“When Breath Becomes Air” was and continues to be the type of book that keeps me up at night. Thinking about the relationships in my life, the people that make them up and the small intricacies of their individual stories that shape the versions of themselves that I’ve come to love. It was more than your typical end-of-life, self-actualization chronicle that leaves its reader in a pile of wilted tears.
I found myself discussing the book with anyone who’d listen because it weighed on me both consciously and subconsciously. And initially, I had my own slew of hesitations.
I was worried about the cliché, long-winded forms of expression and revelation that come hand-in-hand with the looming understanding of death: The kind of acceptance that comes only with terminal illnesses. The kind of acceptance that arrives in a tightly-wrapped package when forced to acknowledge the shortage of days left in one’s life.
Paul Kalanithi took this issue as a whole, and transformed it into something relevant for those in their youngest and brightest days. Those unconcerned with both the contemplation of death and the simple and universal qualities it holds. Those who exist in the blissful ignorance of good health and rising actions in the narratives of their own lives. Until one day, there is no more narrative.
Kalanithi takes his readers on a journey that connects his own efforts toward self-actualization through the outlets of higher education and personal passions. Said journey was one that made me want to read Salinger and Orwell and study philosophy and just never graduate because there’s no possible way I could ever learn all there is to learn. He made the connection between learning about the world and the way it operates feel singular, personal and uncharted.
The novel made me question and reexamine the meaning of personal ambition in light of mortality. More plainly, the idea of setting goals with the understanding that there may not be time to achieve them and the possibility that, even with ample time, they could be too far out of reach.
To take the narrative a step further, we as readers are taken on a journey exploring what love means in the face of an adversity so large that it eliminates all hope for future plans filled with family and everlasting companionship. We watch Kalanithi’s marriage unravel in the commonly-charted waters of miscommunication and unwavering personal ambition, only to rekindle in the purest and saddest of forms: the understanding of grief and eventual death.
The heartbreak of accepting the loss of one’s own life takes on an unparalleled form when painted into the devastating picture that became Kalanithi’s life. As two people pursuing a career in medicine, he and his wife had reached the point in their life where all of the grueling hours and suspicious vending machine dinners were beginning to result in tangible financial and emotional benefits. Their careers in medicine, the ones they’d worked so tirelessly toward, were on the horizon.
Kalanithi in particular spent a lifetime throwing himself into his work and trying to understand the connection between medicine and individuality. He strived to treat his patients like people with insecurities and hardships and happiness and family, despite the gruesomeness of their medical conditions in the sterile environment that was the operating room. He grappled with the complexity of trying to detach emotionally from patients, while remaining unwaveringly human in his reactions. It was an everyday battle that could be felt through the thoughtful diction that developed into the story of his life.
In the process of receiving promising job offers for some of the most prominent surgical positions in the country, Kalanithi was forced to acknowledge the deteriorating status of his physical health – and the way in which his health would hinder the career he had been anticipating for most of his adult life.
Little did he know, he had reached the peak of his own narrative arc. The story to follow would be a series of heartbreaking obstacles that would chip away at the surgeon, husband and person he had become until there was nothing left to take.
As I finished the last pages of this personal biography, laden with heartbreak and emotional turbulence, I realized this would be a narrative I’d never forget. It is a story I hope to gain insight and inspiration from for the rest of my life, in the understanding that mortality is the end result of everyone’s character plots. What you choose to do beforehand through your understanding of yourself and the people who you value is your own prerogative.
Gina Lopez can be reached at [email protected]