“When first we faced, and touching showed
How well we knew the early moves,
Behind the moonlight and the frost,
The excitement and the gratitude,
There stood how much our meeting owed
To other meetings, other loves.
The decades of a different life…”
The opening lines in Philip Larkin’s poem serve as an entry point for a fascinating story I read a couple of weeks ago. It’s a story that centers around two people who are fairly well known, albeit primarily on account of their spouses. It’s a story about love and loss and grief. It’s a story about journeys of brokenness and emptiness and tragedy endured on the road to healing. It’s one of the more unlikely stories I’ve come across and yet it warmed my heart as I read it. This morning, it’s a story worthy of a sermon…
The story begins, at least from my perspective, with a really good book I read while I was on sabbatical. When Breath Becomes Air, was published in 2016 and may well be familiar to some of you. Written as a memoir by Paul Kalanithi, who was both a noted surgeon and brilliant writer, it describes the final years and months of Kalanithi’s life in the wake of his unexpected lung cancer diagnosis at age thirty-seven…a disease which progressed to the point of becoming terminal before claiming Kalanithi’s life.
Poignant, raw, devastating and inspirational at the same time, When Breath Becomes Air, has met with both critical acclaim and commercial success. It’s a stunning, not particularly long book which I commend to all of you. And now, nearly three years after his death, Paul Kalanithi’s life and legacy live on through his wife, Lucy, and their three year old daughter, Cady.
The other side of the story begins with a book I haven’t yet read, although it’s now on my list. Entitled, The Bright Hour, it was written by Nina Riggs as a memoir describing her final years and months in the wake of her unexpected breast cancer diagnosis at age 39. Published posthumously in 2017, it too, has met with both critical acclaim and commercial success. And now Nina Riggs’s life and legacy live on through her husband, John Duberstein, and their two sons, eight year old, Benny, and ten year old, Freddy.
Not surprisingly, given their similar subject matter, When Breath Becomes Air and The Bright Hour have been mentioned together in a number of recent book reviews and lists and conversations. Far more surprising, however, is what has happened to Lucy Kalanithi and John Duberstein in the wake of their spouses deaths.
In the final days of her life, Nina Riggs was worried about her husband and how he would continue on with his life when she was gone. So Nina made an offhanded suggestion to John that he contact Lucy Kalanithi. “Lucy has experience with this and she will know what to do,” Nina thought to herself.
Nina’s husband, John, only vaguely knew Lucy Kalanithi’s name at this point in time. And he hadn’t finished reading When Breath Becomes Air. Nina and Lucy, however, had formed a quiet friendship…a friendship that took root when Lucy read The Bright Hour and gave it a glowing review. Lucy Kalanthi liked Nina’s book so much, in fact, that she wrote Nina an e-mail two days before Nina died…
“I’m beaming you love from my whole being,” Lucy wrote. And Lucy signed the e-mail, “your forever fan, Lucy.”
As Nina was dying at a hospice facility in North Carolina, John read Lucy’s e-mail to Nina and took it upon himself to respond. “Thank you for being such a strong supporter and friend to Nina. She’s talked about you a ton these past few weeks, and her sense of you being a person with great insight and empathy. She’s clearly on the mark there.”
As he kept vigil by his wife’s bedside, John grew sleep deprived, emotionally overwhelmed, and fearful of the future. Those feelings multiplied and turned to untamed grief in the wake of his wife’s death. So much so that two days after Nina died, John wrote another e-mail to Lucy asking question after question. “How do I write a eulogy? How do I sleep through the night? How do I not go insane?
As soon as she received John’s e-mail, Lucy responded supportively. Focus on the eulogy and “take a chill pill” about the rest. In other words, take one step at a time. John took that wisdom to heart and he made it through the next day. But not without staying in regular contact with Lucy. In fact, over the next weeks and months, Lucy became John’s lifeline.
“I felt like John’s guardian,” Lucy confessed when asked about John.
“She totally was,” John admitted in response. And John, in turn, helped Lucy realize how far she had come in the two years since her husband, Paul, had died…
Time went on and the e-mails between John and Lucy grew in volume and in intensity. And coincidentally, their feelings for each other grew and took on new shape. They shared memories. They shared poems, like the one at the beginning of this sermon. They shared messages that were lighter and more flirtatious. “We talked a lot about the minefield of managing to fall in love and actively grieve at the same time,” Lucy revealed.
Eventually, one day in late April of 2017, Lucy let John know she was coming east from Stanford, California to Raleigh, North Carolina on a business trip. And Lucy and John knew they had to see each other for the first time face to face. Which they did during two dinner dates. And a tentative romance began to blossom between the two.
That romance grew into a love that continued to take root over the summer of 2017 and into this past fall. And it’s a love that has grown large enough to include Cady and Freddy and Benny. In fact, Lucy and John and their three children spent New Year’s Eve together a few short weeks ago.
To this day, there are pictures of her late husband, Paul Kalanithi, in Lucy’s home and she still wears her wedding ring. And John will freely admit that he planned to spend his entire life with Nina and would have been a hundred percent happy doing that. He too still wears his wedding ring. Yet when they reflect on what they have found between them, Lucy and John give thanks for the relationship their beloved spouses tacitly approved and encouraged, even in those dying days.
If you ask them today, Lucy and John recognize the lingering pain and the inevitable challenges they face as a couple. Entering into any relationship, Lucy notes, means accepting the possibility of losing your partner. And she holds onto precious insight borne of her own lived experience.
“If you are lucky enough you will feel devastated when the other dies. Willingly entering that relationship anyway feels gutsy, but what else could you choose…?”
How Lucy Kalanithi and John Duberstein came together seems as though it was written as a Hollywood script for a big screen romance. It’s almost beyond comprehension how two people can bear such deep and personal witness to the shattering and gut wrenching trauma of grief. While at the same time, bearing witness to the fragile, cautious, unexpected possibility of new life that sometimes emerges even in the depths of despair.
I trust if anyone had told Lucy and John a few years ago that they would be where they are today, they would have been unable to wrap either their minds or their hearts around the possibility. Indeed the words of Phillip Larkin’s poem reverberate in ways they could never have predicted. “There stood how much our meeting owed to other meetings, other loves. The decades of a different life.”
At the same time, however, I read Lucy and John’s story and I find myself reflecting on a God who leaves a quiet and often surprising imprint on human life.
I’m not thinking about the kind of God who sits up in the heaven somewhere like a great puppeteer, pulling the strings of human life at God’s own whim. Not the kind of God who wished for Paul Kalanithi to die at age thirty-seven, leaving a beloved wife and three year old daughter behind. Not the kind of God who wished for Nina Riggs to die at age thirty-nine, leaving a beloved husband and eight and ten year old sons behind. Not even the kind of God who drew Lucy and John together as though their relationship was conveniently predestined the moment both their spouses died.
Rather, I think about a God who sends us lifelines in the midst of our sorrow. A God who raises up guardians to companion us through our grief. And a God who reminds us how precious human life is even in all its gutsy fragileness.
The God I’m thinking about promises to walk with us through the valley of the shadow of death. And one day, the God I’m thinking about promises to gently wipe every tear from our eyes. Making all things new. Amen.
NOTE: The story of Lucy Kalanithi and John Duberstein is detailed in an article written by Nora Krug. Entitled “Two dying memoirists wrote bestsellers about their final days. Then their spouses fell in love,” was published in the January 3, 2018 edition of The Washington Post.