Relationships

An Update on My Twin Sister

Lucy Kalanithi

This past summer, my twin sister Lucy called to say she had something important to tell me…

You may remember her story — In 2013, her 36-year-old husband Paul was diagnosed with lung cancer. After the shocking news, he struggled with how best to spend his remaining time, however long that might be: Should he continue his job as a neurosurgeon, write a book, or try for a baby? In the end, he did all three.

Less than two years later — on March 9, 2015, just shy of his 38th birthday — Paul died peacefully, surrounded by loved ones, including Lucy, his parents and his brothers. His bestselling memoir, When Breath Becomes Air, was published posthumously and dedicated to their daughter Cady.

Lucy, Cady and Paul Kalanithi

Lucy, Cady and Paul

My sister Lucy was devastated, to say the least. After a year of deep grief, she still dreaded returning to an empty house. To try to help (how does one help?), we gave her apartment a new look, so she could try for a fresh start with her daughter. “I’m not itching to get out like I was before,” she told me afterward. “I feel like a fresh, cool lady in my house.” Of course, Paul’s photos and books (including his tattered neurosurgery textbook) remained happily at home. He was still there and always will be. “Paul is in the air,” she said. “He’s in the mix.”

So, this past summer, on the phone, Lucy was nervous but excited to tell me her news: “I’ve met someone,” she said. “His name is John.”

John’s wife — a poet named Nina Riggs — had also died of cancer, Lucy told me, and she had also written a memoir during her final days. Lucy had been in touch with Nina and even wrote a blurb for her book; and when Nina died, John reached out to Lucy for advice on how to grieve, sleep through the night, and, as he said, “not go insane.”

That week, I found a copy of The Bright Hour and devoured it — at first to see what John was all about, but soon to fall head over heels for Nina and her take on motherhood, family, books, love and loss. Certain lines took my breath away, including this part about her two sons: “Their very existence is the one dark piece I cannot get right with in all this. I can let go of a lot of things: plans, friends, career goals, places in the world I want to see, maybe even the love of my life. But I cannot figure out how to let go of mothering them.”

John Duberstein and Nina Riggs

John and Nina

Over the summer and fall, Lucy and John’s connection deepened — they took trips to visit each other (Lucy and her daughter live near San Francisco; John and his boys are in North Carolina); their children and families met; and they spent a gazillion hours on FaceTime.

When Lucy and John visited Brooklyn this fall, Alex and I immediately approved of the 6-foot-2 defense attorney with an easy smile. “You look cozy,” Toby said the first evening, as he sat next to John. “You just look so comfortable.” And then he climbed right into his lap.

When I asked Lucy what she liked about John, she insisted that making a list was impossible. But I’m her twin sister (and two minutes older), so I forced her to. “Okay, he makes dad jokes. He’s literary. His arms are ridiculous. He’s emotionally astute. And he makes amazing scrambled eggs. Really, Cady and I are both in it for the scrambled eggs.”

After spending last week with the twosome (and our extended families) in San Francisco for the holidays, I saw again how much they just like each other; how they chat so easily; how they repeat funny things the kids say (like when John’s 10-year-old son requested that all the younger cousins call him “Uncle Freddy”).

When I asked John the same question, he rattled things off: “I like her glasses. And she’s beautiful, I’m overwhelmed by her. Even when we were first emailing, we already had inside jokes.” The only catch? “She hasn’t seen any movies,” he laughed. “The only one she likes is So I Married an Ax Murderer. Every movie I mention, she’s like, ‘Don’t even make the reference, I haven’t seen it.’ I have a million I want to share with her.”

And yet Paul and Nina are still right there — as Lucy would say, in the mix. Favorite photos are hung around the house (Cady’s bedside table is covered in snapshots of her doting father), and their names come up in conversation all the time.

“If your child or sister died, that person would be your family member forever,” Lucy told me. “That person is a huge piece of who you are. This dynamic feels the same. Nina was John’s wife and his children’s mother; she’s part of him. Paul was my husband and Cady’s father. It feels good and natural to talk about them.”

After all, discussing the loss of their spouses is how their relationship began. “Talking about your person is such a strong urge. You want to keep them present for yourself and your kids,” says John. “Lucy and I would both undo these dual tragedies in a heartbeat (meaning we’d likely have never met, let alone be together now); but I have to say how incredibly grateful I am that we found each other.”

Of course, as Lucy’s sister, I initially worried about these strong emotions getting mixed up. But, as I’ve now witnessed, you can fall in love with someone and grieve someone else at the same time. “I would never have known that that was true until I experienced it,” says John. “It’s such a mix of tragedy and joy; it’s both.”

As for the kids — John’s sons, Freddy (10) and Benny (8); and Lucy’s daughter Cady (3) — they get along well, other than to-be-expected-and-actually-kind-of-sweet sibling spats now and again. Over the holidays, the cousins, including Toby and Anton, ran around the backyard, splashed in the hot tub and watched old episodes of Full House.

And kids have a sixth sense. One morning, Cady turned to Lucy in the kitchen and gave her approval of their families joining: “Mommy,” she said, “I make Freddy and Benny three.”

Lucy Kalanithi and John Duberstein

Lucy Kalanithi and John Duberstein

Lucy Kalanithi and John Duberstein

Thank you so much, as always, for following this story, and for your kind thoughts and words throughout. It has meant so much to our family over these difficult years. The Washington Post wrote a wonderful article today, as well, if you’d like to read more. xoxo

P.S. An essay by John after Nina’s death, and Lucy’s advice on how to write a condolence note.

(Top photo of Lucy by Elizabeth Weinberg for Elle. All other photos courtesy of Lucy and John.)

  1. Cyndi Barrera says...

    Thank you for sharing this update on Lucy and Cady. I literally just finished Paul’s book a few moments ago and, hopeful she’d found happiness, plugged her name into my search engine and your post appeared. How wonderful a tribute to him – his daughter – and Lucy that the universe helped them find John and his sons. God is good…