When Breath Becomes Air (Paul Kalanithi, 2016)

When I saw the pale blue book with the image of a surgeon’s back as the cover, on one of the shelves in Morawa Bookstore in Vienna, during my visit last weekend, I didn’t pay it special attention. Even after I briefly read the title and the synopsis at the back cover, it didn’t impress me much as to make me browse its pages. “Just another book on life’s realizations,” I thought to myself.

But as I was looking at the array of books, picking one after another (biography, life hacks, management techniques, murder stories, fantasy books, children’s books, etc.) and reading a few pages now and then, my friend Tricia, who’s an avid bookworm herself, told me praises about the book and said her mom read it twice. I took another look, browsed the pages, and decided to have a copy to read and to gift my high school buddy, a doctor who will be wed in June this year.

I read the first few pages of “When Breath Becomes Air” that same afternoon and resumed reading during my flight back to Paris, after the plane took off and after struggling high up in the air to shake off my sadness from leaving my friends behind.

I was hooked. I only stopped a few times to look outside the window at the view of the lovely clouds, to eat snacks, and to keep from hurting my eyes when the cabin lights were dimmed. The book is well-written and poignantly beautiful.

I read the last few pages the next morning and I couldn’t stop myself from crying. I thought of Paul, that beautiful soul who penned the book in the last few years of his life before his body succumbed to cancer. I could imagine Lucy, who wrote the book’s Epilogue, and how her deep love for Paul shone throughout the book. As I put the book close to my chest after reading it, I silently thanked the author for sharing such beautiful words that inspire readers to reflect on life, career, faith, family, and love.

When Breath Becomes Air is something to be personally experienced; thus, I am not going to narrate the story as if it’s just a chronological arrangement of events. But just to give a background, Paul Kalanithi was a topnotch neurosurgeon in his 30s. His research on neural modulation received the highest award given by the American Academy of Neurological Surgery. The love of his life, Lucy, and he were classmates in medical school. They both have loving families. The book is a seamless storytelling of Kalanithi’s life events, the ups and downs of his career, the discovery of his illness, his struggle then acceptance of his failing health, his great love for Lucy and his daughter, all of these interwoven with his musings on life and death, faith in God, and love for his family and friends.

One of the paragraphs that show the undeniable beauty of this book, found on page 198 reads:

Everyone succumbs to finitude. I suspect I am not the only one who reaches this pluperfect state. Most ambitions are either achieved or abandoned; either way, they belong to the past. The future, instead of the ladder toward the goals of life, flattens out into a perpetual present. Money, status, all the vanities the preacher of Ecclesiastes described hold so little interest: a chasing after wind indeed.

Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air

It is true that life is ephemeral. That should make us value every moment. There are times when we take something or someone dear to us for granted, but the book reminds us that, no, this is not how it should be. The book talks of the importance of having a loving family and a supportive network of friends. It hints that the society views death as a subject that must be avoided, and the author says no, death is not something to be feared.

Because of life’s fast pace, many live each day working and hustling, with little thought on what gives life meaning, how miraculous each sunrise and sunset is, how wonderful each loved one and each friend is, and how amazing is this body we are given and that we should take care of it as we would a fragile, beautifully and intricately decorated, porcelain vase. The book reminds us to do this.

Lastly, reading the book leads to an appreciation of those men and women in the medical field, their long hours of exhausting work, dedication to the job, daily effort to keep people healthy or at least prolong their lives, constant battle against disease and death, and pressure to heal while lacking the support to be healed oftentimes.

Thank you, Paul Kalanithi for sharing your life and your story. Hugs to this wonderful man’s loved ones and friends. Hugs to cancer survivors and to the family and friends of those whose bodies were weakened by the plagues of mortality. Hugs to Jen, my dear friend who’s a dedicated doctor.

My salute to all in the medical profession, not only the celebrated ones, but those in different hospitals and clinics and centers tirelessly working day by day to put a smile back on a patient who previously suffered excruciating pain, to bring a child into this world, and to allow family members and friends to have more precious time with their loved ones.

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