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When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

And here we are at book #5 of my Spring Training tour through books.  Here’s a post about book #4, which includes a link to the links for the first three books.

Book #5 is When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi.

Kalanithi is a successful man by any measure of the word.  A Renaissance man as well — torn between his desire to pursue science and medicine and his love of literature and a need to be a writer.  He chooses the proper course and pursues neurosurgery and neuroscience.  “Proper?” you ask.  Well, hell yeah — that other thing, being a writer, doesn’t usually pay the bills.  (That’s my rationale, not his, by the way.)

As he winds up his schooling, education, residency, etc., and is in line to head a new neurosurgery program, he is diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer.

When Breath Becomes Air is Kalanithi’s memoir, written in the final months of his life, when he and his wife decide to have a child and he deals with successful rounds of treatment followed by relapses and, ultimately … well “inoperable” means something for a reason when it comes to cancer.

I don’t know what I think about this one.  On the one hand, it’s a pretty remarkable piece. Written elegantly and unstintingly about the death he faced. Which is apparently how he handled the whole thing. On some level, I wouldn’t expect anything less from a scientist, particularly a neuroscientist, who had learned the unknown secrets of the brain (where ultimately his cancer spreads).

On the other … well, let’s just say that ever since my first son entered this world, I have feared an early death.  First, it was that I would go the way of the dodo bird before I had a chance to see my kids grown.  I have spent these years convinced there is a poison lurking in my body, in my bloodstream, in my bones, in some obscure organ that will snuff my flame out before I am ready.

Those kids are now 22 and 19.  I’m almost there. But my fear of the inevitable now is based on the idea that I want to have a retirement, a period of years where I am finally able to do the things I want and experience life the way I want to.  It’s not that being a parent, being married, working, and all else over the last few decades were not that.  I will never complain about the beauty and wonder of being a father or that it prevented me from something.  Raising my kids was and always will irreplaceable.

But now that I am just about done with that responsibility, I want desperately to have an opportunity to do all of the things I put off.  I want to revel in and wallow in the things that feed my inner soul.  And I am convinced that the poison still lurks and it will take away from me that dream.  That opportunity.

When Breath Becomes Air is Kalanithi’s story.  His experience with living just that … well, I call it a horror.  He accepts it.  And while he clearly is saddened by it and that he will never see his daughter grow up (yes, he and his wife had a daughter born a few months before he passed away), there was something missing from this.  At the end, it just didn’t speak to me in the way I had hoped.

When Breath Becomes Air is well-written.  It is meaningful.  It is powerful, inevitably, given the subject matter.   But it didn’t have the oomph I expected.

 

P.S.  The sixth and final book in my Spring Training journey through the published world may not make it on here.  I’m struggling with it.  About halfway through, and I just find it to be incredibly tedious.  We’ll see if I make it through.

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