Paul Kalanithi was a neurosurgeon who understood disease. When he saw images from a CT scan, the diagnosis was immediate: cancer. This time, though, it was different. The images were his own.
His next steps became clear: refinance the mortgage; tell his wife she should remarry; prepare to die. Kalanithi continued his work as a neurosurgeon, but also began to write a memoir. It became the New York Times bestseller When Breath Becomes Air.
Kalanithi’s story is compelling, but not everyone can turn a compelling story into a great book. But Kalanithi loved writing and, and it shows. His memoir is beautifully written. It’s worth reading for a few reasons.
First: it’s moving. I’ve rarely imagined the life of a medical student, resident, or neurosurgeon before, but now I understand it a bit better. What would it be like to perform complicated procedures with little sleep, to make rapid decisions that could lead to life or death, or to break bad news to someone who is going to die? As Kalanithi’s illness progresses, he teaches us what it’s like to be a doctor who becomes a patient, to spend your last day as a surgeon, and then, eventually, to die. One can’t read a book like this without feeling moved.
Second, it covers a theme we’d like to avoid but that we need to address. His cancer “changed both nothing and everything,” he writes.
Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. But now I knew it acutely. The problem wasn’t really a scientific one. The fact of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live.
We rarely confront the reality of death until it becomes inescapable. We do well to reflect on that fact that we will die, and that our time here is short. Kalanithi helps us to number our days.
Finally, Kalanithi points to the hope we have in Jesus. He was raised as a Christian, but turned away from his faith in his teens and twenties. He returned to his faith later in his life. He writes, gently, of his realization that “you can never be good enough: goodness is the thing, and you can never live up to it.” He then points to the hope he found in Jesus: “mercy trumps justice every time.” It’s not a preachy book, but he wrestles honestly with faith in the face of death.
Books that are true and beautiful shape and move us. When Breath Becomes Air is not only well written, but it reminds us of the brevity of our lives, and confronts us with both the ugliness of death and yet the beauty of love and hope. I’m glad I read it.
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