Paul Kalanithi's "Before I Go": A Gift to Those Still Here

Paul Kalanthini with his daughter, Cady. Photo from Stanford Medicine "Before I Go"

"Everyone succumbs to finitude. I suspect I am not the only one who reaches this pluperfect state. Most ambitions are either achieved or abandoned; either way, they belong to the past. The future, instead of the ladder toward the goals of life, flattens out into a perpetual present. Money, status, all the vanities the preacher of Ecclesiastes described, hold so little interest: a chasing after wind, indeed."

Paul Kalinithi was the father to a beautiful little girl, a loving husband, a Stanford Neurosurgeon and a brilliant evocateur. He penned the above words in an essay entitled "Before I Go". 

This week Paul passed away at the age of 37 from Lung Cancer. 

I didn't know Paul - had never heard of him, in fact, until a few days ago. In my Twitter feed a tweet caught my eye: "an obituary you must read". I clicked. 

What I found was the obituary of a man who had passed with a flurry of words - words that affected me deeply. 

Paul had penned a couple of essays in his latter days. If you've ever read the words of a person who knows, definitively, that the end is near, you'll know they are different. They carry weight, depth, perspective, that is simply not available to the writer with endless days ahead. A good example is The Five Regrets of the Dying, an article written by a palliative care nurse who worked with those at the end of their days for 26 years. 

On one hand Paul's essay was a letter to the people. It was a reminder - a calling to attention, of sorts - of what we all know but don't really understand: time on earth is finite. It's precious. One day we may have all the time in the world; the next could be our last. 

On the other hand it was a private, deeply personal letter to a daughter he would not see into adulthood. 

I just became a father. My little girl is about the same age as Paul's little girl. Like he, my life and what I live for changed the moment I met her. Like he, the joy my daughter brings me is indescribable.

Paul continued from the opening paragraph of this post with:

Yet one thing cannot be robbed of her futurity: my daughter, Cady. I hope I’ll live long enough that she has some memory of me. Words have a longevity I do not. I had thought I could leave her a series of letters — but what would they really say? I don’t know what this girl will be like when she is 15; I don’t even know if she’ll take to the nickname we’ve given her. There is perhaps only one thing to say to this infant, who is all future, overlapping briefly with me, whose life, barring the improbable, is all but past.
That message is simple: When you come to one of the many moments in life when you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more, but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.

I'm not sure why I felt moved to write this post. To share this story. Clearly it's resonated with me at a deep level. 

What I do know is that it's my opportunity to heed the words of those without time to make the most of mine. To let me daughter - and all those I love - know the joy, the "sated joy", that they bring to my life. 

I hope you too can take something from this courageous man's words. 

Shelley's "Ozymandias"

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away