Yes, this is primarily a blog about fiction, but every now and then I gravitate toward memoir. This one is short, sweet, and too lovely not to share.
I knew this would be a tough read. As a neurosurgery resident, Paul Kalanithi was looking forward to graduating when he learned he had lung cancer. It’s not a spoiler alert to tell you he died from the disease.
What is astounding — miraculous, in my opinion — was his ability to write this book while in the process of dying. When Breath Becomes Air is a short book that is padded somewhat with a foreword by Abraham Verghese and an Epilogue by Kalanithi’s widow, Lucy. It seems to stop, largely because life stopped…this is not a flaw, but an achingly poignant end to a valiant effort.
Kalanithi writes about his path to becoming a doctor, something he never thought he would do, and shares honest stories of the joys and challenges of the difficult specialty of neurosurgery. As he navigates his way through diagnosis and treatment without any real knowledge of the time he has left, he examines his life closely to make the choices he feels are best for the remainder of his days, months, or years.
Born with a philosopher’s heart and soul, Kalanithi finds a way to live fully, and this book is a powerful affirmation of how we can live when we understand the finite nature of life.
When Breath Becomes Air is a meaningful book for anyone who may have to face difficult choices. It’s also a wonderful book for anyone in the medical profession who may feel tempted to lose sight of the humanity of their patients. Kalanithi, who continued to operate during part of his illness, finds himself learning how different life looks from the patient’s point of view.
Though this is a sad book, it is really a book about the fullness of life and about what we give to every moment. Kalanithi’s book is a brilliant legacy for a brilliant man who is gone too soon.
NOTE: I wrote this review before the sad and untimely death of author Brian Doyle. Doyle spoke frequently at the Chuckanut Writers Conference, and I had the great fortune to sit in the audience as he enthralled us, coaxed us, made us laugh, and shared his heart. He was another man who lived with fullness and generosity. He will be greatly missed.
Nadine Galinsky Feldman is the author of What She Knew and The Foreign Language of Friends, as well as the nonfiction When a Grandchild Dies: What to Do, What to Say, How to Cope.