Reviewed by Lauren Jahn
When taking a birthing class, it is often recommended to pack plenty of comfort items. By preselecting loved objects, it is supposed to ease the tension of labor. Following instructions, I packed essential oils, coloring books, silly Putty, and a book about a dying man. When Breath Becomes Air accompanied me to the hospital to give life to a healthy daughter and assisted me through my own grief process of a chronically ill father. It is evident when one admires and loves a book, as they recommend and lend tirelessly; this memoir by Paul Kalanithi will forever be on the top of my must-read list for others.
Kalanithi can personalize and narrate the intimate and universal truth of death. As many readers consume his words, it is assumed that most will make connections to cancer carrying away a loved one. Without over-romanticizing, Kalanithi allows readers into his final days. Also, he prepares his audience for his eventual death in the preface—as to avoid any unwanted spoilers. Being upfront and blunt with death is refreshing to caregivers. Like parenting or getting fired, witnessing and being a passenger to death fulfills the cliché of “you just have to be there” to understand. As Kalanithi succumbs to his illness, he finds a way to connect to his audience without romanticizing or victimizing his situation—which is admirable.
As the reader accompanies Paul through his final months, they learn of his passions. He dabbles in varying professions such as an abstract philosopher or a meticulous neurosurgeon. Consistently, Kalanithi returns back to the intricacies of the human brain and all of the potential within it. Literature and science fascinate him; again, making him relatable. Most individuals side more with a right-brain or left-brain motif, but Paul is both pragmatic and imaginative as he navigates soulful science. On the other hand, while his brain is imagining and solving, his body is decaying as the cancer progresses. As his mind elevates new consciousness and thoughts, his body is shuttering to maintain vital organ processes. Despite all of the love, his quick end nears. Instead of distracting or numbing the inevitable, Kalanithi welcomes instances of uncomfortable farewells.
Like most people, his heart warms with his wife and daughter. He meticulously reassures his daughter through grace and boundless fatherly spirit, “do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more, but rests, satisfied.” He lets his youngster know that he is not craving redemption or answers, but is instead, comforted by the early memories he has while she begins her life as he is ending his own. The father-daughter and life-death dichotomy gives readers an opportunity to associate dying with something abstract such as hope or joy. Kalanithi portrays the fatherly archetype that is both vulnerable and patriarchal. He strives to be a stereotypically strong man to fulfill cultural norms, but he also opens himself to possibilities of pain.
It is unknown where Paul Kalanithi’s soul went after he died, but I will recommend his memoir until my last breath.
About Lauren Jahn
Lauren Jahn is a young adult residing in South Dakota with her husband, daughter, dog, and cat. Currently, she is dabbling with creative writing alongside her job as a program specialist for a governmental education department. You can reach her Instagram at 100wordsbylauren.