Thursday, January 7, 2016

When breath becomes air

There are some people in this world with the ability to move us simply with words. Pure. Purposeful. Uncomplicated. Dr. Paul Kalanithi had that power.

Which is why I cannot wait to read his memoir, When Breath Becomes Air, when it hits bookshelves on Tuesday. Kalanithi, a Stanford neurosurgeon who died this past March (at age 37) from lung cancer, was a tremendous human being. Though I never met him, like so many others I felt like I knew him. He shared with us, without self-pity and without being overly sentimental, the heartbreaking and illuminating fact that he did not have much time left.

"I guarantee that finishing this book and then forgetting about it is simply not an option," Janet Maslin writes in her review for The New York Times. "There is so much here that lingers, and not just about matters of life and death: One of the most poignant things about Dr. Kalanithi's story is that he had postponed learning how to live while pursuing his career in neurosurgery. By the time he was ready to enjoy a life outside the operating room, what he needed to learn was how to die."

I first learned about Kalanithi's journey from my favorite blog, A Cup of Jo (founded by Joanna Goddard, Kalanithi's sister-in-law).

"Paul himself was an introvert. He was smart and lovely. He had a deep kindness and laughed at every joke," Joanna wrote in a blogpost yesterday. "But since he was often quiet (and uncomplaining), I wondered -- as I hung out in their living room across from him -- what was going on in his mind as he grew sicker. I knew he was brave, but was he sad? Was he scared?" 

Joanna's twin sister, Lucy, who was married to Kalanithi, wrote an extraordinary essay in The New York Times. I read it and re-read it and was absolutely moved and devastated, all over again. Her opening paragraph brought me to tears:

                  "When my husband died from cancer last March at age 37, I was 
                  so grief-stricken I could barely sleep. One afternoon, I visited his 
                  grave -- in a field high in the Santa Cruz Mountains, overlooking the 
                  Pacific Ocean -- and lay on top of it. I slept more soundly than I had 
                  in weeks. It wasn't the vista that calmed my restless body; it was Paul, 
                  just there, under the earth. His body was so easy to conjure -- limbs 
                  that had linked with mine at night, soft hands that I had grasped 
                  during the birth of our daughter, eyes that had remained piercing even 
                  as cancer thinned his face -- and yet, impossible to hold. I lay on the 
                  grass instead, my cheek against the ground."

I loved Lucy's thoughts on becoming a widow:

                  "One night recently, alone in bed, I read "A Grief Observed" by C.S. 
                   Lewis, and I came across the observation that "bereavement is not 
                   the truncation of married love but one of its regular phases." He writes 
                   that "what we want is to live our marriage well and faithfully through 
                   that phase, too." Yes, I breathed. Bereavement is more than learning 
                   to separate from a spouse. Though I can no longer comfort Paul, the 
                   other vows I made on our wedding day -- to love Paul, to honor and 
                   keep him -- stretch well beyond death. The commitment and loyalty, 
                   my desire to do right by him, especially as raise our daughter, will 
                   never end. And I am keeping another final promise."

Kalanithi said the days are long, but the years are short (he was referring to residency, but its application is universal). Indeed, in his death, he has much to teach us about living.   

Photo by Stella Blackmon for A Cup of Jo.