When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

This was the last book that I read as I returned from my winter vacation with my family, so perhaps it is fitting that it is the first of the many books that I write about for Book Baristas.  I found this book to be beautifully written and very thoughtful.  Paul Kalanithi was, from a very young age, trying to understand what it meant to be human.  He achieved  many different degrees of  higher learning in the pursuit of what was meant to give his life passion. The title, When Breath Becomes Air,  which is paraphrased from a verse in Caelica, a 17th century poem by Baron Brooke Fulke Greville, “You that seek what life is in death, Now find it air that once was breath”, is a particularly fitting one.  This book, which which gives an intimate look at one man’s highs and lows, has two distinct parts, the first is about a young man becoming a doctor, a husband and the second is about a patient facing the very thing he trained years to defeat-death.

Everyday, as a doctor, Kalanithi faced life and death decisions, as a patient, Kalanithi uses all the the same intensity that propelled him to the top of his field in Neurology, to discover the meaning of his new terminal diagnosis.   As he did in graduate school  he reads, books about death-Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward, anything he can find that might help him orient himself in his newly defined world.  Searching for the words to make sense death. To somehow try and find a new sense of himself, so he could move forward knowing there was a new, revised finite end.  Paul did not finish his book.  Although you wouldn’t know it.  Where Paul’s part ends and his wife Lucy’s epilogue begins seems right. Paul’s last message is to his young daughter and it is a simple one:

When you come to one of the many moments in life when you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more, but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.”

Paul Kalanithi lived right up until March 9, 2015.  Paul gifted us with this uncompromising look at one human’s struggle with mortality.  This book made me stop and think about what was really important to me.  In a time where so many of us are looking down at small screens- considering what gives your life meaning and joy is not such a bad thing.  This book pulsated with life. I feel privileged to have been allowed to know Mr. Kalanithi at least a little, through this book.  One thing’s for sure, when Paul came to the time in his life when he had to ” provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world” his ledger would have  been  full,  for the way in which he tried to live his life, for the things he did big and small and for what he meant to the people he touched.