Two Authors Die after Writing Books about Final Days. But Then Their Spouses Meet


I think sometimes artists spend a lot of time thinking about their mortality. In part it is the world we live in, the whole trope that artists become famous after they die.

I know as a writer I have often thought about my own mortality. Earlier in my life the desire to leave behind a masterwork to inspire future generations was my driving force.

More recently, while taking stock of my fiction and non-fiction writing, I became concerned about the legacy of my publications I will leave to my children, making sure reprint rights stay in the family and that my archives have a clear home should I pass. This has nothing to with if I achieve fame or not but is about ensuring my literary estate is protected.

I don’t know if Paul Kalanithi, author of “When Breath Becomes Air,”  and Nina Riggs, author of “The Bright Hour,” were thinking about their literary legacy when they wrote their books. Both authors were memoirists whose works covered their finals years as they faced cancer.

Both books were widely praised and were often mentioned together in reviews. Each was a commercial success.

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In the days before her passing, Nina Riggs became concerned about her husband, John Duberstein. John, she suggested, should reach out to Paul Kalanithi’s wife Lucy.

“You know,” John reported Nina as saying, “Lucy is a person you should really be in touch with. She’s been through the whole gauntlet you’re about to face, and she seems like a person with real insight and terrific amounts of empathy.”

John only had a vague idea of the Kalanithi family, having only read “When Breath Becomes Air” partially at that point. John couldn’t even really contemplate a future relationship at that stage of things.

“When my wife was dying, the last thing I wanted to think about was my next relationship,” he blogged.  “The very idea baffled and repelled me. It wasn’t that I thought I’d live out my widowhood lonely and celibate—I could recognize even in my anxiety and grief that I would want someone to live, work, and play with for the remainder of my life. It just didn’t make sense to me to think about that phase before Nina was gone.”

Lucy and Nina, though, had formed a supportive friendship, with Lucy often inquiring after Nina’s health with her agent.

In fact, Lucy sent Nina a message that read, “I’m beaming you love from my whole being. your forever fan, lucy.” This was two days before Nina died.

John responded for his wife, thanking Lucy for her empathy. And two days later, after his wife had passed, a sleepless, scared John began to reach out.

He was scared about so many things — writing eulogies, getting enough sleep… How does life go on after such a loss?

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Emails for help became emails of flirting. When John came to North Carolina from California on business, she and John were able to meet.

They held each other for a long time. They had two dinner dates and a lot of chemistry.

“We talked a lot about the minefield of managing to fall in love and actively grieve at the same time,” Lucy said.

They were secretive about the whole thing. Their children knew, but not many others did.

But they persisted. Even with a continent between them, they have managed to get together regularly, joking about finding a house in the middle of the country together.

John and Lucy carry their spouses’ deaths with them. To be in a relationship means being aware that whoever you are with is someone you might lose.

Love, in this sense, is about a deliberate invitation to vulnerability. Opening yourself to another person is about opening yourself to the inevitability of loss.

To love again in this way is a form of bravery, be that love forever or temporary. I do not know John and Lucy. I hope the love they have will be powerful and healing and sustaining.

It may also be something they just have for now, as they heal. Even if this is the case, it is worth it and takes bravery.

“We are trying to allow ourselves to flow freely without too much restraint in both directions, while at the same time tending very carefully to our navigation,” John blogged. “We are trying to honor lost love while embracing a new one.

“We are wary of the potential for hurt and harm, but even more overwhelmed by the opportunity for multiplying love and loving relationships. We are a little crazy, always a little at risk, and feeling very grateful and mournful for the evanescence of all of it.”

Like Lucy said, “I’m still surprised, I’m surprised by how ridiculous it is and how natural it is at the same time.”

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