I began following the story of Paul Kalanithi a couple of years ago when he wrote an opinion piece about being diagnosed with terminal lung cancer at the age of 35. He had nearly finished his neurosurgery residency at Stanford when he was diagnosed. He knew that his life would be cut short but he didn’t know how short. He might live six months or six years. Sadly, his life was on the shorter side of estimates.
Kalanithi’s book, “When Breath Becomes Air,” was published posthumously. I had thought about asking for it as a birthday gift from Greg, but that seemed too macabre, so I chose a novel instead. When I was browsing for something new to read last week, Greg told me that he had Kalanithi’s book sitting in his nightstand drawer. I was enraged. Why the hiding? I was also thrilled.
I read it in a day. That’s a testament both to the book and to my love of grief literature. Five years ago, I would have run from a book like this — too sad — and now I devour it. In vastly different circumstances, grief looks so much the same.
Kalanithi writes lucidly about his life and impending death. He talks about his decision to become a surgeon instead of a writer, and he laments a life spent training for a career he will never fulfill. He searches for ways to carry on a meaningful life in the face of death. Whether we have one year left or 50, that is the crux of everything, isn’t it? It was difficult to reach the end, both because I wanted more and because the end was very literally the end. We will not hear from this brilliant man again.
As wonderful as this book is, reading it can be ego-deflating for a writer. Kalanithi is a brain surgeon who dabbles in writing. I am a far less capable writer who does not dabble in brain surgery. Nonetheless, I felt empowered. This is a book about finding a purpose and pursuing it diligently. In our world of split-second attention spans, we need to spend more time with books like this.