Paul Kalanithi could have easily become a writer, but felt a stronger calling to become a neurosurgeon instead. After he was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer, he focused his time to draft his beautifully written memoir When Breath Becomes Air.
The son and brother of doctors was at first deterred by the medical profession which he attributed to his father’s absence from many childhood memories; however, the bookworm college student found himself changing his course of study after a books inspired him to learn how the mind works and not just about things that spark critical thinking.
Kalanithi credits his love of literature for pulling him from the brink of despair after his diagnosis: “I needed words to go forward. And so it was literature that brought me back to life.” He admits to being saddened and disappointed that with time facing death on a regular basis became easier—still not easy—to deal with, but once he receive d his own diagnosis of terminal cancer, death was unrecognizable, a new concept.
Abraham Verghese author of Cutting for Stone and other novels wrote the foreword to the unfinished memoir, and Paul’s widow Lucy wrote the epilogue. Both noted how Paul’s decision to tackle his mortality highlighted the type of person he was: brave, determined and loving. He wanted Lucy to remarry after his death and he continued to strive to be an above-average doctor. Even with failing health, he underwent physical therapy to build stamina to perform hours-long surgeries. He was both patient and doctor at the same hospital.
Gifted student, talented surgeon, Kalanithi had a promising career ahead and probably could’ve cherry picked and negotiated any position and salary he wanted. While it was difficult to accept that his “carefully planned and hard won future no longer existed” he continued being a surgeon and focused on starting a family with his wife. He read memoirs of cancer patients and other books dealing with mortality.
Months after his daughter’s birth Paul succumbed to the cancer that had also spread to his brain. His memoir in his own words ends with a message of love to his daughter, letting her know she fulfilled the wish of a dying man.
In the epilogue, Lucy details her husband’s final moments. By his hospital bedside were his parents, baby daughter and his wife. She lists a heartbreaking account of shared beds throughout their relationship and marriage: twelve years before when they were both residents, eight years since they stayed with her family while her grandfather was dying, mere months earlier when she gave birth, and present day as she lay beside him in his hospital bed thinking of their empty bed at home, never to be shared again.
It’s awe-inspiring to know that Kalanithi, aware of his health deteriorating continued to devour reading books, and mustered the energy to pen his memoir during rounds of chemo, down time in his shifts and late nights at home. Penning Breath was his way of coping with his diagnosis, but also a way to flesh out his life’s purpose in the midst of life shattering news.
One has to think that had Kalanithi been diagnosed with a more “exotic” type of cancer and not the more common lung cancer, his resolve to fight as hard and as long would have been the same. “Until I actually die I am still living.” Paul’s memory will continue to live on not only because his loved ones will continue to speak of him for the sake of the daughter who never knew him, but also because after each reader experiences his When Breath Becomes Air, it will be irresistible not to share his story.