Music, Fire, Cancer

This is a post about music, fire, and cancer. Here, listen to this while reading if you can.

“Adagio for Strings” by Samuel Barber is well-known as one of classical music’s most depressing pieces. Barber chose B flat minor, one of the most inherently dark key signatures, because it forces us violins, viola, and cello to play in strange positions that can’t take advantage of our instrument’s naturally bright resonances. Instead, the tone that our instruments elicit are muffled and ominous, like throats choked with tears. With shifting time signatures, the piece’s rhythm and timing are nearly unpredictable; the melodic line simply wanders up and down aimlessly. Accompanying the melody are unsettled chords that resolve deceptively. The line climbs towards a fervent climax, where the instruments wail at the very top of their registers, as loud as possible, like screaming. After a long silent pause, the piece finishes with an exhausted recapitulation of the theme.

When I hear it, my mind conjures an image of a lone candle, its flame flickering in the darkness, pushed to and fro by dark winds. The fire fights and brightens and expands and explodes at the climax. In the climax, the flame falters, having consumed all of its fuel, and finally sputters into darkness. And… my quartet just decided yesterday that we are to learn it frantically this week in time to perform it next Thursday. It is going to be a challenge to efficiently encapsulate all that emotion into coordinated technique in a matter of hours, but we are determined to do it.

Last week, Beth Garrett, Cornell University’s newly elected president, died to colon cancer at the age of 52. She was the 13th president of the university, the first woman president, and the first president to die in office. Her untimely death shocked us all.

I met her once, at an inauguration event here at Weill Cornell last September. I remember distinctly when she took the podium and her amplified voice rang through the building. Her voice was fiery. It was loud, sharp, and filled with energy, and I couldn’t help but entrust our university’s future more just based on that.

After her speech, it was my violin quartet’s turn to take the stage. We filled in the rest of the event with 40 minutes of cheery music that we had frantically pulled together over the course of a few weeks (we had just returned from our summer projects). I was proud to play at the event and show the support of WCMC’s Music and Medicine.

On Thursday, there will be a memorial for President Garrett. WCMC called upon Music and Medicine to play once more. This comes with bad timing; I will be requesting time off a clerkship (generally a bad idea), and my friends in the quartet have to sacrifice family time and study time, but we will. We have to. We’ll be proud to play one more time for Garrett.

This week, I read Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air. Kalanithi was a neurosurgery resident and writer, and this is his frantically written memoir about lung cancer and mortality. He died at 37, barely finishing his residency, his infant daughter not even a year old. It is a phenomenal book, and you should read it.

Neurosurgeons do unbelievable things. They work on millimeter scales in long and grueling surgeries. They carve cancerous glaciers out of the miniature mountains and valleys of brain cells and rivers and streams of blood vessels. They take our brain and mind — what makes us humans transcendentally abstract — and play with it in a purely physical sense. They repair people’s identities with scalpels and electrocautery. Kalanithi was one of these rare doctors with the courage and burden to do this.

Before his cancer, Kalanithi was destined to help his patients dance around death, to help heal them in one of the most dramatic ways possible. When his cancer stole away that future, he turned to his other calling: literature and philosophy. He wrote about all he tried to understand about mortality by being a neurosurgeon while facing his own. His insights are illuminating.

Six months ago, the very same week Garrett took office, I learned that Dr. Woo, one of my old friend’s sisters died to cancer. She was a fellow Harvard grad; had just started her residency on her way to radiation oncology; she was 31. I had never met her; I had never even known she was a person until I heard of her untimely death, but it made me immensely sad. I haven’t talked to my friend in so long I didn’t feel right reaching out to offer condolences. I just mourned for them from a distance. My friends asked me what was wrong, but all I said was that life was unfair.

Sometimes, when I close my eyes, my mind starts to abstract away concrete imagery. Walls, buildings, colors, light, disappear, and in its place darkness descends and cold wind blows in. All that remains are abstract sprites, little sparks of fiery light that float around where our bodies should be. I pretend I can see the world at its normal pace with people’s sparks floating at their desks, resting in their beds, walking down streets next to highways of sparks zooming along in multiple cars. Then, I turn my mind to imagine the hospital across the street. This is where sparks come to die. In the hospital, scores of busy bright sparks congregating around dimming sparks. From time to time, a spark sputters out of existence, ushered out by the caregivers gathered around them.

In that dark world, cancer is like a demon that lurks below whose cold claws emerge from the darkness and clamor at our sparks. Those touched by cancer are turned against themselves, and their tainted fires begin to burn through their bodies. Those dying of cancer feel cold, devoid of energy. It is a terrible disease, especially when it steals away the people in the world whose sparks shine so bright.




for President Garrett, Dr. Kalanithi, and Dr. Woo