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Meditations on life and death

Meditations on life and death

Paul Kalanithi was just months away from qualifying as a neurosurgeon and completing his postdoctoral fellowship at Stanford University when he was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer at the age of 36. Suddenly, the doctor becomes the patient. And his plans to start a family with his wife, Lucy, now seems like a distant dream, one that would perhaps never come true.

Kalanithi chooses to pen a book because, as he writes in an email to his best friend, he has outlived two Brontës, Keats and Stephen Crane, but, unlike them, he doesn’t have anything to show for it. Writing When Breath Becomes Air is a) his way of coming to terms with his death and, more importantly, b), as his wife said in an interview after the book’s publication, his way of communicating with his daughter Cady after his death.

However, when Kalanithi died on March 2015, the book wasn’t complete. His wife Lucy wrote an epilogue for it and the book was published 10 months later. In the book Kalanithi ponders on what makes life worth living when one is facing death. Apart from meditations on life and death, Kalanithi also gives us a glimpse into the life of someone who strives to always maintain a positive outlook.

For Kalanithi, life was never about avoiding suffering. So when his wife asks him, “Don’t you think saying goodbye to your child will make your death more painful?” when they decide to have a child, his reply is, “Wouldn’t it be great if it did?’”

‘When Breath Becomes Air’ is perhaps the most soul stirring book I’ve read. Lucy writes in the epilogue that his memoir can teach us to face life and death with integrity. And indeed When Breath Becomes Air serves as a reminder to value life and not think of death as a tragedy. Kalanithi’s message is simple: We are all confronting mortality on a daily basis, whether we know it or not, and the beauty of life lies in the fact that it’s so uncertain.

“Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when.” The important thing, he says, is not how long we live but how we live.

But be warned, this isn’t a book you can read in a single sitting or even over the course of a few weeks for that matter. There were times when I couldn’t read another page. But I also wanted to be comforted by Kalanithi’s words and to find out how Lucy and his daughter were doing. It’s compulsive but you have to put it aside and take time to process what you have read after every few pages.

When Breath Becomes Air
Paul Kalanithi
Publisher: Vintage
Published: 2016
Language: English
Pages: 228, Hardcover