I think I have already said this about Paul Kalanithi's When Breath Becomes Air, what a beautiful memoir about a man at the very beginning of a promising career and a happy life, which ended far too soon--but sometimes it is books like this which are almost unbearably sad that act as reminders---that it takes a tragic death like Paul's to remind us how to live. What a talented man and one who was so inquisitive and so earnest in his search for meaning and understanding and knowledge, it must have been devastating for his family to see him go through what he did. It was at times almost devastating to read about it. This was really an inspiring book to read and one I read with relish to be honest. It wasn't until the very end, the epilogue written by his wife that I totally lost it and was just happy I was not reading in public because the sadness and grief was so palpably real to me.
Paul Kalanithi was just beginning his career as a neurosurgeon when he was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. He had begun his university studies as a literature student and had a great love of reading and writing but he was also drawn to science. He seemed always to be questioning just what makes a life meaningful and some of those questions could be and were answered through stories, something I know I appreciate and feel, too. Ultimately, however, he took his studies in literature as far as they could go and felt that his skills would best serve those through science (his father and brothers had all entered the medical field). He pursued the best of both worlds--literature which provided "a rich account of human meaning" and science and the study of the brain which "was the machinery that somehow enabled it."
"I studied literature and philosophy to understand what makes life meaningful, studied neuroscience and worked in an fMRI lab to understand how the brain could give rise to an organism capable of finding meaning in the world, and enriched my relationships with a circle of dear friends through various escapades."
He was just finishing his residency at Stanford and was likely to be able to have a pick of plum jobs, as a matter of fact they were grooming him to fill a position there as soon as he finished when he received his diagnosis. He was married to another physician and they had plans to start a family in the near future and then their world essentially collapsed.
What is so amazing about this book and about his life, is the inquisitive nature he had and the fact that even in his sickest days he never stopped pursuing the meaning of life. He worked through much of his sickness and for a time the cancer receded to a point where he could live in some state of normalcy and he and his wife even had a baby when the cancer returned with a vengeance. It had always been his intention to be a surgeon, do research and later write, but having cancer changed everything. Finally it was down to simply writing his memoir, which he never quite got to finish, but it is a true testament to his life--and isn't that what life is: a work in progress. We don't get to choose when it ends and even with the knowledge that he was dying he just pressed on. A quote by Beckett became his mantra: "I can't go on. I'll go on."
And he did go on in his search for understanding. It's both ironic and curious that as a doctor, a neurosurgeon and someone who is looking for life's truths and hopes to heal others, that he-once the doctor-now becomes the patient. A neurosurgeon who studies the brain and its functions and its miracles will eventually succumb to an illness that will attack the brain.
"I was searching for a vocabulary with which to make sense of death, to find a way to begin defining myself and inching forward again. The privilege of direct experience had led me away from literary and academic work, yet now I felt that to understand my own direct experiences, I would have to translate them back into language. Hemingway described his process in similar terms: acquiring rich experiences, then retreating to cogitate and write about them. I need words to go forward."
I don't think his search ever ended really. Even in his sickest moments he could see the beauty of life and the beauty of the brain and its functions. The way he lived his life was so admirable--"if the unexamined life was not worth living, was the unlived life worth examining?" And so he tried to do both--live a good life and search out the meaning of that life. Something that has stuck with me, and more irony, that when someone is diagnosed with a terminal illness they think that now is the time to do all the things that you have wanted to do, all the important things that must be done now, yet all too often the person is too ill to do and appreciate them. So a very striking reminder that life is now and it shouldn't be taken for granted, rather grabbed hold of and really lived and appreciated. ". . . seeing death as an imposing itinerant visitor but knowing that even if I'm dying, until I actually dead, I am still living."
I think even though he died far too early, he knew how to really live. This was such a graceful and elegant memoir and despite the sadness, it is a most worthy read.