Wednesday, January 31, 2018

When Breath Becomes Air

When Breath Becomes Air When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

So beautiful and thoughtful and heart wrenching. The author has a unique perspective of being both surgeon and patient, of being the one who does versus the one to whom things are done. To be suddenly put in a situation where you no longer have agency would be frustrating. How can you make plans when you don't even know how long you have left? If you only live one day at a time, what are you supposed to do with that day?

But he sees the other side of that, too: you never know where you are on the prognosis probability curve. When I heard him say the statistics about glioblastoma survival rates, I couldn't stop crying. I literally sat in my parked car, sobbing. But if you focus only on the numbers like that, you forget the most important thing: life is what you make of it, every day. You need to leave room for hope, both as a patient and as a doctor.

He is brutally honest about the stages he went through, almost the opposite of what is considered the "normal" cycle: initial acceptance, then depression, bargaining, anger, and eventually denial. Not everything was logical and calm and measured. But when he could take a step back, he was focused and driven, just as much in his writing as he ever was in his schooling, research, and surgical training. He was meant to make a difference, and he did so in every way he could, until the end.

I couldn't possibly have read this book outside the sphere I am in, and cancer has hit my family hard. This book wrecked me emotionally so many times, but surprisingly it was in a good, cathartic way. These were words I needed to hear, and the perfect person to deliver them.

I loved the epilogue from Paul's wife, Lucy, who provides some measure of closure to Paul's journey, as well as her own thoughts on their life together. What she says above love holds so much value - the love doesn't decrease once someone is gone, it just continues in unexpected ways. "It never occurred to me that you could love someone the same way after he was gone, that I would continue to feel such love and gratitude alongside the terrible sorrow, the grief so heavy that at times I shiver and moan under the weight of it. Paul is gone, and I miss him acutely nearly every moment, but I somehow feel I'm still taking part in the life we created together... my love goes on—lives on—in a way I'd never expected."

This book has made an indelible impression on me, and I will continue to re-read it for years to come. Here are a few of my favorite quotes:

"This kind of illness can either bring you together or it can tear you apart."

"I was neither angry nor scared. It simply was."

"This is not the end... Or even the beginning of the end. This is just the end of the beginning."

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