My year-long hiatus from reading male writers may have impeded my uptake of Paul Kalanithi’s book, which came out in January 2016, but it did nothing to diminish my respect or admiration for it. Paul Kalanithi, a young and seemingly brilliant neurosurgeon, wrote about medicine and mortality in the most intimate and profound ways. Part memoir part philosophical rumination, “When Breath Becomes Air” discusses Kalanithi’s lifelong fascination with mortality – as a seeker, as a medical professional and, in the end, as a terminal patient.
“I had started in this career, in part, to pursue death: to grasp it, uncloak it, and see it eye-to-eye, unblinking. Neurosurgery attracted me as much for its intertwining of brain and consciousness as for its intertwining of life and death.”
Kalanithi walks the reader through his thoughts about medicine and mortality first from the point of view of an up-and-coming surgeon with life stretching before him, and then as a man suddenly faced with little hope for any future.
“I received the plastic arm bracelet all patients wear, put on the familiar light blue hospital gown, walked past the nurses I knew by name, and was checked in to a room – the same room where I had seen hundreds of patients over the years. In this room, I had sat with patients and explained terminal diagnoses and complex operations; in this room, I had congratulated patients on being cured of a disease and seen their happiness at being returned to their lives; in this room, I had pronounced patients dead. I had sat in the chairs, washed my hands in the sink, scrawled instructions on the marker board, changed the calendar. I had even, in moments of utter exhaustion, longed to lie down in this bed and sleep. Now I lay there, wide awake.”
Kalanithi was a born writer. His careful, quietly firm thoughts are beautifully presented on the page. His lifelong love of literature is evident at every turn; he has clearly absorbed stories and storytelling so that his words flow effortlessly. This book was written in the most trying of times, under the most unimaginable circumstances. Kalanithi began writing as his own death was drawing rapidly close, a young father struggling for breath and conscious of legacy. Despite the daunting emotional and physical strain, Kalanithi was able to temper his voice and to make his thoughts clear, his words enchanting. We as readers are so lucky to have gotten a glimpse of his gift.