“When Breath Becomes Air” by Paul Kalanithi is a beautiful, life-affirming book about dying. Paul was a neurosurgery resident who was pursuing the goal of finishing and becoming a professor of neurosurgery. He was so focused on the end of this goal that he nearly let the hours and stress destroy his marriage. And then he was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer.
Suddenly life changed. In the short memoir “When Breath Becomes Air” Paul explores what that change meant and how it would inform his future. Paul takes us from his childhood through the rigors of medical training. He describes eloquently why he decided to become a neurosurgeon and his dedication to being a doctor who cared for the essence of each patient. As the daughter of a dedicated physician, Paul’s passion for healing reflects the passion I have seen in my father as he cared for the bodies and souls of his patients. On page 97, Paul writes “Being with patients in these moments certainly had its emotional cost, but it also had its rewards. I don’t think I ever spent a minute of any day wondering why I did this work, or whether it was worth it. The call to protect life – and not merely life but another’s identity; it is perhaps not too much to say another’s soul – was obvious in its sacredness.”
The cancer diagnosis changed things for Paul. He focused more on his marriage and on being a partner in that marriage. He learned some of the ways that doctors can be immune to “the hells through which we put patients.” (pg. 102). His carefully planned and hard-won future no longer existed. Paul decided to finish his residency, despite the toll it exacted from his body. He wanted to achieve the goal toward which he had worked for so long. He reconnected with his Christian faith and started taking time to attend church. On page 171 he summarized his view of the Christian faith: “mercy trumps justice every time.” He chose not to indulge in self-pity. When people would ask him why cancer, he would respond, “why not?”
Paul and his wife decided to have a child as an affirmation of life, faith and their love for each other. Their daughter was born just eight months before Paul died. The final paragraph in the memoir is written to his daughter and is a blessed statement of love: “Do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more but rests, satisfied.” (pg. 200).
“When Breath Becomes Air” is a poignant memoir of a man who loved to learn. It is the lesson Paul Kalanithi learned about life while he was dying. You will, of course, cry as you read it, but you will also affirm the life you have been given and thank God for the blessing of this little book.