When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

My Rating: 5 of 5 Stars

[Originally appeared here (with edits)]


It has been a few days since I turned the last page of this book. But the numbness reappears the instant I allow the pages to unfold in my memory. The silence which suddenly parts to let these memories seep in and cloud my vision, fills the air. Even as I grapple to make ‘sense’ of what it means to lose a dear, dear one, I, ironically, already know that very‘sense’ to be ephemeral. No part of my being accepts death; they all adjust the lens to view it as a part of life.

Paul was a neurosurgeon by profession, and passion, at Stanford University School of Medicine. Standing at the threshold of seeing his dream come true, one built on a decade and half of relentless academic pursuits and tireless hours at residency, he witnesses a cruel twist of destiny; he is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, just months before his scheduled graduation.

A doctor in mind and a fighter in spirit, he battles this uninvited and lethal intruder with immense mettle and equanimity, gaining much wisdom during the course and eventually, surrendering to its inevitability and in a strange, serene way, to its affability.

Paul Kalanithi’s memoir is a sublime read. It is a reminder of the transience of life yet an even louder reminder of longevity of deeds and memories. That in little manifestations and significant decisions, in careless words and sombre confessions, we continue to live, long after we are gone. He wrote most parts of this book during his last months in debilitating pain and treatment but he couldn’t have sounded more balanced and calm. The impact of this book is not in his sage-like, detached, professional treatment of his grave illness but in its earnestness; earnestness to detect vulnerabilities and find a path through them that eventually stands meaningful. Somewhere around page 161, he talks about the much quoted five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. And along with them, his case, with aberration, wherein the cycle was embraced in reverse order by him. From accepting his fate to slipping into depression at not being able to pursue his career, to adamantly cherry-picking duties at hospital, if only to be closer to his first love to getting angry at his lost mobility and scarred vitality, to finally, plunging into his surgeon duties with a vengeance, agonizingly shoving his deteriorating body aside, Paul exhibits an incredibly hungry mind and dedicated soul.

As a reader, I have, many times, felt the palliative effect of books. During my times of distress, I have seen my sorrows and melancholy unloading on the sturdy and wise shoulders of authors and their verses. Thus, I could fathom the strength Paul drew from Beckett and Eliot, Forster and Nietzsche. And most importantly, from his wife, Lucy. A doctor herself, how crushing it would have been for her to keep a good head and not forsake the glimmer of hope in the light of her professional inferences.

But as Mark Twain says, “The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.”

Paul and Lucy Kalanithi did live, in their lovely daughter, Cady. Born sixteen months post Paul’s diagnosis, she had the physical company of her father for eight months only. But she will continue to know his courage and feel his magic every time she will pick this book up.


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