Title: When Breath Becomes Air
Author: Paul Kalanithi
Paul Kalanithi’s memoir is heartbreaking. I read this in two days and it left me emotionally exhausted. But it was not his writing that was heart-wrenching, it was the epilogue, written by his wife, that had me crying like a baby. She is as equally gifted a writer as was her late husband because she manages to capture in that epilogue all the emotion that the author failed to do in the entire book.
Paul Kalanithi died from cancer. He writes about his diagnosis, ensuing treatment and his impending mortality clinically and without much emotion. It all reads very matter-of-factly, but also wholly philosophical and introspective. Although throughout the course of the book the reader is made aware of the fact that this is a book that foretells a short life, the ending still felt quite abrupt. This abrupt ending makes the book an even sadder read because it was cut short by the writer’s failing health, and subsequent death.
The author’s writing style, perhaps done deliberately, was unemotional and read like a long statement of facts about his life: studious, focused on his career, all in preparation for the life of a neurosurgeon.
He is diagnosed with terminal stage four lung cancer at 36 years and dies a year later. He writes of his early life in a sentimental tone, probably the most sentimental he is throughout the entire book. His book is more a reflection of coming face-to-face with his own mortality, and he is quite unsentimental in this regard.
He studied literature, but then went on to Medicine after becoming more curious about life and mortality. He writes that he had always been introspective and curious about the subject of death and this was probably what drove him to study medicine. Perhaps because he is a medical doctor is the reason he is so matter-of-fact when writing about his transitioning from being a doctor to being a patient; to accepting the fact that he has a terminal illness; to thinking more about his mortality and to ensuring he appreciates every living moment.
Even though I knew that the book was completed fully posthumously, I still expected some kind of miracle cure to be found before his death. His acceptance of his impending death is heroic and admirable. He is philosophical in the face of what would leave many hopeless. This was an enjoyable but sad read.