Book Review: When breath becomes air

Death, it awaits us all but few of us think about that very much. Even less of us live as if that fact is important. We live as if life will just carry on until one day it doesn’t and we, despite all the overwhelming evidence, find that somehow shocking.

Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer at the age of 36. When Breath Becomes Air  is his moving account of his journey from neurosurgeon to cancer patient. From driven student to doting father and from life to death. As it says in the epilogue:

This book carries the urgency of racing against time, of having important things to say. Paul confronted death – examined it, wrestled  with it, accepted it – as a physician and a patient. He wanted to help people understand death and face their mortality. Dying in one’s fourth decade is unusual now, but dying is not.

Because Kalanithi was brilliant and because he was young, with a young wife and by the end a young daughter it somehow grabs your attention more than if he’d been a 90-year-old retired man with a long life and career behind not ahead of him. But at the end of the day the reality is the same: someone who was living, dies.

Like my own patients, I had to face my mortality and try to understand what made my life worth living.

That’s a great question and Kalanithi wonders why it takes the shadow of death for us to ask the question or seek its answers.

I knew I was going to die – but I’d known that before. My state of knowledge was the same, but my ability to make lunch plans had been shot to hell. The way forward would seem obvious, if only I knew how many months or years I had left. Tell me three months, I’d spend time with family. Tell me one year, I’d write a book. Give me ten years, I’d get back to treating diseases. The truth that you live one day at a time didn’t help: What was I supposed to do with that day?

As a neurosurgeon he had seen people die and come to terms (or not) with their death but it is always different when it’s you doing the dying especially of cancer.

Part of the cruelty of cancer, though, is not only that it limits your time; it also limits your energy, vastly reducing the amount you can squeeze into a day. It is a tired hare who now races.

Raised in a devout Christian home, Kalanithi is acquainted with faith. He mentions how for a season he embraced an ‘ironclad atheism’ that ultimately was not so ironclad after all.

When Breath Becomes Air is an incredibly moving book, at several sections I had to wipe tears away from my eyes. Extremely well written it is a gentle, honest journey to face up to the one truth that defines and unites us all: we’re going to die. Yet there is hope, there is faith and there is love in these pages and in life. The question is: what will we make of our life? What will you make of yours?

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