I first heard of Paul Kalanithi’s fatal lung cancer diagnosis through the piece he wrote for the New York Times, titled, “How Long Have I Got Left?” As a 36-year-old surgical resident, nearing the end of his residency, he wanted to know what this harrowing diagnosis meant for his career but also for his personal life. Should he continue practicing surgery? Write the book he always wanted to write? Start a family? Yet his doctor would not give him any survival statistics, much less a life sentence.
With a little help from a successful treatment, Kalanithi decided he would pursue the writing project he had always imagined, though I’m guessing his earlier dreams were not so focused on mortality and how he would face his own young death. Still, his book is magnificent. His natural inquisitiveness and desire to learn and challenge accepted wisdom is brave and admirable. His desire to dig deep into his illness and premature death is to be marveled at. I cannot imagine taking such a brave and confident stance in the face of such diagnosis and circumstance.
When Breath Becomes Air is a meditation on mortality and our relationship with death. Like Atul Gawande, Kalanithi suggests, pleas almost, that we shouldn’t allow stigma surrounding death to persist. It will happen to all of us, sooner or later, so why aren’t we talking about it more? And why are we making it so uncomfortable, prolonged, and difficult? There are arguments for better palliative care and hospice and making decisions that will allow for a better quality of life, not just quantity of life. And I must say his arguments are compelling.
Less than two years after Kalanithi received his diagnosis he died. I knew this going into the book, and still! the book felt suspenseful. His voice was so strong and clear, I kept thinking to myself (and saying to Adam), I can’t believe he’s dead. I cannot believe his wisdom was lost to us so quickly.
Lucy wrote the epilogue to his book (which was finished posthumously) and she describes his final days and hours in great detail. I sat reading with tears streaming down my cheeks, devastated by her loss. They decided to have a child while he was feeling better , and imagining him leaving behind an eight-month-old daughter broke my heart, as did imaging Lucy now parenting solo. Her bravery, like his, is astounding and beautiful. Her emotions at losing her young husband are raw and real. A doctor herself, she understood so many of her husband’s desires to live a full life, not just a long one. I think they both can teach us so much about quality of life.
You can read Lucy’s essay here, which was published the same day as Paul’s book. And this interview with her was also so insightful. Lastly, her twin sister Joanna, the blogger behind A Cup of Jo, teamed up with interior designer Jenny Komenda to makeover Lucy’s apartment after Paul’s death. She wanted the space to feel alive and fresh, and to become a place that would help her and her young daughter begin anew while still honoring memories of Paul. The makeover is so moving.
I loved this book. Along with Being Mortal, it should be required reading for anyone who is facing a serious illness or death, or has a loved one in a similar position. I would highly recommend it.