to see that dream for an inkling, the business women one, and it wasn’t as great, as fulfilling as I’d imagined it.

Today, I realized, it’s that dream I had to be a high-powered woman–that’s the dream that has hurt me the most. It has punched me in the stomach as I’ve failed at it, it has told me I’m not good enough, it has even brought me to knees crying. Though, it’s the other dream, the one that hid in the back of my mind, that dream has brought me such delight, it has brought me to tears in happiness, it given me strength on my weakest days, it has whispered to me so many times “you are enough.” It has never brought me wealth or power, but it has taught me the greatness of sacrifice and selfless devotion.

I’m reading Meaty by Samantha Irby, in a book that seems so “dirty” and, to be honest, crude at times, there is so much honesty. This honesty is about dreams too. In one essay Irby gets really real, she talks about raising her daughter–her very own mother. Behind the sarcasm flows the dreams, the dream of owning a telephone so she wouldn’t have to walk down the street to the fire station when her ‘daughter’s’ legs quit working, the dream of being able to take real Oreos to a school party instead of the off-brand Hydrox ones, the dream of knowing sooner that if she looked clean and got her homework done then she could keep living the dream of raising her ‘daughter’ and no one would ask questions. She talks about realities too though, in fact that’s where her essay ends, seeing her ‘daughter’ without her dentures lying on her deathbed. Her entire life her ‘daughter’ had only taken those dentures out in some late night escapades where she’d gather her cane and  pretend to be a witch. But here, on her deathbed, Samantha saw the truth–she really looked more like a [sweet] baby.

It’s true that dreams can be as big as having a high-powered career and finishing a master’s degree and as small as buying name brand Oreos for a party. The truth is though, no matter how big or small dreams are sometimes they just aren’t reality. And sometimes, reality is better than the biggest dream.

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