I can't go on. I'll go on. —Samuel Beckett
This one felt personal. I imagine it will for most as there are few who haven't been caught in cancer's crosshairs. This past week it took one of the good guys. My mom's brother, affectionately nicknamed Ornery—his crusty curmudgeon exterior a ruse to cover up the softy inside. He loved quietly, yet fiercely, and there wasn't so much as a drop of pretense in him. In spite of his goodness, and how many so desperately wanted him to stay, cancer, ever indiscriminate and callous, took him anyway. Just like it came for my cousin's husband last year, just months after her mother. And recently came knocking on the door of a dear friend. Paul Kalanithi asked, "If the weight of mortality does not grow lighter, does it at least get more familiar?" Lately, I'd say it's become all too familiar.
When Breath Becomes Air is the unfinished memoir of Paul Kalanithi. Diagnosed at the age of thirty-six with stage IV lung cancer, he simply ran out of time. To write and to live. At the time of his diagnosis, Kalanithi was on the verge of completing a decade's worth of training as a neurosurgeon. Suddenly, the future he had been so doggedly pursuing, vanished into thin air. In a moment he went from being a "pastoral figure aiding [his patients through] life transition[s],...[to a] sheep, lost and confused. Severe illness wasn't life-altering, it was life-shattering." It felt as though someone had "firebombed the path forward" and he would have to find a way to "work around it." And work around it, he did, and by doing so, teaches us all how to carry on living in the face of death. He wrote:
I would have to learn to live in a different way, seeing death as an imposing itinerant visitor but knowing that even if I'm dying, until I actually die, I am still living.
In his youth, books were his "closest confidants, finely ground lenses providing new views of the world." In the face of death, "it was literature that brought [him] back to life." Waking one morning in so much pain he thought, "I can't go on," the next three words of Samuel Beckett immediately came to mind, "I'll go on." And so, repeating those seven words, "I can't go on. I'll go on," he got out of bed and went on. He found the words he needed to go forward. And we are all the better for it.