Title: When Breath Becomes Air
Author: Paul Kalanithi
Publisher: Random House
Synopsis: At the age of thirty-six, on the verge of completing a decade’s worth of training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. One day he was a doctor making a living treating the dying, and the next he was a patient struggling to live. Just like that, the future he and his wife had imagined evaporated. When Breath Becomes Air, which features a Foreword by Dr. Abraham Verghese and an Epilogue by Kalanithi’s wife, Lucy, chronicles Kalanithi’s transformation from a naïve medical student “possessed,” as he wrote, “by the question of what, given that all organisms die, makes a virtuous and meaningful life” into a young neurosurgeon at Stanford, guiding patients toward a deeper understanding of death and illness, and finally into a patient and a new father to a baby girl, confronting his own mortality.
What makes life worth living in the face of death? What do you do when the future, no longer a ladder toward your goals in life, flattens out into a perpetual present? What does it mean to have a child, to nurture a new life as another fades away? These are some of the questions Kalanithi wrestles with in this profoundly moving, exquisitely observed memoir.
Paul Kalanithi died in March 2015, while working on this book, yet his words live on as a guide and a gift to us all. “I began to realize that coming face to face with my own mortality, in a sense, had changed nothing and everything,” he wrote. “Seven words from Samuel Beckett began to repeat in my head: ‘I can’t go on. I’ll go on.’” When Breath Becomes Air is an unforgettable, life-affirming reflection on the challenge of facing mortality and on the relationship between doctor and patient, from a gifted writer who became both.
What this book lacks in physical size, it makes up for in depth of content. I read this book in only a few days, and not because it was an easy read – it wasn’t – but because I was so captivated by Paul’s outlook on life, and his determination to solve the mystery that had nagged at him for most of his life: what makes life meaningful? His writing style was beautiful and evidence of his extensive knowledge in both literature and neuroscience.
The details of Paul’s life as a neurosurgeon were very intriguing, as well as the perspectives gained from both doctor and patient, and the meaning of the relationship between the two. This book had me constantly stopping to mull over ideas and consider Paul’s theories in relation to my own life.
Paul dedicated his life to answering the question of what makes a meaningful life. He read any texts he could get his hands on, took his education to extreme levels, became a neurosurgeon to be able to be close to those who were imminently facing the same question as him, and to help guide them to their answer, in the hopes that it would illuminate his own. He was intrigued by the reality that being a neurosurgeon meant holding the fate of the instrument that mediates one’s experience of the world. I can’t help but see the irony that a man so intrigued by the concept of life and death would face death himself so early in life. Realistically, it was the only way for him to gain that final perspective that he needed.
I truly hope that in the years leading up to his death, after his diagnosis, or perhaps even in the moment of his death, Paul finally had that epiphany of understanding he sought for, and the peace of mind that would come with that.
It is evident to me that if Paul had lived a longer life, he would have achieved great feats both in the world of neuroscience and literature.
Having recently lost the first family member very close to me, I was able to relate to Lucy Kalanithi in the epilogue when she said, “It never occurred to me that you could love someone the same way after he was gone, that I would continue to feel such love and gratitude alongside the terrible sorrow…”. Even after death, people continue to live on through love.
I highly recommend this book; it provides a thoughtful experience with many revelations. With each person who reads it Paul continues to live on, and the knowledge he acquired continues to grow, just as he stated it does with human interaction.