“I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”– Samuel Beckett
The only way to avoid the inevitable truth that I will one day die is to live with my head buried in the sand. As Paul Kalanithi said in his memoir, When Breath Becomes Air, “all organisms, whether goldfish or grandchild, die.” Because of this undeniable truth, over the years I have become obsessed with the idea of living my passion in the hope that it will give meaning to my life. It seems impossible that our time on Earth should simply be spent living the predetermined path “they” laid out for us: birth, school, work, pay bills, buy a house, and if you’re lucky get married, etc. There must be more. Something so profound that your existence and absence will have mattered, truly mattered.
I first started to feel this way while I was on maternity leave with my youngest son, Cameron. Before that, I’d decided that I had been born into my family because they needed me. Yes, I had colored myself as quite the martyr. I needed to be there to care for my younger brother as he died from cancer. I needed to be there for my mom as she struggled to find value in who she was. I needed to be there as an anchor as both my ex-husband and dad struggled with drug use. And when my marriage fell apart, I needed to be there for my kids to love them as I never had been and to help pave the way to a life that would different from what I’d lived.
But when I was pregnant with Cameron, I began to want something that wasn’t so draining. Something that offered me the slightest glimmer of hope. And I became a school teacher. I’ve been teaching for eight years; next school year, I begin my ninth year of teaching.
At one point in his memoir, Kalanithi describes the delivery of twin preemies. “With their bones visible through translucent skin, they looked more like the preparatory sketches of children than children themselves.” After reading this, I think of the time, as a reporter, I wrote about the NICU unit at the Regional Medical Center here in Memphis, how I immediately started to wonder how I could be a part of this. I wanted to volunteer to hold the newborn babies, to provide that vital human touch. But life happened and I moved on to the next story and didn’t think about that until some years later. It was clear, though, that I felt a special calling for working with children. After reading about the babies in Kalanithi’s book, I also think about the students I’ve been teaching. At the school where I used to teach, many of those children were just like the newborn babies born too soon. A lot of people in the community view them as helpless and hopeless cases, but it was there at that school where my life developed meaning. Kalanithi, who loved literature as much as neuroscience, spoke about how important words were and how words develop meaning only when exchanged between people. Here, I think about one of my former students, LeKendrick. I think about how frustrated he was when we began our Shakespeare unit. Shakespeare’s words helped us forge a bond. And through that bond, we’ve shared many more words over the years. He lets me know when he does well on his report card, even though I’m no longer teaching at that school. I let him know how proud, but unsurprised I am. “I always knew you had the potential to do what you want to do.” He’s going away for an aeronautic program this summer and I can’t wait to hear about all his new experiences. And I think about Raven. How through our love of words –reading and writing—we forged a relationship, one that has continued to thrive years after she left my classroom. And there are so many others.
Like Kalanithi, I am no savior nor do I want to be. I just allow myself to exist fully with my students. I heard their words. I heard their frustrations. I have listened as they tried to navigate through trying to discover who they really are. “Human knowledge is never contained in one person. It grows from the relationships we create between each other and the world, and still is never complete,” Kalanithi said.
What does any of this have to do with dying? Well, in facing and accepting the fact that I will die, I am more concerned about knowing that I have lived a life that matters. And that means to focus on my living. Trying to make decisions that make my spirit glad. Doing a lot of small things in love. And as I close out another school year, I hope that I encouraged at least one student to believe in his ability to succeed at whatever makes his spirit glad. I hope that I made at least one student see that if no one ever told him/her, that, yes, they are more than capable. I think of one of my students, one of my SPED students, who I had an opportunity to have a hear-to-heart with before the school year was over. “You have become one of my better writers this year,” I told him. “But you got a slow start because you refused to try at first. Just imagine how much more you can grow if you work hard from the very beginning. Show your teacher next year just what you are capable of because you have made considerable growth this year. Don’t let that go.”
Just as surely as every day, we get closer to dying, I hope that every day I’m living and not just existing. And that in the grand scheme of things, I am creating a life that has meaning. And that when my breath finally becomes air, I will have left behind people who know that I loved them. And everything I ever did was done in love.
Paul Kalanithi’s book is an excellent read. It was full of profound and illuminating statements. It was about focusing on the living and not the dying even in the face of a terminal illness. I’d recommend it for anyone to read.
Peace & Love,