The past few months have been hard. And after a few months of chewing on the cuds of When Breath Becomes Air, one thought kept circling my brain: How did Lucy Kalanithi do it? How did she get through the experience, not only in one piece but with enough peace of mind to talk about her late husband over and over again, on talk shows, at symposiums, at TED talks? How did she answer deep, penetrating questions about her past life without breaking down?
I know I compartmentalize. I get through my day at work, push my thoughts away and manage to still enjoy work for the most part, I hold it together at doctors appointments and try to shield my husband from each new hit, I come home to take care of him each night and my heart breaks all over the place, but I get through it. And I take things day by day.
But I wondered, how did she get through it all? The effort I put in to maintain even my flimsy show of competency and “strength” already seems too gargantuan of a task.
So two days ago, I began a light Google search for contact information for Dr. Kalanithi. I knew it was a long shot, but it distracted me just enough to occupy me for the evening. And then late last night I saw an email in my work inbox: “Lucy Kalanithi Lecture”. How fortuitous. By some miracle and with the help of some incredibly generous and wonderful co-residents, I was able to make it uptown in time to catch the end of her talk. She spoke about her husband Paul, she took questions from the audience, she read an excerpt from an essay she wrote for the NY Times. And then the lecture was over. And I knew I had to go up to talk to her. I had it mostly sketched out in my mind – I would calmly introduce myself as a first-year resident, and say that I was going through a similar situation, and were there any resources she found particularly helpful – or something along those lines. Above all else, I would keep my composure, as I had time and time again. I waited on line with everyone else eagerly awaiting the chance to speak with her. And then I got to the front of the line, I looked at the petite woman standing in front of me, and I looked into her clear, blue eyes, and I completely lost it. I think I blubbered out something along the lines of “I’m Clover”, “first year”, and then hysterically kept asking, “how did you do it?” Well, needless to say, this wonderful woman saw through my extremely thin façade and sat me down to talk. I was miserable and ecstatic and terrified all at once, and somewhere in there, lost among the tears, I felt a tiny amount of catharsis as well. I had thus far prided myself on not crying in front of others, but somehow managed to bawl my eyes out in front of at least 20-30 strangers anxiously hanging around the stage. Someone offered me a tissue. I took three. She asked me what hurt the most – I honestly answered, “I have no idea”. Everything hurts.