Life, death, and the meaning of it all

“When Breath Becomes Air” by Paul Kalanithi

Paul Kalanithi began to read books at a very young age, and he has always wanted to someday write his own book. In fact that was what led him to study English literature for his BA and MA in Stanford. But life had a different plan for him, as after two more impressive degrees he found himself in Yale Medical School, dealing directly face to face with life and death in his 7 years of residency.

This book is the culmination of his 2 loves, literature and medicine, where he eventually gets to write a beautifully written memoir about his experience as a top notch neurosurgeon who abruptly turned into a patient himself after he was diagnosed with a stage IV metastatic lung cancer.

Indeed, this book has a sad ending, as it is published posthumously a year after he passed away. But this isn’t a spoiler because the main point of the book is not about the ending (we’re all going to die eventually), but it’s about the journey, about hopes and dreams as a medical student, all the sleepless on-calls, the emergency room drama, the extraordinary hard work to become a neurosurgeon, the life-changing split-second decision makings in the operation room, and finally about dealing with illness and mortality along with his deteriorating health condition, the 5 stages of grief, the in and out of therapy, and the emotional toll on the family and close friends.

And somewhere between his face-to-face encounter with death as a doctor and patient lies a space and time where Kalanithi ponders about the meaning of life, and he learned them one lesson at a time in the hospital, where births meet deaths meet every disaster, hope, loss, recovery, and the mess in between, and the zen clarity of a wisdom that can only be obtained by someone who is dying but have accepted their fate.

All of these are written in a first-person vantage point that brings us the reader into his shoes, as if we’re the ones who are living it. And it was all so very moving and inspiring. The last chapter in particular almost reduced me to tears. Incredible, incredible book.