Book Review: When Breath Becomes Air

Let me just start this by saying that if you haven’t read Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air, you need to do so. Immediately if at all possible. Julie at Knitted Bliss recommended it back in April, so I put it on my GoodReads list with plans to read it ASAP.

Paul Kalanithi was a neurosurgeon who was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer at the age of 36. He was married, finishing up his residency, planning to start a family soon, and looking out at a seemingly limitless future. And then, boom, cancer reared its ugly head in his life. The book is his response to that.

It is a beautifully honest portrayal of one man’s final months, and it is completely heartbreaking. I knew walking in that he had passed away more than a year ago, but I still found his death heartwrenching. I cried not only for the hole that he left in the world and for the potential that he will never get to live out but also for the lives that he touched, for the people who were immediately impacted by his passing from the world. In John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, one of the characters tells another that it would be a privilege to have his heart broken by her. I can’t find a better way to phrase my emotions at the end of the book. Yes, Dr. Kalanithi died, and it broke a piece of my heart when I reached that part of the book. But that heartbreaking was a privilege because it was a sign that my life had been touched by his.

It has been said by various brilliant thinkers that learning to die well is learning to live well. We don’t know the numbering of our days. What matters is that we live well and then die well. At the end of the book, Lucy Kalanithi says that her husband died with integrity, and the book he wrote as he was dying shows that. He was a man of integrity, a solid and good man. He was brutally honest with the reader about the difficulty of his last months. That honesty is one of the great merits of the book.

Kalanithi also shows a great deal of courage as he dies. He does not seem afraid of the end of his days on earth. From the time of his diagnosis, he went forward knowing that he was facing a hard road but wanting the best for his family. We are all leave this life at this point; despite our best wishes or hopes, we cannot avoid that. We need to live the way that we want to die. This book shows a man who lived and died with honesty and integrity.

For me, the lesson of this book is to live well. Live intentionally. Life may be hard, but the hard bits are worth it. Life is all what you make of it. Make it something good, something beautiful

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