It is hard not to be moved by neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi’s “When Breath Becomes Air” – a memoir detailing his life and his battle against stage IV lung cancer – even harder, I think, not to be prompted to then reflect on our own lives. Especially given that the period between his diagnosis and his death, when he was just 37 years old, only took 22 months, the celerity of both time and sudden developments is emphasised. The quote (which his wife, Lucy Kalanithi, mentions in her epilogue), “You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving”, then brought to mind the speech by American actor Matthew McConaughey about his personal hero, when he won his Oscar award in 2014, and it is in this vein the aspirational essence of the book, in the face of a terminal illness. And death.
The moment of his diagnosis is mentioned right at the beginning, but this moment also divides the two parts of the book: The first documenting his chronicles as a medical student and a neurosurgeon, and the second – on the other side of a medical relationship he appears accustomed to – as a patient. “I had traversed the line from doctor to patient, from actor to acted upon, from subject to direct object”, he wrote, and underlying this narrative, furthermore, is Paul trying to make sense of “the relationship between meaning, life, and death”. Reading the book as a 26-year-old (perhaps too young and too bright-eyed, to fully appreciate the bigger themes of life, experience, and mortality), about to embark on graduate studies and trying to figure, I thought about the unpredictability of life and what I would do if a similar event happened to me, yet more importantly it felt like an anchor I could always come back to, as I mature, or should I hit rough patches in the future.
As a result of Paul’s condition he did not manage to complete the memoir, with a conclusion which ended prematurely, yet it was somewhat fitting for Lucy to instead pen his final days, and also to describe her husband, from her perspective. She filled in the blanks, as it was with his life. In particular, her account of him breaking down – “He cried on the day he was diagnosed. He cried while looking at a drawing we kept on the bathroom mirror … He cried on his last day in the operating room” – further humanised Paul, revealed his strength, and at the same time showed that she was a powerful writer too. Their vulnerabilities, the couple has honestly shared, and whatever the lessons the reader may learnt, these lessons will surely stick around for a long, long time.