Paul Kalanithi lived a charmed life. Until he didn’t. A neurosurgeon in his last year of residency, Dr. Kalanithi begins his memoir, When Breath becomes Air in what will be his last chapter—when he is diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer.
Dr. Kalanithi has spent his professional career poring over scans and test results, determining treatment options, and shepherding his patients through the rigors of brain surgery. The news of stage 4 lung cancer changes everything—and we walk with him as he shifts from the doctor wearing a white coat to the patient in the hospital bed.
Perhaps we learn the most about living from those who are dying, because they shed themselves of the non-essential. They remind us of what is most precious and worthiest of our time. Kalanithi grapples with questions we neatly avoid in our daily lives of living, working, and raising our children. What is the purpose of life when we all will die? How do we find meaning? How do we go on, knowing we too will someday die?
Listening to his voice, his questions, we marvel at Kalanithi’s presence, his growing awareness that his cancer has “changed nothing and everything.” He will die; this has not changed. He will die young; this changes everything. He tells us “seven words from Samuel Beckett began to repeat in my head: ‘I can’t go on. I’ll go on.’”
When Breath Becomes Air is a gripping, eloquent memoir. We would like to hold life’s essential questions at bay, but we know these pressing questions are for Kalanithi and for us. Kalanithi leaves a rich legacy—a wife, a child, and a beautifully written memoir encouraging us to follow his path: to live fully until we die.
Photo credit: Fred Baumer