What do you do when life is catastrophically interrupted? what does it mean to have a child as your own life fades away? What makes life worth living in the face of death?
At the age of thirty-six, on the verge of completing a decades training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. One day he was a doctor treating the dying, the next he was a patient struggling to live.
When Breath Becomes Air chronicles Kalanithi’s transformation from a medical student in search of what makes a virtuous and meaningful life into a neurosurgeon working in the core of human identity – the brain – and finally into a patient and new father.
When Breath Becomes Air was eagerly pushed into my hands by a friend who declared that I would absolutely love it, and she was not wrong. I ripped my way through it, devouring every poetical utterance until I found myself at the pub, waiting for an equally tipsy friend to find her way back from the bathroom.
I delved greedily into my handbag for the ever-near book that I could steal just a few more moments from. That was my biggest mistake in loving this book, or my greatest mistake depending on how you look at it. As I concentrated really hard on each word, re-reading sentences over and over again I found that they rolled off my slurring tongue in a way that was really quite magical, melodious even.
I could not read that book again for several months after that, a little like when the thought of tequila makes you abstain religiously from the bottle until enough time has passed.
What this did achieve was a sense that when I went back to read the book front to back I was going to need to take it slower, and savour the moments. Kalanithi writes in a way that cannot be rushed and which made me fall in love with his views on the mind and personality – his respect for life, and what that means, just lift themselves off the pages and straight into your very soul. I feel strongly that it is impossible to read this book without being touched by it, changed by it even.
For a book which we all know is working towards his eventual demise, it is incredibly inspiring. At the beginning his desire for knowledge and the places he goes looking for it had me longing for more hours in the day, more days in the year so that I too could go looking for these answers. He lists book after book, and so many authors that I now need to go and read too. He speaks lovingly of his quest for answers, making you want to come along for the ride in far more detail than can be achieved through merely reading his book.
When discussing it with the referring friend she made a point which stays with me whenever I think about the messages of Kalanithi’s book – “We are so conditioned towards delayed gratification that sometimes we forget to just live in the moment.” She, as a doctor, was referring to the long hard years of training that he had dedicated his life towards, and just as he reached the top of the mountain with all of the glorious job offers just over the horizon his diagnosis came tumbling down on him like a rockfall from a higher summit that he never saw coming.
I feel like it is only fair to warn readers that at the end of the book, the final chapter written by his wife after he dies. I do not feel like I am ruining some great surprise by warning people, the introduction itself is written after his passing, but I do feel like I wish I had known to have the buckets and towels ready, because that ending moved me far beyond tissue therapy.
I was a gibbering wreck at the end. It was gut wrenching in much the same way that the rest of the book was touching and beautiful. Of course it was sad, as I said you start the book knowing where it is going to end, and as you get further through it begins to occur to you that somehow this chap is going to write his own death (don’t ask me how I thought he was going to do it, I have no idea). His wife picking up the pen surprised and destroyed me – she is in no way lacking skill with the quill, and her words moved me deeply.
I would like to thank the Kalanithi family for sharing their story with the world, because I feel that their experience and Paul’s unique and beautiful way of writing about it has really added something to the lives of everyone who read it. I certainly can’t unread it, or be unmoved by its messages. I recommend it regularly to my colleagues and book friends, but not without warning. My other half bundled me up with a blanket, chocolate and a Garfield comic book to recover from finishing that book.