About once or twice a year, I see a book that I have to get. There is no waiting, no deliberating–I need this book now.
When Breath Becomes Air was one of those this week. Never mind that I had a small pile of assigned reading. This was imperative too.
I’d watched an interview with him probably about a year ago, and it deeply impacted me, so I was already tuned to hearing about this book. When it came, I couldn’t put it down. I stayed up til the wee hours last night because I couldn’t bring myself to close the book. I rarely let myself do that, so this was particularly indulgent but necessary.
When I finished, my pillow was wet and my throat was tight.
Kalanithi first got his degrees in English literature, because he though literature might hold the vocabulary that gives life meaning. Then he studied biology and the brain because maybe there he could find out what gives humans meaning. After all that searching and studying and excelling in each field, he concluded that God gives meaning to life. Humans find meaning through revelation, not science. He was 36, in his last year of training as a neurosurgeon, when he was diagnosed with lung cancer. The morning he was dressing for his graduation, his body betrayed him completely, and he ended up in ICU for a week. Twenty-two months after his diagnosis, he died. His daughter was 8 months old.
Kalanithi’s writing is absolutely pristine and totally engaging. It has awakened me so that today color is more vivid, the rain is wetter, and my friends’ eyes are more vibrant and beautiful than they were yesterday. I don’t feel morbid. But I’m thinking in new ways about what is valuable and real. The book was his project in his last year, and in it he explores what it means to be fully alive, nurture life (his daughter), love well (his wife and family) and face death simultaneously, which is where we all are except most of us don’t have a diagnosis and a medical chart.
I loved the medical jargon and needing to pick up a dictionary now and then. The book is the perfect blend of writing and technical terms–art and science. I feel inspired and weepy and resolved.
Resolved to live better than I have.
And to work on that stack of reading.
But first, to play with some chalk pastels.