I can’t go on.  I go on.  When Breath Becomes Air by Surgeon Paul Kalanithi. (October 2019)

Susan’s Thursday morning note October 10, 2019
“I can’t go on.  I go on.”  

Good morning!  Silence broken by downpour.  My angel is peering through my window with bright eyes reflecting light from my lamp on her wet face.  Encouraging me to stop and be still and listen to the heavens awaking this morning bringing in this new season of fall and reflection.  A solemn morning where words of literature again bring strength to enter the season of fall.  Words to give strength to knowing the longer nights are coming.  Finding words to reflect on entering beautiful mixed with sadness seasons.  Dark nights.  Dark mornings.  Rain.  Do we have words in our minds to give us meaning as we enter this day?  Fall mornings.  Bands rehearsing.  Bright yellow mums.  Dark mornings.  Thinking.  Gift of today.  Where will we train our thoughts to go?  Poetry from over a century ago now again giving us the words.

This week I was able to read the thoughts of a 36 year old brain surgeon diagnosed at the age of 36 with cancer.  His writings on facing death up to his death two years later.  When Breath Becomes Air.  Paul Kalanithi.  His educational background was in literature and science and he refers throughout the entire memoir to different lines from past readings he has replaying in his mind.  One quote he referred to I cannot stop replaying in my mind.  The last seven words of a novel by Nobel Peace Prize author Samuel Beckett.  “I can’t go on.  I go on.”  I then reread the poem from 1895 by Rudyard Kipling written to his son. If.  “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing yours…” A famous actor in Germany, Marlene Dietrich, saw this poem though a window during WW1 after he father had been killed.  “It was the winter of 1918 in Berlin and my coming up on ‘If’ then gave me a philosophy and comfort which helped during the most trying days of my life.  One morning, on my way to the food depot where we stood in line for milk and bread, I had to pass a baker’s shop.  Rioters had broken in the night before.  Glass was all over the roped-off sidewalk.  Such sights were common in Berlin, but as I stopped to look I saw a little framed picture in the rubbish which had spilled outside.  It was a poem, and I could clearly read only the first line: ‘If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you….’  “A year or so later I managed to get a copy of the complete poem.  I have always treasured it.  “If” helped me through the most critical period of my life.  Once a source of encouragement, it is still that and, in addition, a nostalgic pleasure.”  Following this poem are a few quotes on the ability to go.  “I can’t go on.  I go on.”  Such strength is these seven words.

If by Rudyard Kipling, 1895. 

If you can keep your head when all about you
    are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
    But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
    Or being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated don't give way to hating,
    And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream - and not make dreams your master;
    If you can think - and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
    And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
    Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
    And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
    And risk  it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
    And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
    To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
    Except the Will which says to them: "Hold on!"

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
    Or walk with Kings - nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
    If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
    With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
    And - which is more - you'll be a Man, my son.!

Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.”  Martin Luther

Let me not pray to be sheltered from dangers, but to be fearless in facing them.  Let me not beg for the stilling of my pain, but for the heart to conquer it.”  Rabindranath Tagore

“I have walked that long road to freedom.  I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way.  But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great ill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.  I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come.  But I can only rest for a moment, for with freedom comes responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not ended.”  Nelson Mandela

I can’t go on.  I go on.”  Did the author know as he finished his novel that a man years later would be dying of lung cancer in his thirties and gain the strength to die through the words?  Gain the strength to go on by letting go?  To go on into what we can’t see, but know exists?  I can’t go on.  I go on.”  Did the author know that his last seven words of his novel would give a young mother strength to get up to make breakfast?  “I can’t go on.  I go on.”  Did the author know that his last seven words of his novel would give the strength to the wife to look to the heavens when her heart broke at her husband’s death?  I can’t go on.  I go on.”  Did the author know that his words would help a father get in his car and enter another day of work?  I can’t go on.  I go on.”  Our walk is not ended.  Will we remember to look towards the heavens where strength is promised?  Will we look at the apple tree that someone planted and find pleasure in the apples?  Will we look at the eyes of those we see today and give a smile for their strength?  Will we hear the birds between the rains?  Will we see the little frogs?  Will we savor the hot drink?  Will we find the beauty that the children find?  Blessed are the children.  They see God.  Thank you for again letting me enter your Thursday morning and for coming into our store for what you need.  How much your friendship and encouragement means.  Susan


Latin for this week:
non possum ego a ire – I can’t go on, I go on.
Aequam memento rebus in arduis servare mentem–Remember when life’s path is steep to keep your mind even. (Horace)
Caelitus mihi vires– My strength is from heaven.
Deus tecum.  May God be with you.

Works Cited:
Kalanithi, Paul.  When Breath Becomes Air.  New York.  Random House.  2016.