All I could think, as I turned the last pages of the Epilogue of When Breath Becomes Air was, “I just read a man’s life.”
Even remembering the book makes my chest tighten and pressure build behind my eyes. It wrapped me up, gently pulling my mind into its depths, teaching me and singing to me in a way both beautiful and endlessly sad. The book is a record of Paul Kalanthi’s life and is his last days, as he spent them mainly recording his mind in words.
Paul’s book is not simply the story of a man with cancer, though; he writes from an incredibly powerful perspective, one with the wisdom of many lifetimes, about the intersections of life, death, and meaning. These themes were at the forefront of his mind from the beginning ~ as a child he was led into the world of literature by his mother, and quickly developed an intense desire to understand mortality and meaning. He used books to understand, finally studying both literature and neuroscience in college.
Paul realized quickly that he had two paths he could follow: that of experiencing externally or of personally understanding. He could either read about mortality or come in the closest contact with it without dying: becoming a neurosurgeon. He chose to enter medical school and learn from there.
Paul’s descriptions of med school, medical ethics and the experience of wishing to be personally invested in patients yet needing to survive constant death were unbelievably well stated and easy to understand, even as someone not involved in medicine (or science, for that matter). He wrote with philosophy and science in the same sentences, explaining that a spiritual and scientific approach weren’t necessarily exclusive. Paul’s pages read as if he were explaining directly to me; I now understand how I personally understand the world, and find meaning, worlds more than I did before opening the book. I do not want to discuss how he defined meaning because I cannot say it in a manner near as effective as Paul, so I shall leave that and let you read his words for yourself… but what he wrote is entirely unlike anything I have read even as a student of philosophy and religion. I underlined probably a fourth of the entire book, simply because his words are worth remembering. As Lucy mentions, this book is a teacher. Through it, Paul shared what he found most valuable and meaningful in life. What more could we ask from anyone.
The book does not end; instead it is left. Lucy writes in the epilogue that Paul never finished the book; instead it ended when he died, which is the most honest way it could have happened.
This book is now one of my most cherished experiences, for it was truly an experience to be allowed and welcomed into the mind of Paul Kalanithi.