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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.

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Day 77: London Memories.

In Friends, Friendship, Happiness, Humanity, life, Teaching, UK, Wales on January 8, 2013 at 4:42 am

The UK was wonderful.

It’s amazing to me how different the lifestyle is just an ocean skip away.  It’s also amazing how calm I felt while on the farm in Wales and, I believe, I was anxiety/stress free.  I spent 10 days building fires [more like watching fires be built], juicing, tea-ing, drying clothes on the aga stove [with the accent I thought they were saying arga but only now did google correct me], taking fresh-air walks, reading poetry by Simon, enjoying fresh farm bacon and custard.

The list goes on.

The first night as I was lying in bed in the old farmhouse, I peeked out the window only to see complete darkness and the sky lit up with thousands of tiny stars.  It was there that my heart sank and, for me, the journey of my unspoken friendship came full circle. I believed, no I knew, at that moment, that we met for a reason and here it became clear to me.

Years ago now, I made this post about my friend [now one of my best friends].  It was an unlikely friendship, but here we are years later and I began to see the bigger picture.  This special friend met her husband while working in Tiffany’s, he had come in to buy a silver platter as a thank you gift for some friends he was staying with while visiting New York, he was British. They met and love ensued, she moved to London with him and they had their little boy.  I’m sure there was a night where she lie in bed, staring out the window, at the British stars just like me.  While I gazed my mind wandered to this thought.  She was young when she met him, probably my same age that I am now, in love with a Brit, and now here I am in love with one too.  I find it no coincidence that her dying husband arrived back from his very last trip to London on the same exact plane that Konk and I departed on to London, only one hour later. A trip, for us, that would commence a life, on the same exact plane where an end-of-life trip was coming to a close.

I once wrote, “why would she want to be friends with me?”  As I journeyed to London this holiday season I felt the answer deep within my heart.

It’s funny how the answers come, sometimes.  It’s funny how we write, speak, or feel questions not knowing if or when the answers will come.  In a lot of ways, this friend has taught me some of the most meaningful lessons on friendship–those lessons are part of the answer too.

These last couple of days it has been hard to hear of her “Brit’s” rapid decline, almost heartbreaking, my heart aches to think of her London story coming to a close.  She said to me the other day, I wish I was in the UK.  It’s so great, the best.

I thought, yes, you’re right, it is the best. I thought, let’s go there together.  Let’s make another London memory together.  It won’t be the the close of the book, only the chapter.  Could we?

Some questions, well, you know.

a whit who has thought a lot.

Day 74: R.A.C.K, Do it.

In Blogging, Children, Christmas, Friendship, Happiness, life, Love, R.A.C.K, Random Acts of Kindness on December 11, 2012 at 5:06 am

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{picture care of google gallery}

Throughout many holiday seasons, growing up, my mom would elicit the entire family to participate in the 12 days of Christmas.  Essentially, we would decide collectively to give up certain Christmas gifts, have a smaller Christmas, and instead, provide a family in need with a much deserved Christmas that year.  It was always fun to work together to decide what we were going to do for the chosen family and how we could best suit their needs.

I remember one year in particular, I was a freshman in high school, and being a cheerleader I knew many of the high school football players.  There was one in particular whose young sister was very sick with a rare and terminal disease.  The family had spent countless dollars on the young girl’s medical bills and this was surely her last Christmas with them.  I had grown very close to this boy, who had shared with me the stress and mounting grief within his family, so I decided to nominate them for our annual 12 days of Christmas.  What this meant, was that every day (the twelve days preceding Christmas) our family would provide a numbered item anonymously on the family’s doorstep.  We would then leave a note stating, “On the seventh day of Christmas your secret Santa gave to you…seven gift cards.” This all led up to the final evening wherein we would leave one BIG gift still anonymously.  However, this year we decided to dress Dad up in a Santa suit and show up at their house with their entire Christmas ready to set up.  This family had nothing, no tree, no lights, and no gifts.  I can still remember the look on their faces when we helped set up that tree and placed all the gifts underneath it–priceless.  I’d say it’s probably one of the most profound Christmas memories I have.

Having said all this, today I ran across this link at Pillow Talk and it brought all those old memories flooding back.  I have oftentimes wanted to do the twelve days again, but it can get very costly and being a single mom it just hasn’t felt feasible yet.  But, this version is something anyone can do and it brings joy to my heart to think of the lives it has the ability to impact in the small ways that mean so much.  I’d love to hear anymore ideas you readers have for ways to R.A.C.K. 

Let’s all be reminded throughout this holiday season that it’s the little things that mean the most.  It’s so easy to get caught up in our own wants and forget about those that may not have the means to make Christmas special for their kids or themselves.

Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

a christmas whit.

Christmas Decorations: Day 73

In Christmas, Friends, Friendship, Happiness, Home Decor, life, Love, Thoughts on November 30, 2012 at 5:37 am

It’s been a long time since I’ve logged on.  I suppose there has been a reason for that, and a lot of good has happened in my life.

We put up the Christmas decorations this weekend, and I still stand in awe of it all.  I love the holiday, but what really surprises me is the life that is emerging amidst all of those decorations.  They represent something for me.

I remember a few years  back when I sat wondering what I would adorn the walls with, and how I would possibly drag in and set up a christmas tree on my own.

but it happened. i figured it out.

Each year I pluck away at it a little more and it seems this life is coming together nicely now. It feels comfortable, like it fits.

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This holiday season, as with every other, I have so much to be thankful for.  As I sat thinking of all of these blessings tonight I couldn’t help but smile.  There have been several holidays now that I have spent alone, and I think back on those.  They are bittersweet, but I know why they were necessary now–to illuminate the joy that was to come.

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I’d like to end with one request for this holiday season,

One of my best friend’s husband is dying of terminal cancer. I love her very much, and I would ask that anyone who reads my blog please pray for a miracle. A christmas miracle that will give their family a holiday together, one filled with joy and love, not pain and death. She and her young son deserve this season to be happy and filled with joy–a memory they can hold in their hearts each year as the decorations find themselves adorn the walls.  I suspect, just like me, they too will have to make a new life as the seasons go on.  It is my prayer that their experience will evolve into one wherein the bittersweet dissipates and illuminates a new joy, not better, just different.

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Happy Christmas. a whit.

Unspoken Friendship: Day 64

In Blogging, Friends, Friendship, God, Thoughts on August 9, 2012 at 11:38 pm

Today I am thinking a lot about friendship.

This morning my friend called me, I think I’ve mentioned her on this blog before, her husband is dying of cancer.

As I got off the phone, my mind thought of this post.  I can remember it as if it was just yesterday, it’s hard to believe it has been over two years now since we met.

It was the third day of school (for little e), I was distant and very careful. I had just been through a terrible divorce, I was coming out the other end, but I was scared. I was different, and I was closed off. I was just finding my way through single mothering, and I was surrounded by beautiful, whole families. Intimidated.  So, I dropped off my e and walked out of the school toward my car (quickly and looking down to avoid conversations), she stopped me, she was just so beautiful, so put together, and I remember thinking she must have the perfect life.  In her bubbly way, that I now know is so her, she told me we were having a play date. We were going to the park, she hadn’t even introduced herself yet. She knew my e though, she said I’ve decided e is such a wonderful boy and he is the perfect friend for my son. I thanked her and said we’d have to get together, just so I could hurry on my way. She didn’t give up though, she found me in the class directory the next week and I got the call. After much hesitation on my part, I agreed to meet her at the park. I wondered why she’d want to be my friend–she was happily married, living in a great house in a great location, established, everything.

When we went to the park, it was there that she told me.  She told me her husband was sick, and with fear in her eyes she said, “It’s bad.” That’s all she had to say, and I knew.

Time passed.

Her predication proved true, our sons have grown to be great friends–the kind of friendship that will last a lifetime. Something else happened too, she became my friend. My first real friend after my divorce.

She’s helped me over these past couple years in ways I can never repay her for.

She’s let me help her and, it has meant the world to me. It has helped to rebuild me.

So when she called me today and told me the “it’s bad” is coming to an even worse spot. and end–for now…

I remembered.

She wondered how life would be OK. How would her son be OK. How would he live without a Dad.

I told her, I am always…

She stopped me, “I know. You don’t even have to say it.” Then I realized this, those are the beautiful friendships, the unspoken ones.

Like a friend has said on her blog,

Losing someone changes everything. But if you have faith, God will create a miracle out of your life that would have otherwise been ordinary.

My friend was never ordinary, ever, so now, in light of this, she’ll be extraordinary.

Perhaps fate brought us together. Perhaps she knew I could be a friend she needed throughout this trial. But I like to think that she has served a much greater purpose in my life than I could ever serve in hers. She means so much to me, thank you for saying hi and letting me be your friend. I’ll always…

dedicated to my special friend whom I love very much. ~ a whit.

HOLSTEE AUGUST: Remember to Love Because It’s What Makes You Real

In Books, Esteem, Friendship, Happiness, Holstee Manifesto, Humanity, Laughter, life, Love, Teaching, Thoughts, Writing on August 3, 2012 at 8:40 pm

“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

Love is such an interesting emotion, it’s one of the things that makes me feel vulnerable, but being loved is truly what makes us real–just like the Skin Horse says. It doesn’t happen to people who break easily because love takes toughness, endurance, and perseverance. Love is not like the romance film, it’s much more real than that, and I oftentimes wonder if the people in this world, the ones who truly know how to love, are only those who have endured an entire lifetime giving it to someone. I think it just might take those loose joints, lost hair, and shabbiness to truly understand what it means to love. Perhaps that’s why we’re given an entire lifetime to pursue it, perfect it, and understand it.

In looking through the Holstee Manifesto and it’s proclamations, which we have now made it through in entirety, the only words that appear more than once throughout are: life and love. This provokes something in me, it reminds me of the importance of living a life of sought love. That’s what the manifesto begs. It’s not easy, it will hurt at times, but it’s like this quote states:

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Day 47: Running Through Life

In Exercise, Friends, Friendship, Happiness, life, Running, Thoughts on June 30, 2012 at 1:32 am

It’s summer again, and I finally have time to reevaluate my life and my goals (my New Year’s Resolutions are always made around this of the year).  Anyway, my primary goal has been to get in the best shape of my life.  Today I almost cried at the highlights of my workout: 20 girl push-ups, 70 lunges, and 2- 1 minute wall squats.  I couldn’t even do 2 girl push-ups two months ago (pathetic I know)!

Anyway, that said, I have been running about 4 miles a day with a time range of anywhere from 8-9:00 minutes per mile, not spectacular, but freaking fantastic for me.  Today I decided to go running with a friend who just began her running regimen 3 days ago.  As we circled the park, I could tell I was pacing her way too fast and she was burning out by mile 1, so we decided on two miles with a few 1:00 minute walk intervals. We ended up averaging a 12:24 mile, but I couldn’t help but feel so proud of her and her accomplishment.  I can remember just a couple months back when I was in that very boat, and I told her this, where I couldn’t even make it to the mile mark without tuckering out.  It’s amazing, though, how fast your body (and your lungs) acclimate, and I assured her that in two weeks time she’ll likely make that whole two miles without any walk rest periods.  She commented on how thankful she was that I was willing to ask her how she was doing along the way, stop for her, and encourage her onward toward our running endpoint.  Afterward we walked another 4 miles to a coffee shop wherein we talked and enjoyed ourselves for the first time in a long time.  When we finally made it back to the cars it seemed so clear to me, life is just like running.  It’s not always about being the fastest, sometimes you need to take breaks, oftentimes it’s about enjoying who you’re running with, and most importantly it’s about encouraging one another onward.  Throughout she kept urging me to leave her behind and just run ahead, “Nope, I am here to pace you.  I am here to do this with you,” I told her.  If I would have run ahead, I would have missed out on so much during our run today.  I’m glad I didn’t.

signed

arunningwhit

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