When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

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I don’t normally cry when I read; I can only think of three books that I’ve shed tears over in all my life. But when I heard about When Breath Becomes Air, and when I finally felt its weight in my hands, I expected tears to flow continuously while I read. I initially planned to read it on a plane on my way to New York for a weekend trip with a friend, but when I held the book and brushed my fingers over the title and Paul’s name, I knew that a plane wouldn’t do it justice. Even before turning the first page I knew that Paul Kalanithi deserved more than a short trip in a pressurized cabin; he deserved a quiet weekend afternoon with a cup of coffee and my oldest, favorite sweatshirt. He deserved my undivided attention, just me and the book and his words.  So I put it aside for another day, until I had the time (and courage) to give it my all.

To my surprise, I never did cry while reading the book. I think I was too focused on trying to take it all in and appreciate the message, I didn’t really allow myself to have an overwhelmingly emotional response. The tears seem more ready to come now as I try to talk about what this story meant to me, as I struggle to find a way to describe Paul and the story he so bravely shared. It’s not until now that I fully realize the irony that I think Paul was such an amazing and beautiful person, but it’s only through his death that I, along with millions of other people, came to know of him. He would have touched and changed and helped so many people had he lived to be the neurosurgeon he had trained to be, but he would have likely had no impact on my own life. It’s only through his death that I have come to know about his wise and beautiful mind, and I wonder if that is part of how we as a people think about the dead and dying. Don’t we always only focus on the good when our loved ones are gone? Will we all be better in death than we can ever hope to be in life?

One of the struggles that Paul talked about a lot was trying to figure out what to do with the rest of his days knowing that he had a limited, yet unknown, amount of time left. This topic intrigued me. Paul’s struggle was that he wanted to accomplish A, B, and C, but if someone could just tell him that he only had a certain amount of time left then he would jump straight to C and not worry about A and B. He just wanted to prioritize what would make him most happy in a given time period, and isn’t that what we all want to do? I mean, as morbid as it sounds wouldn’t it be easier to know when we will die?

Basic time management skills involve assigning an amount of time to certain tasks, and then prioritizing the most important tasks first. In a perfect world we could do that with our own lives; we could schedule everything that we want to do into the number of years we have, and we could die happy knowing that we accomplished all our goals and left no stone unturned. But we don’t live in a perfect world, and we can’t schedule every moment of our lives. And what we might lose in productivity I think we gain in beauty, because I believe the beauty in life lies in the unplanned moments, and the things we don’t expect that take our breath away.

Paul made me aware of my own mortality, and the reality that my life can turn on a dime and end up vastly different than anything I can imagine now. A few of the things I value in my life now seem trivial in the long run, but realistically I don’t know how long of a run I actually have. What if I receive similar news someday, what would I do with my life? How would I find meaning? These are questions that I find difficult to answer, which is frustrating. I have always been an advocate for living your best life and doing what makes you happy, so am I a hypocrite if I think I would change something if I thought I only had one year left?

Paul doesn’t answer these questions. He’s not as trivial or naïve as I am discussing them. He tells his story patiently and wisely, beautifully and bravely. In the forward, Abraham Verghese discusses feeling inadequate after reading Paul’s words, and I understand what he meant. I keep struggling to talk about this book; it’s hard for me to explain exactly what it meant to me. Verghese says in the last paragraph of the forward, “Listen to Paul. In the silences between his words, listen to what you have to say back. Therein lies his message.” I think this is a simple yet profound way of reflecting on Paul’s message. It’s not just about what Paul thinks and says, it’s about what you get out of it. It’s about what you feel and think after reading his story. It’s about how Paul has found a way to impact your life despite his untimely death. It’s about how your life may never be the same after reading his words.

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