“Death comes for all of us. For us, for our patients: it is our fate as living, breathing, metabolizing organisms.” — Paul Kalanithi
When Breath Becomes Air is an extraordinary reflection on the challenge of facing death, and on the connection between doctors and patients, written by a brilliant man who was fortunate and unfortunate to become both.
The story of Paul Kalanithi is that of raw honesty and emotion. At thirty-six, Kalanithi was at the cusp of greatness, on the verge of completing a decade-long training as a neurosurgeon; to work in the most important place of human identity: the brain.
The future he envisioned with his wife, which was a ladder toward their goals, flattened out into a perpetual present when he was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. One day he was a doctor treating the dying; the next day he was a patient struggling to live.
“What makes life meaningful enough to go on living?”
Despite facing his mortality, Kalanithi’s reflections on life, death, and the value of human existence demonstrates a deep intellectual curiosity. His willingness to grapple with difficult ideas allowed him to confront his mortality with grace and dignity, even as it threatened to consume him.
The book also explores the impact of parenthood on the human experience. “What does it mean to have a child, to nurture a new life as another fades away?” Kalanithi’s reflections on nurturing a new life while facing his death highlight the fragility and beauty of the human condition.
This has to be one of the best memoirs I’ve read, which left me physically shaken and numb. It reminds us that life is precious and that we should cherish every moment and find meaning in even the darkest moments.
When Breath Becomes Air “is a little bit about dying, but more about being alive”. How can a story be so sad yet so beautiful?
© Victor Eze