In the Winter 2017 issue of Scope in Tom Harbin’s book review section, I shared with you the tragic memoir of a young neurosurgeon Dr. Paul Kalanithi, who describes in “When Breath Becomes Air” his courageous battle with terminal lung cancer.
Kalanithi’s wife Lucy wrote the final chapter, in which she shares not only the pain of her loss, but the comfort of her baby daughter who was conceived after the diagnosis of her husband’s cancer. More recently, I read another book with a painfully similar theme by the poet Nina Riggs, who tells of her unsuccessful battle with metastatic breast cancer in “The Bright Hour, A Memoir of Living and Dying.”
In that book, her husband John Duberstein, wrote an afterward about his wife’s final hours. Although the two books complement each other and are both heartbreakingly beautiful, I would not advise reading them back-to-back. You need to take a deep breath and read something light between the two.
Although these two deaths involved young people, you and I have entered that time of our life when we are attending more and more funerals of family and friends. For me (and many of you), it has been an especially difficult year with the loss of three friends and colleagues for whom I have held the highest respect and the deepest affection: Drs. R. Rand Allingham, Glen O. Brindley and B. Thomas Hutchinson. Sadly, I’m sure that each of you could add to this list. And indeed this is a time in our lives when we must face increasing loss. But it can also be a time of surprises and joy. The two books just mentioned provide an example of unforeseen gain in the face of great loss.
Lucy Kalanithi wrote a brief encomium in Nina Riggs’ book, which led to her meeting John Duberstein and their two children. They obviously had much in common and may have found consolation in sharing each others’ loss. But one thing apparently led to another. Lucy and John eventually fell in love, and their darkest hours have led to a bright future. That got me thinking about the future that you and I may have in this chapter of our lives.
It is easy for us to become discouraged as we enter retirement and the “golden years” of life. Most of us have already given up our profession of ophthalmology, which was so important to who we are. Physical limitations have caused many of us to give up tennis, golf, jogging and other activities that once gave us such pleasure. As already noted, we are at that age when we must invariably say goodbye to loved ones and dear friends, and yet this time in our life, obviously, need not be all about loss.
There is still so much to gain. In fact, some may argue convincingly that it truly is the golden years. We are finally able to enjoy more time with family and friends and especially watch our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren blossom in their worlds. It is a time when we can travel to places we have always wanted to see and read books that have been waiting for us. Some of us have moved to retirement areas where we have made new friends and many of us have found fulfilling hobbies and avocations.
It is a time of loss and gain, and we must face both with acceptance and gratitude. My hope for each of us is that we can find that balance in our lives, with peace in the former and renewed joy in the latter.