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.”
“Other meetings, other loves” certainly figured in the love story of Lucy Kalanithi and John Duberstein. As “their feelings for one another grew and took on new shape,” navigating the “minefield of managing to fall in love and actively grieve at the same time,” was fraught with emotional risk. Connecting mainly through e-mail, Duberstein sent Kalanithi the passage from Philip Larkin’s “When First We Faced, and Touching Showed,” delineating both the pleasures and perils of a romantic relationship intimately connected with the deaths of their spouses.
In an article written for the Washington Post, writer Nora Krug explores the unusual romance—poignant, painful—that produced this “literary pairing.” Lucy’s husband Paul documented not only his struggle against cancer but also his calling as a doctor and his ruminations on death and life. When published in 2016, “When Breath Becomes Air” shot to the top of the bestseller lists. Nina Riggs, meanwhile, was at work on a memoir of her years living with breast cancer. Published posthumously last year, “The Bright Hour” was likewise met with acclaim, and indeed the two books were often “mentioned together in numerous reviews, lists and conversations.”
Perhaps the meeting and the romance—the stuff of fairy tales or dime-store novels—were inevitable. Kalanithi says she’s still surprised “by how ridiculous it is and how natural it is at the same time.”
As she lay on her deathbed, Nina worried about John and “how he would get on with his life when she was gone.” It so happened that after “When Breath Becomes Air” came out, Nina and Lucy began a correspondence. Nina suggested that her husband contact Kalanithi, assuring him that “she’ll know what to do.”
It was actually Kalanithi who established the connection, contacting Riggs after she read Nina’s “Modern Love” column in the New York Times. Kalanithi subsequently wrote a blurb for “The Bright Hour” and stayed in touch. Two days before Nina passed, Lucy sent her an e-mail message: “I’m beaming you love from my whole being,” signing it “your forever fan, Lucy.”
At the hospice, John read the e-mail to his wife and responded on her behalf, writes Krug. “Thank you for being such a strong supporter and friend to her,” he said. “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.” Notes Krug: “One of Nina’s final acts, in effect, was to play matchmaker for her husband.”
Their relationship, born of pain and vulnerability, grew into a constant stream of advice-giving and then sharing of practical tips and insights. John, a lawyer, turned to Lucy not just for advice but even for affirmation. She became his lifeline, and, writes Krug, “in turn, he helped her realize that she had come a long way in the two years since her husband’s death.”
In April last year, Kalanithi had a business trip to North Carolina, about an hour from John’s home. “I knew I had to see her,” John said and Lucy felt the same way. Two dinner dates and intense conversations later, both realized that there was “a lot of chemistry.” Gradually, the circle of light around them spread to include their immediate families: John’s young sons and Lucy’s three-year-old daughter, their extended families, and then their friends.
I can imagine the fragility of this bonding, born of loss and grief, and yet blossoming in the connectivity created by precisely this shared history and experience. But, having been moved to silent tears by a reading of “When Breath Becomes Air,” I am also comforted by the thought of two people—Paul and Nina—somehow forging a pact to bring comfort and care to the two individuals and the children in their care they left behind too early. I wish that Lucy and John find enough room in their hearts to keep the memories of Paul and Nina alive, while forging new memories of their own larger, wiser circle of love.
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