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When Breath Becomes Air

August 9, 2016 | by Debbie Gutfreund

Tisha B’Av and the yearning for connection.

I recently read the book When Breath Becomes Air that Paul Kalanithi wrote when he was dying of cancer as a young neurosurgeon, husband and father. The book is full of poignant insights as Paul tries to make sense of the meaning of the remainder of his life. But what struck me the most was the deep sense of connection and love that Paul was able to create in the last months of his life with his baby daughter. Once his life was stripped of all its titles and distractions and even goals, Paul was able to really grasp onto the beauty of connection itself: holding his daughter, reading to her and laughing with her.

At the end of the book, Paul leaves a message for his daughter who he is not sure will remember him: "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 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."

The baby daughter that brought such enormous joy to Paul's life was a result of a choice that Paul made with his wife right after his diagnosis and before he started the chemotherapy that would render him unable to have a child. His wife asked him if he was sure about this decision to have a child when he knew that he didn't have long to live. "Will having a newborn distract from the time we have together?" she asked. "Don't you think saying good-bye to your child will make your death more painful?”

Paul responded, “Wouldn't it be great if it did?” They both felt “that life wasn't about avoiding suffering."

As he was dying all that Paul wanted to focus on was the connection he forged with his wife and daughter. When time feels limitless, our relationships can get lost in the shuffle of priorities. But when forced to confront our own mortality, they become our most cherished gifts and links. Our links to not only leaving behind a part of ourselves but also to holding onto the infinite depth that only love can bring into one's life.

It never occurred to me that I would continue to feel such love and gratitude alongside the terrible sorrow.

Paul's wife writes in the postscript of the book: "I expected to feel only empty and heart-broken 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 at times that I would shiver and groan under the weight of it."

When someone dies and goes on to the World to Come, we don't lose our connection to that person. The grief that we feel stems from the knowledge that we can no longer speak to him or embrace him or hear his voice.

I was very close to my grandmother and would call her often, no matter where I was in the world. I called her in college when I was confused. I called her the moment after I got engaged. I called her the minute after our first baby was born. And I called her on ordinary days too, when I just wanted to hear her voice and feel her love. And I'll never forget the first time that I dialed her number by mistake a month after she had died. It's not that I had forgotten that she had passed away; it was just such a instinct for me to call that I did it without thinking.

When her voicemail came on and I heard her voice, I began to cry. I felt the grief wash over me like she had just died again that moment. My yearning to regain that connection was so powerful, it hurt as much as saying goodbye the first time. I held the phone in my hand and then hung up and called again. I wanted to just hear her voice, to remind myself how close we were and how our connection would go on despite the loss of her physical presence.

On Tisha B Av, the Jewish people lost the Temple in Jerusalem. We lost the place that connected us to God in a way that we can't imagine now when God's presence is hidden from us. But the yearning is still there. We pick up the phone. We hear His voice. We know He longs for us to return as much as we long to return to Him. We cry, we hang up and we call back.

Please bring us home. We keep calling out even though we can't hear His reply. Please hold us again. Please come back into our lives. Our hearts are breaking from the loss of our connection with You. Answer our call and turn our sorrow into hope, our yearning into connection. Answer our call! The grief is too heavy. The darkness is too much. We need the light of Your presence back. Come back into our lives and rebuild what we have lost with the pieces of our broken hearts.

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