When Breath Becomes Air

paul-kalanithi-book-cover-when-breath-becomes-air

In his foreword, Dr. Abraham Verghese closes with: “Be ready. Be seated. See what courage sounds like. See how brave it is to reveal yourself in this way… But above all, see what it is to still live, to profoundly influence the lives of others after you are gone, by your words. In a world of asynchronous communication, where we are so often buried in our screens, our gaze rooted to the rectangular objects buzzing in our hands, our attention consumed by ephemera, stop and experience this dialogue with my young departed colleague, now ageless and extant in memory. Listen to Paul. In the silences between his words, listen to what you have to say back. Therein lies his message. I got it. I hope you experience it, too. It is a gift. Let me not stand between you and Paul.”

And here’s Janet Maslin in her NY Times Book Review where she quotes Verghese and continues: “Dr. Verghese suggests not only reading “When Breath Becomes Air” but also listening to the overwhelming response it prompts in you. I guarantee that finishing this book and then forgetting about it is simply not an option.”

I completed Paul Kalanithi’s memoir this weekend and agree with Verghese and Maslin – waves of Kalanithi’s words are still lapping my shoreline. And they won’t let me go.

The book is a selection of Amazon’s Best Book of January 2016“At the age of thirty-six, on the verge of completing a decade’s worth of training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. When Breath Becomes Air chronicles Kalanithi’s transformation from a naïve medical student “possessed,” as he wrote, “by the question of what, given that all organisms die, makes a virtuous and meaningful life” into a neurosurgeon at Stanford working in the brain, the most critical place for human identity, and finally into a patient and new father confronting his own mortality.  Kalanithi died in March 2015, while working on this book.”

Here’s an excerpt:

“The morning commuters began to animate the distant South Lake Tahoe roads. But craning your head back, you could see the day’s blue darken halfway across the sky, and to the west, the night remained yet unconquered— pitch-black, stars in full glimmer, the full moon still pinned in the sky. To the east, the full light of day beamed toward you; to the west, night reigned with no hint of surrender. No philosopher can explain the sublime better than this, standing between day and night. It was as if this were the moment God said, “Let there be light!” You could not help but feel your specklike existence against the immensity of the mountain, the earth, the universe, and yet still feel your own two feet on the talus, reaffirming your presence amid the grandeur.”

And another:

“Lucy and I sat down in the living room, with our laptops, and mapped out the next steps: biopsies, tests, chemotherapy. The treatments this time around would be tougher to endure, the possibility of a long life more remote. Eliot again: ‘But at my back in a cold blast I hear / the rattle of the bones, and chuckle spread from ear to ear.'”

And finally:

“And so it was literature that brought me back to life during this time. The monolithic uncertainty of my future was deadening; everywhere I turned, the shadow of death obscured the meaning of any action. I remember the moment when my overwhelming unease yielded, when that seemingly impassable sea of uncertainty parted. I woke up in pain, facing another day— no project beyond breakfast seemed tenable. I can’t go on, I thought, and immediately, its antiphon responded, completing Samuel Beckett’s seven words, words I had learned long ago as an undergraduate: I’ll go on. I got out of bed and took a step forward, repeating the phrase over and over: ‘I can’t go on. I’ll go on.'”


Find the book at Amazon here: When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

New York Times Book Review: In “When Breath Becomes Air

Slate Book Review: “The Last Rotation

Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing, it looks like a moving and inspirational story! Those last words he says reminds me of this beautiful quote by Eleanor Roosevelt
    “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”

    Liked by 2 people

  2. absolutely stunning passage. the world has lost a wonderful writer and man.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. How sad that for so many of us, the appreciation for life comes best with the reality of one’s mortality. Always fascinating. 💕

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I was *just* reading about this book over the w/end and put it into the queue, DK. Sounds profoundly moving, but I need to get in a head space where I’m ready to receive the message.

    I”m still ruminating on Hanya Yanigihara’s ‘A Little Life,’ which I recently completed. A read that *totally* engulfed me and a story whose passages are still resonating in my mind. It, too, has made me think deeply about life….

    Liked by 1 person

  5. What a shame to die so young. Good writing!

    Liked by 1 person

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