It had been a long time since I read an entire book in one sitting, but that is what happened this past week. Having read it through all at once, I already want to reread Paul Kalanathi’s When Breath Becomes Air -it is that compelling. The book is a memoir of a young neurosurgeon who is diagnosed with stage four lung cancer. After many years of facing the possibility of death with his patients, the roles are suddenly reversed as the doctor now becomes the patient, the one who is facing his own mortality.
Apparently, I am not the only one who has been touched by this memoir. The book has been on the New York Times’ bestseller list for the past thirty-nine weeks. Here’s how a few others have described Dr. Kalanithi’s story.
“It split my head open with its beauty.” Cheryl Strayed
“This is one of a handful of books I consider to be a universal donor-I would recommend it to anyone, everyone.” Ann Patchett
“Rattling, heartbreaking, and ultimately beautiful, the too-young Dr. Kalanithi’s memoir is proof that the dying are the ones who have the most to teach us about life.” Atul Gawande
As readers find out on page one Dr. Kalanathi dies after a several year battle with his cancer. The book documents his profound emotional and spiritual journey from the time of his diagnosis to the time of his death. The book is unflinching in its honesty and you will cry tears of sadness and tears of joy as you read it. While the book does not have a “happy ending” it has a profound ending that leaves us all better prepared to think and talk about death. The author’s wife, also a doctor, writes a touching epilogue to the book. I would highly recommend reading this book and discussing it with others as it has the potential to open up honest and vulnerable conversations about death, that part of life each of us will eventually confront at some time in the future. We, and all of the people we know and love, are all going to die someday, and so the investment of time in reading this book and discussing it with others will greatly enhance your ability to face that reality when it comes.
Because I am not able to truly explain the power of or to improve on the words from the author himself, I close with some excerpts from this beautiful book, When Breath Becomes Air. If you decide to read this book, or if you already have, I would love to hear your reaction to. (You can share your reaction by simply replying to this email.)
“There a moment, a cusp, when the sum of gathered experience is worn down by the details of living. We are never so wise as when we live in this moment.”
“The physician’s duty is not to stave off death or return patients to their old lives, but to take into our arms a patient and family whose lives have disintegrated and work until they can stand back up and face, and make sense of, their own existence.”
“Science may provide the most useful way to organize empirical, reproducible data, but its power to do so is predicated on its inability to grasp the most central aspects of human life: hope, fear, love, hate, beauty, envy, honor, weakness striving, suffering, virtue.”
“Those burdens are what make medicine holy and wholly impossible: in taking up another’s cross, one must sometimes get crushed by the weight.”
“Openness to human relationality does not mean revealing grand truths from the apse; it means meeting patients where they are, in the narthex or nave, and bringing them as far as you can.”