Thursday, November 10, 2016

Paul Kalanithi: When Breath Becomes Air

Some books are a harder sell, particularly when the subject matter seems so dark and cheerless. I know that I lean toward fiction already, so when someone recommends a work of nonfiction written by a doctor diagnosed with cancer, the recommendation has to come from some powerful directions. Fortunately, the reading friends who suggested Paul Kalanithi's memoir When Breath Becomes Air had an excellent track record.

Kalanithi opens the book with his suspicions and diagnoses of lung cancer, already metastasized, during his final year of residency, where he trained as a brain surgeon. He confesses that his marriage was already under a strain because of the hours devoted to his training.

Then he takes readers back into his early developmental years that made him the man he became. The son of a doctor, he didn't plan to go into medicine. Once he entered college--a prestigious Ivy League school--he double majored, adding a literature degree to his pre-med studies. Kalanithi's love of language won me over quickly, particularly his awareness of how language defines who we are. This sensitivity he brought into his medical career, remaining acutely aware of the choices his patients faced, the choice he had to treat patients and their families impersonally or to communicate in the most humane fashion.

Through his ordeal, he shared the reality when the doctor becomes the patient. His doctors presented him with his options, giving him their support to finish his education and to consider a future. He and his wife also opted to have a child--a daughter--even knowing how little time he would be able to spend with her. Ultimately, his realistic appraisal of the amount of time remaining led him to write this book, even when he required special gloves to protect his skin as he typed on his laptop.

In many ways, the book is incomplete--at least in the way any story is, when the narrator's exit comes before The End; however, his wife Lucy, also a physician, provides an afterword that pays a beautiful tribute to her husband and the grace with which he lived out his final days.

Through his humanity, his faith, his practicality, Paul Kalanithi faces his own death with grace and acceptance, leaving behind an example for how to live and how to die.

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