When Breath Becomes Air

“even if I’m dying, until I actually die, I am still living.”

~ Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air

I admit I was hesitant to read When Breath Becomes Air at first. I am not a big fan of memoirs — I generally do not read them unless they are book club picks. Even so, something drew me to Dr Paul Kalanithi’s story.

This personal narrative was thought-provoking, sweet, serious, and sad all at the same time. Kalanithi, an up and coming neurosurgeon, was diagnosed with terminal cancer at age 36. He wrote When Breath Becomes Air, as his attempt to answer the age-old question — what makes a life worth living?

The heartrending chronicle of his journey towards death is full of insights that made me think a lot about life, relationships, illness, work, love — and death.

I particularly appreciated the recollection of his transition from physician to patient — how his unique familiarity with doctor/patient relationships and medical protocols helped him to understand more fully the actions and reactions of his previous patients to life-changing diagnoses.

While he wrote extensively (not surprising) about the medical or clinical aspect of his illness, I found his writing style easy to read and follow. I had no problem understanding the language and context of the story. I found his ideas, feelings, and thoughts to be profoundly moving.

His calm acceptance of a devastating situation inspired me. I felt this was an honest chronicle of his journey through the throes of a devastating illness on a relentless path towards death.

We are all facing the Reaper — maybe not from an incurable illness — nevertheless, death is inevitable. As I grow older, the idea of dying is a sobering thought, and this memoir struck a resounding emotional chord in me. From the compassionate foreword by Abraham Verghese to the poignant epilogue written by the author’s wife, Lucy, this book had me asking myself — what is most important to my life?

I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys life stories. Anyone curious about reflections on life and death, or anyone intrigued by the profound journeys in the quest of what it means to live life in the face of imminent death would enjoy this memoir.

What do you find important? How do we keep on living life when faced with certain death? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

More about Paul Kalanithi:

Visit the website.
Read his essay in Stanford Medicine Life Time magazine.
Watch as Lucy Kalanithi, shares her late husband’s story in this Ted Talk.