My most recent book club read is Paul Kalanithi’s memoir When Breath Becomes Air. At the age of thirty-six neurosurgeon Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. Just like that his family’s future evaporated. He became a patient and new father confronting his mortality.
He spent the last months of his life writing this profoundly moving memoir. Unfortunately, he died before finishing. His wife Lucy completed the book. I spent the last twenty pages with tears streaming down my cheeks.
I’m sure our group will have some serious conversations reflecting on how we would face a similar sudden diagnosis.
This memoir led me to think about a friend, Gray, who died far too young. She diagnosed with a brain tumor on July 11th, 2005; she died February 4, 2008. I remember the date of diagnosis because it was the Monday after Jimmy and I got married. Gray had missed the ceremony due to an excruciating headache.
Memories of time spent with Gray:
Walking the Chicago Marathon. That grueling adventure was addressed here. Walking a Marathon. A painful, enlightening experience. If you can endure a marathon, you can endure anything.
Building a doll-house. We contributed it to a Catholic Charities fundraiser. Gray did all the tedious jobs. Meanwhile, I painted the exterior to look like rocks, did murals on the interior walls and created little paintings to hang over the stairway.
Listening as she told stories of her life growing up in Blowing Rock, North Carolina. Gray had a southern drawl. She liked her grits and collard greens.
Gray married later in life and had two boys. One Easter she gave the kids rabbits. Darth and Vader. Lo and behold, Darth turned out to be Dorothy and gave birth to a large litter of bunnies. Gray carted those babies to a pet store and sold them as feed for snakes. She then separated the adults. Darned if Dorothy didn’t get knocked up again. So back Gray went to the pet shop with another box full of bunnies.
Finally, she decided the Dorothy and Vader had to go. As a final treat, she let them romp around the bedroom for about half an hour. She said Vader bounded across the room, mounted Dorothy, humped furiously for a few moments, did an enthusiastic back flip, then immediately repeated the performance. Gray gave him about seven or eight opportunities. Then she snatched them both up by the scruff of their necks and shoved them into a carrying case. The snakes had a big meal that afternoon.
When her diagnosis came, the neighbors rallied around, cooking food, driving her to chemotherapy and radiation, and ultimately visiting her in the nursing home where she spent the last several months of life.
I remember sitting in the darkened room, watching the snow pile up outside her window. Friends had contributed Christmas decorations. The blinking tree lights were incongruous against the grim backdrop of the hospital bed and IV pole. There was a guest book in her room. I spent many afternoons writing to her, sharing memories of our times spent together. Memories she would never be well enough to read herself.
There was something about Gray, something knowing. She believed she was an old soul. Possibly she was. Illness made her a gentler person. No one said goodbye to her without her responding, “I love you.”
Her husband brought Gray home to die.
The last time I saw her was days before she passed. She was ensconced in the guest bedroom. The night stands by the bed were green handpainted flea market finds Gray and I had ferreted out years before. She was under several blankets and had a steroidal moon face. Her bald head was covered with a knit cap. She wasn’t aware of my presence.
Gray, you handled illness and dying with enormous dignity. I know you would be proud of your sons. Matt is now a surgeon. Andy is in his last year of law school at Northwestern. Hopefully, somehow you are aware of what fine young men they have become.