Thursday, January 28, 2016

When Breath Becomes Air

I just finished Paul Kalanithi's memoir, When Breath Becomes Air. There are some minor spoilers ahead, so don't read on if you plan to read the book and don't want some things pointed out to you ahead of time. 

You might be thinking, who was Paul Kalanith? Am I supposed to know that name?  To me, he was the husband of the twin sister of a blog writer I have read for at least five years. Let me reword. I read this woman's blog, and her brother-in-law died from cancer last March. And he wrote a memoir while he still could.

I feel I could have been friends with Paul. And his wife. Maybe, if you believe in such things, Paul is hanging around me now. I don't believe such things, but it is an interesting thought. I am going to call him by his first name here, since as I said, I think we might have been friends.

Paul was a neurosurgeon. He had just finished his residency. His life revolved around being a neurosurgeon. He had big plans for research. I cannot claim to know or understand a lot about what he did, but he did it with passion. Studying the brain was his life calling. And what's more, as he faced death of his patients, and other's patients, he wondered what made life worth living, when we are all going to die? Since the brain is key to our identities, to what makes us all tick, he wanted to study that part of the brain. Again, he had big plans for research. And he had some lucrative offers with amazing benefits, as he well deserved.

And then Paul was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. And then he was face to face with death. And suddenly he had to decide how to make his shortened life worthwhile, since he no longer had "the rest of your life." Did he travel, hike mountains, attend major concerts and sporting events, crossing off a bucket list? No, he did 3 remarkable things: He and his wife decided to have a child, he wrote this memoir, and he went back to work. As a neurosurgeon. In a hospital full of sick people. Amazing.

Just like me, Paul had nooooooo idea when cancer would take his life. He wrote, "if I knew I had ten years, I would go back to research and work, if I knew I had one I would write a book." But we don’t know. He ended up living just shy of two years after his diagnosis. His wife finishes the memoir for him, sharing a lot from his last few days. which was definitely the hardest part of the novel for me to read. One thing Paul does not share: what he believes the after life will bring. Or maybe he did and I missed it?

What a beautiful book. I was inspired to start writing my own memoir before I finished ten pages. I know when a writer inspires me to write, it's a good book. 


I have spent most my post diagnosis time, when I feel well, interacting with my son. I am thankful to have lived long enough for Brycen to turn 4, when concrete memories start to form (another brain study!). I photograph all the things there are to be photographed. I read a lot. I scrapbook out stories I want him to hear. I visit with family and friends. Something I need more of: just getting outside into fresh air. 

Paul's dedication to his job had me thinking of my own career as a teacher. I enjoyed being a teacher early on, but after becoming a mother the same time common core standards were released, teaching became too much for me. I fell from teacher of the year to dismal at best in three years. I had the worst review of my teaching career after I had put in thirteen years. 

As I teach Brycen to read through no-pressure activities I realize if I was ever to go back to teaching, it would have to look a lot different than the constant testing I was doing before I left. I actually wrote a whole essay about teaching as a career versus what I should have been. I missed my true calling, unlike Paul. 

I have started my memoir, but it's so dreary. We shall see how far I get. But I thank Paul for sharing his story, and inspiring me to try to do the same. 


  1. Random thoughts:
    1. Jesse read lots of articles and talked my head off about Paul after hearing about him on NPR. I'll have to read the book.
    2. The scrapbooks you're making will be invaluable to Brycen.
    3. We would happily accompany you on any fresh air adventures. Sunshine does the soul well!
    4. To be fair, working at the Ville was a dismal, joy-sucking place. Give yourself more credit.
    5. I look forward to reading any memoirs if given the opportunity. Glad you felt inspired.

  2. Stick with the memoir project! I think you'll find it's an enlightening journey in itself.

    And thank you for the book review. I plan to read this.

  3. Currently reading Paul's book and am amazed at the drive of his parents while they were raising thier children to be so involved in educating them. I am working with a young woman from Costa Rica, mom of a 1/2 and a 1 1/2 yr old. She was in university in her country studying to be a doctor when her father suddenly diesd and she could no longer afford to continue he schooling. She is determined to get her US citizenship and go back to school. One day I will tell her about Granny Beth who at age 54 returned to medicine as an intern.
    My gifts/talents are pretty right brained. If I recall anything about my early education it is about bad report cards, not doing homework because I was a procrastinator, or going to summer school every summer from 8th to 11th grade.
    How do parents know how important their children's education is?
    Charlie was the "do your homework" authoritarian. I was the helper, flashcard maker, encourager.
    Because school wasalways so easy for him, Charlie didn't realize how most of our 5 struggled.
    The same with my parents. Dad, your grandpa, was brilliant, but inaccessible. Mom, Grammy, was impatient.
    Yikes, how does one self motivate?
    So after my kids were grown I finished my BS and got a M ED as well. Go me!
    I see how important education is for my grandkids.

    I see the hunger in the young Hispanic mom's eyes to become a doctor.

    I am amazed at the upbringing Paul and his siblings had.

    You have touched MANY lives, Karen, because of your passion to teach. You will never know the extent of your effect...the many seeds you have planted.
    My opinion is that is what life is about...planting seeds. Never mind the harvest...that will happen, as in my life, when the seed is ripe.
    I love who uou are!


I love to know what you're thinking!