When Breath Becomes Air

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This book might break your heart as much as it rebounds it together.

I can’t decide if it’s sadly ironic or beautifully comforting that it would be the dying who are oftentimes the ones to truly understand living. What I am certain about though, is how fortunate we are to have the mind and heart of a philosopher, neurosurgeon, scientist, husband, brother, son, and most poignantly, a father, so eloquently compose his memoir where all these facets of himself lend to help him offer answers to the question we’ve all pondered, “What is the meaning of life?”

I understood well before getting into Paul Kalanithi’s memoir that it would be a difficult read, yet I also understood that all parts making it so were the very things making it necessary.

From its mere premise, I couldn’t help but draw parallels between Paul’s experience and the experiences of my family’s when my mother had been diagnosed with and soon passed away from stage IV cancer. Both of my parents were immigrants, both physicians, neither had truly grasped the life of a patient until my mom had become terminally ill.

Upon her diagnosis, I watched my dad quickly slip from doctor to husband. There was never a moment when he took up the form of a husband-who-also-happened-to-be-a-doctor or vice-versa. In the months leading up to her final moment, he did what everybody grappling with their loved one’s demise does- everything he could. Each day, I sensed him making desperate pleas with god, with death, and all the oncologists he knew or could find for the kind of hope I knew his doctor self would have found completely futile.

And yet, there were a few who had taken on the role of my mom’s physician or consultant that didn’t seem to get it. Either her condition didn’t hit home close enough or through their years, they had already groomed themselves to not let it out of necessity to perform “their job.” Years later, I still recall some of their tactless wording with souring bitterness and resentment.

So when I picked up this book, I knew it would include a message that would shed light for other physicians (and people in general) as a reminder of the importance to be more connected and more human with each other.

I sought this message more so than I did an answer to the meaning of life. And I’m comforted to see that it’s clearly in there. That some words will be hung onto and that the “we’re in this together” approach can indeed be medicinal because in the end, those conversations will be woven into the memories that last.