Paul Kalanithi: When Death Becomes Breath
“You that seek what life is in death, Now find it air that once was breath. New names unknown, old names gone: Till time end bodies, but souls none. Reader! then make time, while you be, But steps to your eternity.”
(Baron Brooke Fulke Greville, “Caelica 83” )
This beautiful poem introduces the wonderfully inspiring posthumous memoir by Paul Kalanithi. Not only did it serve as an inspiration for the title “When Breath Becomes Air”, but it also alludes to its theme of mortality and finding the meaning of life in the face of death. Having always held a profound admiration for literature, the young neurosurgeon decided to write a book after being diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer.
Growing up in Kingman, Arizona, Paul Kalanithi’s mother feared for the future of her children due to the prevailing impoverished school system. Therefore she resolved to ensure that her children received equal education by nurturing them with literature. Developing a deep passion for language over time, it was also a book which aroused Paul Kalanithi’s interest in biology and neuroscience. Driven by the thirst to understand what makes human life meaningful, he eventually applied for medical school in Yale. (“But it would allow me a chance to find answers that are not in books, to find a different sort of sublime, to forge relationships with the suffering, and to keep following the question of what makes human life meaningful, even in the face of death and decay.”)
Despite the abstractness of the book’s theme, the message is transmitted in a very approachable way. Paul Kalanithi was not just pretentiously philosophizing without real substance, but instead, he earnestly sought to understand the meaning of life and thereby achieves to convey his thoughts to the reader in a relatable manner. Even when he explains the importance of human relationships standing amid an idyllic scenery while watching the sunrise, the book does not turn exceedingly cheesy.
The book also offers an authentic insight into the daily routine in the medical sector as the neurosurgeon’s process of realization is connected to a variety of anecdotes, each containing encounters with diverse patients and challenges. The author succeeds in evoking a fascination for medicine, particularly neurosurgery, and thus succeeds in captivating the reader.
One of the most inspiring and impressing aspects of Paul Kalanithi’s journey is his endeavor to maintain his initial idealism that prompted him to pursue a career as a neurosurgeon. Regardless of the incredible burden and responsibility connected to the profession of a neurosurgeon, evident in the following quote, he carries on persistently. (“While all doctors treat diseases, neurosurgeons work in the crucible of identity: every operation on the brain is, by necessity, a manipulation of the substance of our selves, and every conversation with a patient undergoing brain surgery cannot help but confront this fact.”)
It is likewise admirable how he immerses into every single one of his cases and unexceptionally attaches great importance to the bond between doctor and patient. (“Before operating on a patient’s brain, I realized, I must first understand his mind: his identity, his values, what makes his life worth living, and what devastation makes it reasonable to let that life end.”)
However, the increasing respect the reader develops for him throughout the book only reinforces the emotional effect exerted as one witnesses his suffering.
“Severe illness wasn’t life-altering, it was life-shattering.”
This striking quote mercilessly sums up the devastation caused by an illness. The diagnosis of terminal cancer came at the point when Paul Kalanithi was on the edge of accomplishing his residency and proceeding as a fully qualified neurosurgeon, but also before he would finally be able to lead the future life he promised his wife and he ceaselessly strove for.
Nevertheless, he has a rather realistic view on the finitude of his own life and therefore manages to face it bravely. By returning to neurosurgery and by deciding to have a child with his wife, Paul Kalanithi teaches the reader not only the importance to regain awareness of one’s priorities day by day but also that one must not be afraid to shape a new identity and redefine one’s priorities in order to lead a valuable life.
“Will having a newborn distract from the time we have together?" she asked. "Don't you think saying goodbye to your child will make your death more painful?"
"Wouldn't it be great if it did?" I said. Lucy and I both felt that life wasn't about avoiding suffering.”
To sum up, “When Breath Becomes Air” is simply a touching and inspiring book, undoubtedly worth a read.
Liane Nguyen, Year 12