It sounds like something straight from the silver screen: a widow and widower, thrown into contact following the global success of their late spouses' memoirs about dying, become confidants via email and eventually fall in love.
High-flying neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi was just 37 when he died of lung cancer. His popular memoir reflecting on his final years, When Breath Becomes Air, was published posthumously in 2016 and was a critically acclaimed, worldwide smash. Just a year later, the memoir of poet Nina Riggs, The Bright Hour, who was 38 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, was released and became a similarly celebrated New York Times bestseller.
The books, which both explore life with a terminal illness and reckoning with premature death, were frequently mentioned alongside each other and are among the most popular memoirs of recent years, but more surprising is the love story that has developed between their respective spouses, Lucy Kalanithi and John Duberstein.
The pair first found each other after Riggs' death, with a little help from Riggs herself. Before her death, she suggested her husband reach out to Lucy Kalanithi to help him cope with what was to come. Kalanithi had spoken publicly about her grief and written the concluding chapter to her late husband's book.
The women were already in touch after Kalanithi contacted Riggs about a Modern Love column she had written for the New York Times, with Kalanithi asking after Riggs' health and family. Two days after his wife's death, in the midst of his grief, Duberstein wrote a wide-ranging, "obscenely vulnerable" message to Lucy (her words), asking about everything from writing a eulogy to sleeping and maintaining his sanity.
Kalanithi and Duberstein's email relationship quickly escalated and soon enough, they "learned that when a gmail thread reaches 100, it rolls you into another thread.” When the couple met face-to-face for the first time in April last year, they "held each other a long time,” Kalanithi told the Post.
What followed were two chemistry-filled dates and a new, cross-coastal relationship (Kalanithi lives on the west coast with her 3-year-old daughter, while Duberstein lives on the east with his two boys, 10 and 8). But along with the heady rush of a new relationship is lingering grief on both sides. The blended family spent New Year's Eve visiting Kalanithi's grave and playing his favourite music.
“I’m surprised by how ridiculous it is and how natural it is at the same time," said Kalanithi, who acknowledged that striking up a relationship inevitably means accepting that you may lose your partner. “If you are lucky enough, you will be devastated when they die. Willingly entering that feels gutsy, but what else could you choose?”
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