Rating: 4.5 |★★★★☆
Release Date: January 12, 2016
Series or Standalone: Standalone
Genre: Non-Fiction, Medical, Religion, Memoir,
Page Count: 228 pages
TW: cancer, death, & other slightly disturbing medical situations
Dates Read: May 3rd – June 1st, 2018
At the age of thirty-six, on the verge of completing a decade’s worth of training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. One day he was a doctor treating the dying, and the next he was a patient struggling to live. And just like that, the future he and his wife had imagined evaporated. When Breath Becomes Air chronicles Kalanithi’s transformation from a naïve medical student “possessed,” as he wrote, “by the question of what, given that all organisms die, makes a virtuous and meaningful life” into a neurosurgeon at Stanford working in the brain, the most critical place for human identity, and finally into a patient and new father confronting his own mortality.
What makes life worth living in the face of death? What do you do when the future, no longer a ladder toward your goals in life, flattens out into a perpetual present? What does it mean to have a child, to nurture a new life as another fades away? These are some of the questions Kalanithi wrestles with in this profoundly moving, exquisitely observed memoir. (GR)
“Life wasn’t about avoiding suffering.”
I knew this book was gonna break me. Books that deal with cancer usually do. Cancer and I have a complicated history together, first, when I was five years old, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, and then later in 2016, I lost my aunt to stage four cancer. I have a lot of anxiety around sickness, which I have traced back to when my mother had cancer. I was five years old, and I didn’t know what cancer was, I knew it was bad, and that people died from it. I also just assumed that it was like a cold or the flu and that it could be caught. For a time I thought I could catch something, or worse give something to others, that was deadly. That is absolutely terrifying thought, especially for someone so young. I was really terrified that I was going to lose my mother, and nothing sounded worse to me at the time. Fortunately, my mother’s cancer was a treatable kind and she caught it very early and has been cancer free for about 12 years now, and I know am very aware of the fact that cancer is not something that one catches, it still affects me deeply and emotionally. Losing my aunt was really hard. By that time, I knew a lot more about cancer, and she was the first person I really knew who died, and it was devastating, to say the least. I pretty much can’t think about her, without tearing up a little bit. She meant so much to me, and it hurt so badly that she had to die so soon. Her diagnosis and fight brought up a lot of fear and anxiety around cancer for me, some of it very old, and some new, but it made me realize something — just how much I fucking hate cancer.
“I began to realize that coming in such close contact with my own mortality had changed both nothing and everything. 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. But now I knew it acutely. The problem wasn’t really a scientific one. The fact of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live.”
This was an incredibly powerful story in many respects. It made me cry, laugh, want to scream, and break things. When Breathe Becomes Air’s greatest power lies in the simple fact of Kalanithi’s talent as a writer. The way he constructs sentences enchanted me, and I was almost instantly brought into the story of his life. And I really don’t have words to describe how I feel about it completely.
“Human knowledge is never contained in one person. It grows from the relationships we create between each other and the world, and still, it is never complete.”
I am in awe of Paul Kalanithi. As a writer, doctor, patient, fighter, father, husband, and human. Death is never an easy subject to approach, especially one’s own, and yet Paul Kalanithi manages to discuss just that.
“Until I actually die, I am still living.”
I cannot even begin to imagine the decision that Paul had to make. It must be so frustrating to have put so much effort and time, time that could have been spent with Lucy or his parents, into becoming a doctor, only to see all of that go down the drain with the diagnosis. I get frustrated when WordPress doesn’t save my work all the way, I don’t think I could have handled this situation with any such grace. Not that I could ever be a doctor, my hypochondria would not permit any such profession, but still.
I loved reading about Paul’s past. Especially his high school and early college years. Like how he kind of decide to be a doctor because his girlfriend (at the time) dared him to read a book about something death, and he really liked it.
“Go in peace brother.”
I appreciate how the book is more than just about his illness, which is how it should be because no one is simply their illness however much precedence it might take over their life. The book has a nice balance. It talked about his life growing up, his college experience, his time in medical school, his marriage with Lucy. It all balanced out quite nicely without losing its focus.
“Can you breathe okay with my head on your chest like this? His answer was “It’s the only way I know how to breathe.”
I was almost screaming in the beginning when Paul and Lucy were experiencing some pretty major marital tensions right around the time of diagnosis. It was also frustrating to see him inwardly denying his symptoms, even though he knew better. He had a feeling he might have cancer, and he didn’t want to get it checked out. That part just hurt my heart so much.
“Thank you for loving me.”
At this point, I couldn’t tell if I was crying or if I was just sweating but in my eyes, because like it was hot. Probably just sweating in my eyes.
I’m not gonna lie when I first heard the title of this book I thought this was literally just a book about the scientific moment of when breath becomes air, and to me that sounded pretty darn boring, but then I actually read the synopsis and I knew that someday I would have to read this book.
I’d also like to point out that there were a few scenes that I skimmed due to the vivid description of some medical situations that disturbed my hypochondriac self. If you are sensitive to stuff like that just be aware that this book has those types of scenes. Most of them are okay. Despite my reserves, I think that this is one of those books that despite its possibility to trigger me, it was worth it in the end. On Goodreads a few months back, for International Women’s Day, I believe, their blog featured a number of high powered females recommending books they think everyone should read. And every single one of those lists contained this book.
“The good news is that I have outlived two Brontes, Keats and Stephen Crane, The bad news is that I haven’t written anything.”
My favorite part of the entire book was probably this part:
“Thinking it was wise to avoid becoming a registered sex offender, I’d pack a tent, some books, and granola and head up to Tahoe until it was safe to return.”
I actually choked on air when I read that quote. I honestly was not expecting to read about the author trying to avoid becoming a sex offender in a book about death and stuff. But this book does have it’s funny moments which are amazingly refreshing.
Though this moment was definitely my close second favorite moment:
Senior year, my close friend Leo, our salutatorian and the poorest kid I knew, was advised by the school guidance counselor, “You’re smart—you should join the army.”
He told me about it afterward. “Fuck that,” he said. “If you’re going to Harvard, or Yale, or Stanford, then I am, too.”
I don’t know if I was happier when I got into Stanford or when Leo got into Yale.
“Paul after you die, your family will fall apart, but they’ll pull together because of the example of bravery you set.”
Also, just the fact that Paul and Lucy chose to have a baby after they knew that his cancer was terminal was such a bittersweet moment. Cancer is unpredictable, but I think in the end it seemed as if Paul was glad about his decision. He got 8 months with Cady, and 8 months is more than nothing.
“Looking out over the expanse ahead, I saw not an empty wasteland but something simpler: a blank page which I would go on.”
Elizabeth Acadia Cady Kalanithi, you are a very lucky young girl indeed to call Paul Kalanithi your father, however little you will remember about him.
“That message is simple: When you come to one of the many moments in life when you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, 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. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.”
The epilogue. Holy crap, that epilogue was powerful. I teared up like three times on the freaking school bus. It was not fun to have to go to class after reading something of that nature. I just wanted to go cry in a corner.
“This might be how it ends.”
“I am here with you.”
It was so sweet of Lucy and Paul’s parents to promise to publish his story after he died. As a last wish, that is really sweet, and I am so glad they went through with their promise. Because I firmly believe that everyone should give this book a read.
“Books became my closest confidantes, finely ground lenses providing new views of the world.”
Overall, this was a beautiful book with a simple but important message, and to me, that message is about living. Our own mortality is never easy to face, but if Paul can do it gracefully then I believe so can we. Thank you for this Paul.
“I was his wife, and his witness.”
P.S if you wish to cry more read this article here!
Petyr Baeish Books © 2018 by Tova Portmann-Bown