When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
(The Bodley Head, Penguin Random House UK, 2016)
I finished this book in tears last night. I heard the long-silenced voice of Paul Kalanithi, how he weighed his internal and external moral dilemmas and tried to work and live with empathy and integrity. I felt his push and his drive, his motivation and most importantly his energy pulsing through the text, vibrant and whole.
I’ve had this book for a few months. It’s been sitting on a shelf at home in what we call the Reading Room beckoning to me. I read the foreword, the epilogue, and then I put it down. Written by neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi in the last year of his life after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer, I thought this book would be too emotional, too traumatic for me to read right now. Dr Kalanithi died when he was 37 in March 2015 after a completing a decade’s training in neurosurgery. His daughter was eight months old, he had degrees in English literature, human biology, and history and philosophy of science and medicine from Stanford and Cambridge universities.
With candour and eloquence Kalanithi tells us about his love of literature and how searching to understand the question What makes life meaningful? led him eventually to neuroscience. He takes us to medical school with him, dissecting cadavers, and when he becomes a neurosurgery resident, he takes us into the hospital too, working through the 16-hour days, the gruelling surgery, the weight and responsibility for other people’s lives.
“Neurosurgery,” he tells us, “requires a commitment to one’s own excellence and a commitment to another’s identity.”
I may have finished the book sobbing but I came away uplifted, stronger. Somehow, even in death, Kalanithi made me feel more purposeful and determined. I hadn’t expected this but I needed it. In the last couple of weeks, I’ve been trying to knit together some sort of order out of the sudden death of my uncle. My dancing, vivacious, teasing, crazy-with-energy uncle. I was not having much success until I became mesmerized with Paul Kalanithi’s story. I heard his voice, I felt his struggle, felt his abundant energy and his empathy. I could only agree with reviewers who said his book was “life-affirming”.
And that’s why I’ll keep coming back to Kalanithi’s words. Every writer needs a stack of go-to books: the ones we leaf through looking for inspiration after another rejection, the ones we turn to after a sleepless night with sick children, aging parents, and geriatric dogs, the ones we copy paragraphs from when our writing is cliched and limp and nothing seems to work leaving us wondering why?
“I had to face my mortality and try to understand what made my life worth living.” Paul Kalanithi.
Because, for me, words add meaning.