“When Breath Becomes Air” by Paul Kalanithi should be at the top of everyone’s TBR list. Whether you’ve lost someone to disease, tragedy, the mundanity of life, or not yet; I urge you to make this novel a priority.
This section title has two meanings for me. The first is a simple homage to the two years this book was published before I thought to pick it up. It’s life-changing and my life could have done with some changing two years back, probably more than today. Who knows what person I would be now if I’d read it when it launched?
I’m not even sure how I first came to know about this book. I have a distinct sense memory of Oprah’s voice saying the title. Whether that really happened, or it’s something my brain cooked up to ease me into the gut-wrenching narrative, I’ll never know. Either way, it’s definitely an ‘Oprah’ kind of book.
The second reason is… less easy to talk about.
Paul’s journey through his cancer diagnosis mirrored that of my father’s in so many ways. They were both very young, too young to be saddled with this ‘old man’s disease’ and way too young to succumb to it.
Many times during my father’s brief -- sixteen month -- battle with lung cancer, I found myself wondering what must be going through his head. I never dared ask. But now, I think I have a better understanding of the universal truths we all face at the end of our lives.
I loved every heartbreaking moment of reading this book. Aside from the intensity of the subject matter is the lyrical nature of the prose. My first instinct is to say, “For someone dying of cancer” or some other qualifier. But the truth is, that wouldn’t be fair to Mr. Kalanithi. His love of language and literature is apparent in every word. I have no doubt he would have been just as lauded for his literary achievements as he was for his neurosurgical ones… and this debut novel is testament to that.
The strangest thing about how this novel hit me was the feelings of jealousy that it invoked. My father was an ordinary, hard working family man. He wasn’t a literary genius. He didn’t have the words that Mr. Kalanithi could find within himself to express his hope, fears, anguish… dread. I didn’t get the reflective, gentle experience with my dying father as was described by Paul’s wife in the epilogue.
The father that cancer gave me quickly lost much of his mental acuity. His rapid decline wasn’t just physical. His once sharp wit dwindled down to nothing, just as his once robust frame became something I could lift all on my own to move him from bed to chair and back.
His tongue that refused to take food, instead took bites at those around him. The hospice nurse said it was normal, that he didn’t know what he was saying, he couldn’t control it. That was little to no comfort.
We did get one glimpse of the man we thought was already gone. One day, not long before the end, our nurse asked the question. What are you most scared of? His answer… I’m going to miss them so much. And there he was again, the man I was already missing before he was gone.
Sixteen months. That’s how long we had with my dad after his diagnosis. It struck me, hard, that this is also how far apart my oldest two children are. I became pregnant almost immediately after having my son and I nearly lost my second one because of it. Sixteen months isn’t enough time for your body to recover after childbirth.
Turns out, it’s not long enough to say goodbye, either.