The black hole of YouTube got me good the other day. Twenty-five minutes of beginner cardio led to DIY budget-friendly vegan creamy pasta (I’m not vegan), which led to TV host Megyn Kelly feuding with Jane Fonda. That, curiously, led to a short film about a book I’ll always keep on the shelf about what makes life meaningful. P.S. YouTube’s “recommended video” algorithm is the mystery of our time.
The book is “When Breath Becomes Air”. The best-selling memoir follows Dr. Paul Kalanithi, a neurosurgeon with stage IV metastatic lung cancer. Paul’s story is about creating a fulfilled life by confronting suffering with open arms. Faced with a terminal illness, Paul accepted that death was imminent and stopped living by the clock. By turning to the present moment, he discovered what makes life meaningful and created extraordinary opportunities to achieve fulfillment, like becoming a father. Paul passed away in March 2015 after living with cancer for 22 months.
“I think the thing that Paul really taught me and showed me is this really simple idea that life is not about avoiding suffering. It’s about finding meaning.”
That’s Dr. Lucy Kalanithi, Paul’s wife, about three minutes in to the YouTube video.
From the start, Paul was strong. That’s my impression from his book anyway. I think he moved from “why me?” to “why not me?” quickly, and I still wonder how.
For me, it’s a work in progress. In my thirtyish years there have been lots of scary health moments for my family. It’s like waiting for the other shoe to drop and lightly, it’s uncomfortable. Knowing the discomfort, I have for most of my adult life tried to prevent it by controlling my surroundings. Needing household chores to be done a certain way. Creating rigid rules around diet and exercise. Knocking on wood to avoid tempting fate. If everything is just right, maybe uncomfortable things won’t happen.
I believe you can’t change another person. But you can change yourself to improve your relationship with them. A few years back, it dawned on me the same is true for suffering. I couldn’t out clean, out run, or out knock discomfort. Scary health moments were still happening. But I could change my reaction to them.
August 2015 was my first chance to practice. Early in the month, my dad entered the hospital for what would be his longest stay to date. When Mom called to share the news, my first reaction was, “WHAT?!” Then, “OK”. It sucked, but there it was.
The first couple weeks were touch and go. One day, Dad broke a long stretch of silence. “Courtney,” he said, “I’m not mad. I just want to find joy in every day.”
With every day uncertain, my mom, dad and I were in it together. That was for sure. When Dad was asleep, we passed time by reading and admiring Lake Michigan from the high-rise hospital window. It was quiet, but we were together. When Dad was awake, we talked – a lot. Mostly about food, even with three shot appetites. He wanted to know what Mom and I ate for lunch. What recipes would we cook up once he was home? A storyteller at heart, he also regaled us with tales of the past. Some new, some old. I tried to remember, so I could pass them. On good days, the Three Musketeers expanded to a more motley crew of friends, neighbors and family.
In late August, he got better. Well enough to go outdoors, the doctors said. So, hand in hand, Dad and I ventured outside the hospital and found a seat on the edge of a concrete planter. It was the kind of summer day Chicagoans wish for every February. Still in a hospital gown, he briefly closed his eyes and smiled. I think it was the warmth of the sunshine. We sat content, mostly quiet. Then, a monarch butterfly. Like a scene from “Snow White”, she fluttered right in front of us, as if to say “hello”, and in a few winks disappeared.
“It’s funny,” my dad said, “because my late brother liked butterflies. Whenever I see a butterfly, I think it must be him.” And with that he wiped away a tear.
Dad was home to celebrate his birthday that September. Today he’s doing better than even doctors imagined.
Here’s What Makes Life Meaningful
I tried my darndest to react to that hospital stay with open arms. To accept each moment as it was, for better or worse. I think that energy helped create a lot of wonderful memories, despite the circumstances. Like our visit from the butterfly.
“Although these past few years have been wrenching and difficult – sometimes almost impossible – they have also been the most beautiful and profound of my life, requiring the daily act of holding life and death, joy and pain in balance and exploring new depths of gratitude and love.” – Dr. Lucy Kalanithi, Epilogue to “When Breath Becomes Air”
As life goes, my family has traded hospital visits for some other crappy stuff. Now I respect it’s coming. Life is suffering, but suffering is what makes life meaningful. When I realized the two are inseparable, I, too, started experiencing gratitude and love in even deeper ways.