Book Reviews

[Review] When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

Review When Breath Becomes Air

When I read ‘The Lost Symbol’ by Dan Brown, the only thing I remember is that the Illuminati’s members have to pray with a skull next to them. This type of meditation is a chance for them to visualize their death and realize the meaning of life. Though that novel sucks, it elicits a question on my mind: Is that the understanding of death and being unafraid of it a way to live more responsibly, energetically and accountably? According to BBC, the Bhutanese think about death five times a day, which might be the reason why this country remains to be one of the happiest nations in the world.  

Of course most of us, who are still youngsters, are too young to contemplate death. Nevertheless, it is never too soon to make the most of your life. ‘When breath becomes air’ is the posthumous masterpiece written by Paul Kalanithi, who was a dedicated neuroscientist, a superb writer, a valiant patient and an affectionate husband. Paul was diagnosed with lung cancer at the age of 36 when he was taking residency training in neurological surgery at Stanford. This memoir reflects all his journey from an ambitious surgeon to his new life as a patient, attached with his numerous thoughts of life, morale, sufferings, human interrelation and eternity.

The first part of this book is Paul’s peaceful childhood in Arizona and his initial steps to climb the career ladder as a neurosurgeon. Born and raised by a poor but contemplative mother, he received a sound education and was encouraged to read plenty of classic novels. This was the foundation for his passion in literature and linguistics. Like any other typical high school students, he had many alternatives when it came to choosing his career. After much consideration about the intersection between science and literature, he found that neuroscience and linguistics were somehow interrelated, which led to his decision of studying neurosurgery.

What is the feeling when leaving a doctor’s blouse and replacing it by a patient gown? That question is enlightened in the second part. While I was reading some first pages of this part, my snap thought was that “THIS IS NOT FAIR”. How come a gifted doctor, who always cared about his patients’ well-being, who valued morale and integrity, who continuously improved credentials and expertise in his career had to die too soon? Why do talented people have a short life? Then, I was dumbfounded that it is not about how long your life is, the foremost thing is about how you live it. His formidable statement “I can’t go on. I will go on” was aspirational for us, the healthy people, to confront all sufferings and contribute until the last breath.

At the very last few years of his life, he tried effortlessly to build a whole new life instead of desperately waiting for the death. The decision to have a daughter – Elizabeth – was Lucy and Paul’s bravest and riskiest bet. Yes, it was pitiful that Paul could not see her learning to crawl, to talk, nor could he attend her first day at school, her prom, her graduation ceremony or her wedding. However, when she grows up and reads this book, she will know how courageous, dedicating and passionate her father is.

This heart-wrenching, lyrical and poetical book was Paul’s last gift for us. Live like today is your last day of your life and never be fear of chasing your dream.

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