Two dying memoirists wrote bestsellers about their final days. Then their spouses fell in love.


The literary pairing was inevitable. When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalanithi’s memoir of his final years as he faced lung cancer at age 37, was published posthumously, in 2016, to critical acclaim and commercial success. The Bright Hour, Nina Riggs’ memoir of her final years as she faced breast cancer at age 39, was published posthumously, in 2017, to critical acclaim and commercial success. The two books were mentioned together in numerous reviews, lists, and conversations.

Perhaps less inevitable was that the late authors’ spouses would end up together, too.

“I’m still surprised,” said Lucy Kalanithi of her relationship with Nina Riggs’ widower, John Duberstein. “I’m surprised by how ridiculous it is and how natural it is at the same time.”

Sitting across the kitchen table from Lucy last week at her home, John agreed. “Everything seemed almost bizarrely to fit,” he said. “It was kind of stunning.”

The story of Lucy Kalanithi and John Duberstein is both unlikely and destined, the stuff of a rom-com. It begins, tragically, on a deathbed.

In the final days of her life, Nina Riggs was worried about her husband and how he would get on with his life when she was gone. Nina made an offhand suggestion: Contact Lucy Kalanithi. She has experience with this, she told him; she’ll know what to do.

At the time John had only a vague idea who Lucy was. He had yet to finish reading When Breath Becomes Air.

Lucy and Nina, however, had formed a quiet relationship. Lucy, whose husband died in March 2015, had contacted Nina after reading a “Modern Love” column she had written for The New York Times, “When a Couch Is More Than a Couch.” Lucy wrote a glowing blurb for The Bright Hour and stayed in touch with Nina’s agent, inquiring about Nina’s health and her family.

On Feb. 24, two days before Nina died, Lucy sent her an email message: “I’m beaming you love from my whole being.” She signed it, “your forever fan, lucy.”

At a hospice in Greensboro, North Carolina, John read the email to his ailing wife and responded on her behalf. “Thank you for being such a strong supporter and friend to her,” he said. “She’s talked about you a ton these past few weeks, and her sense of you being a person with great insight and empathy. She’s clearly on the mark there.”

One of Nina’s final acts, in effect, was to play matchmaker for her husband.

John, a 41-year-old lawyer, was unmoored by his wife’s death — bereft, sleep-deprived, fearful of his future. “I had so many questions,” he said. “I was bursting with this intense need to get things squared.”

So he did as his wife had suggested. His note to Lucy — two days after Nina died — was lengthy and, in Lucy’s words, “obscenely vulnerable.” His requests for advice were wide-ranging: How do I write a eulogy? How do I sleep through the night? How do I not go insane?

Lucy wrote back immediately, advising John to focus on the eulogy and “to …read more

Source:: The Week – Lifestyle

      

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