February Reads

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

Recommended by Mehfil

When Breath Becomes Air

In so many ways this book was well timed. It was deeply upsetting, and yet also deeply moving, and the author explored important issues: what makes life worth living in the face of death? When the future disappears to a truncated present, how do you move forward?

Kalanithi was a neurosurgeon resident in his mid-30's, poised for great things. He was formidably intelligent and academically a polymath. He had expected his life to be that of a writer, but when he became fascinated by the brain, he made the decision to become a doctor. He was married to a woman, another doctor, whom he loved deeply, although the marriage was in trouble as he neared the end of his residency. And then health matters manifested, which were sadly sidelined for too long. When he could no longer ignore the painful symptoms, he was a very sick man, indeed.

"Lost in a featureless wasteland of my own mortality, and finding no traction in the realms of scientific studies, intracellular molecular pathways, and endless curves of survival statistics, I began reading literature again... searching for a vocabulary with which to make sense of death, to find a way to begin defining myself and inching forward again .... The privilege of direct experience had led me away from literary and academic work, yet now I felt that to understand my own direct experiences, I would have to translate them back into language."

Despite his illness, inspiringly he was determined to try to continue to embrace life, and to continue to try and explore the meaning in / of life when death is approaching. He and his wife, Lucy, fixed their marital issues. He somehow returned to work, and did exceptional work. He was determined to write this beautiful memoir, which included an exploration of the challenges, successes and failures of being a doctor, and did so to honour his lifelong love for literature and language. Lucy became pregnant, and he gained such joy from the birth of their daughter, Cady. His part of the memoir finishes with this paragraph, a prayer for his child:

"When you come to one of the many moments in life where you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man's days with sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more, but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing."

This was a powerful and profound book. I'm immensely grateful that Mehfil recommended it to me. Thank you.

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