26 | love goes on #Lent2022

The lover sings, “Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave.” (Song of Solomon 8:6)

When Paul told me, immediately after his diagnosis, to remarry after he died, it exemplified the way he would, throughout his illness, work hard to secure my future. He was fiercely committed to ensuring the best for me, in our finances, my career, what motherhood would mean. At the same time, I worked hard to secure his present, to make his remaining time the best it could be, tracking and managing every symptom and aspect of his medical care—the most important doctoring role of my life—while supporting his ambitions, listening to his whispered fears as we embraced in the safety of our darkened bedroom, witnessing, acknowledging, accepting, comforting.

We were as inseparable as we had been when we were medical students, when we would hold hands during lectures. Now we held hands in his coat pocket during walks outside after chemotherapy, Paul in a winter coat and hat even when the weather turned warm. He knew he would never be alone, never suffer unnecessarily. At home in bed a few weeks before he died, I asked him, “Can you breathe okay with my head on your chest like this?” His answer was “It’s the only way I know how to breathe.” That Paul and I formed part of the deep meaning of our lives is one of the greatest blessings that has ever come to me … Although these last 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.

Relying on his own strength and the support of his family and community, Paul faced each stage of his illness with grace—not with bravado or a misguided faith that he would “overcome” or “beat” cancer but with an authenticity that allowed him to grieve the loss of the future he had planned and forge a new one. He cried on the day he was diagnosed. He cried while looking at a drawing we kept on the bathroom mirror that said, “I want to spend all the rest of my days here with you.” He cried on his last day on the operating table. He let himself be open and vulnerable, let himself be comforted. Even while terminally ill, Paul was fully alive; despite physical collapse he remained vigorous, open, full of hope not for an unlikely cure but for days that were full of purpose and meaning …

Often I return to the grave after leaving flowers—tulips, lilies, carnations—to find the heads eaten by deer. It’s just as good a use for the flowers as any, and one Paul would have liked. The earth is quickly turned over by worms, the processes of nature marching on, reminding me of what Paul saw and what I now carry deep in my bones, too: the inextricability of life and death, and the ability to cope, to find meaning despite this, because of this. What happened to Paul was tragic, but he was not a tragedy.

I expected to feel only empty and heartbroken after Paul died. It never occurred to me that you could love someone the same way after he was gone, that I would continue to feel such love and gratitude alongside the terrible sorrow, the grief so heavy that at times I shiver and moan under the weight of it. Paul is gone, and I miss him acutely nearly every moment, but I somehow feel I’m still taking part in the life we created together. “Bereavement is not the truncation of married love,” C. S. Lewis wrote, “but one of its regular phases—like the honeymoon. What we want is to live our marriage well and faithfully through that phase too.” Caring for our daughter, nurturing relationships with family, publishing this book, pursuing meaningful work, visiting Paul’s grave, grieving and honouring him, persisting … my love goes on—lives on—in a way I’d never expected. Ω

Reflect: Has someone you love died? How does the love and life you shared continue? Which of their qualities do you particularly cherish? 

What is this? Lent is the 40 days, excluding Sundays, before Easter. Traditionally it is a time of reflection and pilgrimage. To help you on this journey, Sanctuary has put together 40 stories from people both within and beyond the congregation, with associated questions for reflection and prayer. A reading will be uploaded every day of Lent. This year’s theme is Fruit of the Spirit. Why? Read this. #Lent2022. Real People, Real Stories: 40 Readings for Lent © Sanctuary, 2022. From Lucy Kalanithi. ‘Epilogue’ in Paul Kalanithi. When Breath Becomes Air. London: Vintage, 2016: 217-224.

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