It has been a week now since I finished the book, and I did actually read it 2 times and still got the same goosebumps feeling and misty-eye all around, bet you should definitely too. So I decided to write this, to understand of the emotion that Paul has put me through. I am not going to write book resuming here, rather, I am going to use this book to redo self-reflexion myself, something with life and death I should have raised question earlier. When Breath Becomes Air is piece of art. It’s a memoir of Dr. Paul Kalanithi, a neurosurgeon Stanford-trained, hold degree in Human Biology from Stanford, double degree in Literature and Philosophy from Stanford and Cambridge, and a medical student graduate from Yale Medical School. In 35 years old, he is one year to go to completing his 7 years neurosurgical residency training from Stanford. He also received the American Academy of Neurological Surgery’s highest award for research. Prior to his graduation, he has been offered position as professor from Stanford Med School and various US top Institutions. What a profile, what a gifted and dedicated young person. He seemed to get what he had dreamed for, become top neurosurgeon, fielded academic career, by right he could see himself and his family in the promised land. But… sometimes things didn’t work out that way, a top neurosurgeon for cancer got cancer himself, out of blue. He turned from being top neurosurgeon to being a meek patient diagnosed with IV lung cancer.
Reading this book I realized how quick one story could be flipped upside down in the face of mortality without asking permission. In a person of caliber Paul, we would see his bright future over the horizon, we could smell things he could accomplish and contribute to humanity. And if only he had not died that early, he would have achieved so much. But life isn’t like that. When death is paying his personal visit, it derails you from trajectory you have worked so hard, alters your plan, and it fucks you over. As medical surgery technology advances nowadays, we can manipulate and gratify and do whatever we could to avoid being die. But we all human. And human do what human can do. We all knee down in front of mortality. At the end, it’s about question Paul has posed, what makes your life meaningful enough to go on for living? Paul realized at the very beginning that what matter is not about being survive or die -he knew that one day he is going to die. He has witnessed often times of his patient miserably survived from cancer; they did survive, but life won’t be the same anymore. They become meaningless. But Paul was different. He embraced death with bravery. As hopeless as it could, he managed to calculate what was the most important things he wanted to do given his remaining time. He would want to make the most out of him even under severe circumstances. Give me number of 10 years, I would return to OR become neurosurgeon. Give me 3 years, I would spend my life writing book I always wanted to write. Give me months, I would spend my days with family. He always knew what make his life meaningful, and whom his meaningful life would be best dedicated for. I was weeping out couldn’t bear his outmost optimism when saying, even if I’m dying, until I actually die, I’m still living. I really felt what he was saying, ended up questioning my self… How long have I actually got left.
I came to understand that shouldn’t we all be like Paul? Paul had become alerted of his mortality waving down the road since cancer disseminated him. And he reacted and planned his life accordingly. What make us any difference with Paul if our own mortality is also waving us? My religion put a high reminder that death could visit any time to anyone in anywhere. I could provide no guarantee a healthy person like me could stay any longer than Paul could possibly do. But maybe -just maybe- our self awareness are obscured by assuming how far that time could actually come. In fact it is not. We should become as alert as Paul did that every second means our distance has been shortened by a second. We have been becoming closer and closer to host our mortality visit. In Islam we are thought that life is not about things being abandoned, also about preparing the next life. It’s not enough to just being good and made meaningful life, it requires more of such religious obligation. And this I think should motivate us enough to prepare even more.
I like this book so much. And I admire person like Paul. He was deep thinker, he was humble, he was brave, he questioned life and its meaning, he looked the answer with philosophy, literature, and neuroscience -how these were connected, he struggled to understand the nature of life and death, wouldn’t death itself be a perfect gift for a person who’s trying to understand it? He said. Reading his writing I felt like he was telling the story as it happened. And it was real, Paul himself is real, as Lucy his wife said in Epilogue, what happened to Paul was tragic, but he was not tragedy. I didn’t feel as moved as reading this when reading Tuesdays With Morrie. Believe me this guy know how to write well. I bet his literature degree had influenced him highly. Lastly I would like to quote his last message to his daughter, which I think very much emotional.
When you come to one of the many moments in life where 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.