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When Breath Becomes Air

August 14, 2017 by

When Breath Becomes Air book cover

A good friend pressed the New York Times bestseller When Breath Becomes Air into my hands with her enthusiastic endorsement. I read it, nearly non-stop. And then I sat still, absolutely silent for a very long while.

Paul Kalanithi, the author and an impassioned thirty-six-year-old neurosurgical resident, paints an unflinching picture of suffering, dying, and his own grim, determined war against cancer. He seeks no pity, spouts no vitriol, offers no false consolation. Even though Paul’s life is ruthlessly truncated, an uncanny, unequivocal victory infuses his final written words.

It is during Paul’s last year of training, as he hovers on the cusp of a brilliant career, that he is jettisoned into cancer’s mayhem. Obviously, he has travelled here before, but always as a guide, a helper, a healer, the man in charge.

This time his own body houses death-dealing cells and although he already knows that the chances of surviving lung cancer are nearly nil, he struggles, like every other cancer patient, to come to terms with his bleak prognosis, and to carve some constructive path through the available chemical landscape. A breakthrough à la Samuel Beckett lightens one difficult morning: “I can’t go on. I will go on,” Paul determines. “Even if I’m dying, until I actually die, I am still living.”

Paul Kalanithi and family
Lucy and Paul Kalanithi and their daughter

What makes Paul’s account spellbinding is that he has wisely spent the first half of the book drawing us into his life right up to death’s knock on his door. According to Paul’s wife, Lucy, this autobiographical section is the last thing he wrote; he already had brain metastases. Unabashedly, Paul reveals his conflicts and dreams, his shortcomings and his relentless search for moral truth. A dying man has nothing to hide; Paul is transparent. It makes for riveting reading.

“Even if I’m dying, until I actually die, I am still living.” —Paul Kalanithi

Paul’s story is best told in his own voice, so I’ll not leak a word about his most precious gift, but I will cast several lures your way. In addition to being a dedicated and accomplished man of science, Paul is also at home in the worlds of literature and philosophy. He has a knack for synthesis, and is an ardent artist – his palette, our English lexis. All this infuses his story with palpable beauty as well as tensile strength.

My inclination after I absorbed When Breath Becomes Air was to return to the beginning. I wanted to more presciently follow just how Paul turned death on its head. I’ve done that now, and highly recommend it. The first step, however, is to read it through at least once. I suspect the tender tenacity of Paul’s waning life will help anchor yours.

photograph credit: credit-suszi-mcfadden



About the author

a photograph of Ann Morrissey

Ann Morrissey

Ann Morrissey lives in Beech Grove, a Bruderhof in England, with her husband, Dave. They delight in the English countryside...

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  • Thank you, Ann, for this thoughtful review of this book. We have a friend locally, a young doctor with children, recently diagnosed with cancer. This seems a timely book for us to read, and learn from. Blessings on you both!

  • This book is on my list of books to read, but I feel compelled to tell readers that playwright, Michael Christofer wrote the following line in his play, The Shadowbox, which is about death and dying, “They tell you you’re dying, and you say all right. But if I am dying . . . I must still be alive.” 1977. I have embraced this quote for years since co-directing and acting in a college production of The Shadowbox over 35 years ago. Good words to embrace, but the promise we have in Jesus is even sweeter.

  • The life is based on love. We need to love everything as created by God. Someday when God calls us, we will also love the death also. We will be in the promised land. I will read the book as soon as possible.

    metin erdem