When Breath Becomes Air
Into the remarkable memoir: “When Breath Becomes Air” by Paul Kalanithi
“If I had some sense of how much time I have left, it’d be easier. (…) Tell me three months, I’d spend time with family. Tell me one year, I’d write a book. Give me ten years, I’d get back to treating diseases.”
Most people (me among them) live their lives procrastinating their dreams for next month, next year or even next decade. Unfortunately, death take most of them by surprise before realizing those dreams. Paul had a plan to spend two decades of his life in neurosurgery, then the next two decades as a writer, not realizing that death is going to pay a visit much earlier than he could ever imagine. In his book, he taught us a lesson about facing death and not giving up until the end. His memoir is an ornamental collection of life lessons about dreaming, working hard, and facing death with courage and a final touch. It has two main sections: before and after his cancer diagnosis. Every part is so intimate, real and believable.
The first part of Paul’s memoir starts with his early years’ adventures and love for books. He was so much into literature that he dreamed about becoming a writer. He also loved languages, so he studied English literature at Stanford. At that early age, he started asking big questions about life meaning and human’s values. The Stanford English Department could not provide enough answers for those big questions. Thus, Paul decided to study the brain “where biology, morality, literature and philosophy intersect”, and that is where his tale with neurosurgery started. The way he depicted his first years as a student, dealing with dead bodies, then as a neurosurgeon, dealing with alive souls, captivated my imagination and took me through the mixed emotions he felt. Entering neurosurgery field became, for him, not only a way to understand the brain, but to guide patients and families to answer a question that always hunted him: “what makes life meaningful enough to go on living?” His curious attitude conveyed him from studying meaning to experiencing it.
By the time you finish the first part of this book (it took me about 3 hours), you will surrender to Paul’s friendship, and feel that you know him for so long. Thereafter, the sad part starts and you cannot handle the emotions of losing this – new but old – friend. After a sudden loss of weight, and continued back pain, Paul went through some tests and scans to find out he had terminal illness; a lung cancer that rarely strikes young healthy and non-smoker men. He could see his long-term dreams and plans evaporating the same moment he looked at his test results, which was devastating for him and his family as well. Knowing that he was going to die sooner than he planned, but not knowing how long he can survive, made his decisions more difficult. Although he struggled between going on to surgery or going back to his old dream of becoming a writer, he showed courage, patience and acceptance of his vulnerability. After all, he started writing this book, while he went on with neurosurgery until his weak body didn’t allow him to perform surgeries anymore.
What he was sure about is having a baby before the illness fractures more of his left days. He seemed to agree with Kenzaburō Ōe who once said: “The dead can survive as part of the lives of those that still live”. Couple of months after his daughter came to life and before finishing this book (March, 2015), he died in the same hospital where she was born, and where he worked long nights and days. Being an unfinished work was (for me at least) another reason why it was so real and touchy. It simply gave another life lesson about unexpected ends. Once I started reading last pages written by Paul’s wife, tears streamed uncontrollably on my face. She passionately described her love for him and his courage until his last breath …
Paul Kalanithi had a wonderful manner of writing and expressing his thoughts and feelings. He was sad but happy … he was brave but vulnerable … he was a human. “When Breath Becomes Air” will allow him to survive not only through his family and friends’ memories, but also through every one who reads his memoir. After the tremendous effect this book left on me, I consider it a life-changing book, and I recommend it to EVERYONE. Enjoy!
More information about the book:
Full title: When Breath Becomes Air
Author: Paul Kalanithi
Foreword by: Abraham Verghese
Hardcover : 228 pages
Published January 12th 2016 by Random House
Kindle Edition: 208 pages
Published January 19th 2016 by Random House
Published January 12th 2016 by Books on Tape