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Thursday, November 8, 2018

When Breath Becomes Air

Recently in my apartment building, someone started a book table where they leave books and others can take them. I am not interested in most of the titles, but occasionally one pops out that I have wanted to read. This was the case with Paul Kalanithi's When Breath Becomes Air.

This book is mostly a memoir, but it is a beautiful and arresting treatise on life and love. How do we live to our fullest? Kalanithi tells us, because he did it. Beginning as a child with a deep love of literature instilled in him by his mother, he was encouraged by his parents to delve deep into his curiosity and to learn. In college he continued to immerse himself in his beloved literature as well as indulge his curiosity in how the mind works through biology and the beginning inklings of neuroscience. He then went off to find himself, continuing his studies at Cambridge before moving on to medical school and eventually becoming one of the most sought-after neurosurgeons and neuroscientists in the nation. He married Lucy, the love of his life whom he first met in medical school, and together they had a child when they knew his life was near its end. Other than dying at a young age -- 37 -- he had it all.

But the thing that Paul teaches us in this book that dying is merely the end, but it's not the definition of who we are the lives that we have led. The measure of our worth as humans are the things we have accomplished in between birth and death -- knowledge, love, kindness, and the depth of our souls. In this short memoir, he puts that all to words in the most eloquent, moving, and thoughtful prose I have ever read. His words seared my heart in a reminder of how important it is to reflect on our lives through the lens of thankfulness when we have been given so much. Paul is one of the most gifted motivational writers that has ever existed (and yes, I am not exaggerating), and just a few hours with his gifted mind feels like it was a gift meant for me. It is clear why he would have been incredibly successful as a writer, and his self-education in literature is apparent in his writing.

There are so many beautiful moments in this book to touch on, but I want you to read them for yourself. When Paul is diagnosed with metastatic lung cancer in his 30's, at the height of his career, when he is being pursued by some of the most elite medical institutions, he has to reexamine his life plan. Practicing medicine for the next 20 years and spending the following 20 as a writer isn't possible anymore. He just won't live that long. He has to make a decision to live the last of his days and months to their fullest. He finishes out his residency, he begins this book, and he and Lucy decide to have a baby. This is where I am broken.

Paul's final words in his final chapter broke me as a human. His final paragraph, written to his infant daughter, is the most meaningful work I have ever written. It's simplicity belies the depth of his words and the meaning of life and love for another human. Even if the rest of the book wasn't worth the read -- and it very much is worth every second you will give to it -- those last few words will wreck you.

But you aren't done -- you need to read Lucy's afterword. Reading her bear her raw soul in telling us about her last few moments with her husband was so real that I had to read it in one-paragraph chunks. It was too much to bear in one setting without openly breaking down.

This book as a whole is one of the all time greatest memoirs ever written. 

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