“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.” These words describe an autobiographical book by Paul Kalanithi (2016, Random House, 228 pages).
“When Breath Becomes Air” was a finalist for the Pulitzer Price, and named as one of the best books of the year by numerous media publications. And was a New York Times bestseller. The book has been translated and published in 39 languages. Yes, it’s a moving memoir for sure.
Paul Kalanithi is just 36 years old when he’s diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. He has sacrificed blood, sweat, tears, and years while buried in books, medical school courses, and residencies with the goal of becoming a neurosurgeon. The sick doctor becomes the patient. And the dying doctor faces mortality.
He endures chemotherapy, experiences a short remission, and x-rays show a return of tumors in his lungs. Cancer comes back with a vengeance.
Kalanithi had a passion for literature and ardor for words. “There must be a way, I thought, that the language of life as experienced — of passion, hunger, of love — bore some relationship, however convoluted, to the language of neurons, digestive tracks, and heartbeats,” he writes.
Fascination for the human brain, mind, body, and spirit fed him on the journey to search for the meaning of life and the meaning of death, prior to a diagnosis of terminal cancer. He studied death from the perspectives of both doctor and philosopher. “When Breath Becomes Air” is Paul’s powerful story about a man’s search for meaning while battling cancer.
Being the son of a Christian physician and a Hindu mother, Kalanithi struggled with religion. His scientific mind claimed atheism. But his book reveals a rediscovery of hope as he returned to Christian faith and found peace.
Kalanithi’s wife, Lucy (a physician), penned the epilogue. But it is another beginning for her and their baby daughter. The relationship with a loved one does not end when death takes them too soon.
As you read his story, you get to know him. To read “When Breath Becomes Air” is to form a surreal and temporarily relationship with the author — but what you learn and take away from his words does not end when the back cover is closed.
I mourned the death of this man; a multi-hued human being who is a son, brother, spouse, father, friend, a dancing-with-words writer, a physician of great compassion and a brain surgeon of great potential. My tears runneth over.
“When Breath Becomes Air” is a memoir of mortality and meaning. Kalanithi’s probing question: “What makes life meaningful enough to go on living?” while suffering is answered.
Thank you Paul Kalanithi for this beautiful gift wrapped up in a small book that you left on Earth for us. I’ll see you in Heaven someday.
Melissa Martin, Ph.D, is an author, columnist, educator, and therapist. She resides in southern Ohio. www.melissamartinchildrensauthor.com.