When Breath Becomes Air

Originally published April 2016

Having just started a 500-plus page thriller, I knew it was going to be a while before I finished—and feeling the need to conquer at least one thing this weekend, I picked up my friend’s copy of Dr. Paul Kalanithi’s “When Breath Becomes Air” knowing I could most likely finish it in several hours.

So, I did. What I wasn’t anticipating was the after-effects—a quick read, for sure, but a story that will stay on the brain for some time after.

When Breath Becomes Air” is Kalanithi’s memoir of sorts, a written account of his journey from being a doctor to becoming a patient, particularly significant in that from the time he was just a young boy growing up in rural Arizona, Kalanithi had an undeniable thirst for understanding the meaning of life, and death, and for how the physical and metaphysical co-existed.

It’s in his last serious stretch of his neurosurgery residency, with the goal posts in sight, that Kalanithi discovers he has lung cancer. And while the lung cancer takes him in the end, in some respects, it is the lens with which he is better able to focus on his marriage and his goals, which include finishing his residency and becoming a father. And, in many ways, to continue to unravel the mystery that is the difference between being a living, breathing human being and one that really is living.

I don’t think that it would be fair to say any book, even this one, changes one’s perspective on life—to be able to say, “Well, now I know dying will make me sad so I am going to live my life to the fullest.” Because of course you’ll feel that way when you read any sad story. Even if we are so very close to it—when the unimaginable happens and we lose someone close to us—it’s natural to make that proclamation and feel it in our very bones. But it’s perspective, right? We are still not the ones who died or are dying, so how much can we really relate? Understand? Embrace? Eventually, the “life is too short” mantra loses out to yelling at the driver in front of you going 10 below the speed limit or the winter-like artic blast in April or the grocery store for being out of your favorite flavor of ice cream. Or beer. Because, life.

But books like this do make you think. Maybe you don’t quit your job and start knocking off items on your bucket list. But, you might start a bucket list. And maybe you still don’t reach out to everyone you’ve ever loved to tell them what they mean to you. But perhaps your perspective changes and as a result, so does your message. It was with Kalanithi’s own last words in this book, a message to his baby daughter, where I began to cry and take from the book what was meant for me—a reminder to my own kids, that when they are asked what they made of their lives, to remember what an important role they have played in my joy, by simply being. I love them, and their father, my husband, beyond measure. And it’s my hope that should we ever face something as awful as a terminal illness, we’ll find the same grace that’s between these pages.

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