In everyone’s life there are pivotal moments. Usually graduations, weddings, birth of children, and similar events. There are also monumental, life-changing events. A significant event that tears your timeline in two, before and after.
For Paul Kalanithi this event was being diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer at the age of 36, as he was finishing up a decade of training to become a neurosurgeon. The entire projected track of his life was demolished.
After the prologue, Kalanithi’s brief memoir is split into two sections, before and after. Both sections show a man driven by questions of mortality and a meaningful life. To Kalanithi, becoming a neurosurgeon wasn’t a job but a calling (because if it was just a job, it would be the worst). His love for his work and how he treated his patients is just another tragic layer as we move into the aftermath of his diagnosis.
“What makes life meaningful enough to go on living?” (pg.71)
I usually don’t read memoirs but this one might have made a believer out of me. Kalanithi’s voice is clear and distinct, and I was invested in his journey pretty early on. I barreled through the ‘after’ section because I had to know what happened to Kalanithi (I dove into When Breath Becomes Air without doing any research or reading a full synopsis… though it’s pretty obvious where the cards are going to fall).
The only complaints I have are ones where I’m sure I am in the minority. I have a hard time with medical jargon and the middle section was chock full of it. I understood what was going on, but I had to re-read paragraphs over and over. Also, in a personal memoir like this, technical jargon tends to distance me instead of making me invested.
That being said, everything came together in the last fifty pages, which includes an epilogue by Kalanithi’s wife Lucy.
I mean… Serious. Ugly. Cry.
I decided to keep this review brief because I highly recommend everyone read this book and I don’t want to take anything else away from your experience. Because this book is a brutal experience.
Instead, here are some pictures of Paul Kalanithi. Here was a man who knew how to face death with dignity.
“Human knowledge is never contained in one person. It grows from the relationships we create between each other and the world.” (pg.172)
“The tricky part of illness is that, as you go through it, your values are constantly changing. You try to figure out what matters to you, and then you keep figuring it out”