Monday, August 14, 2017

When Breath Becomes Air - Paul Kalanithi

Much acclaimed book written by Dr. Paul Kalanithi, a bright young doctor, a neurosurgeon by training and a writer at heart (and training), a seeker by instinct, who succumbed to stage IV lung cancer at the age of 37. He died in 2015. Paul's book gives an account of how his life was, his growing up years, his love for literature and then his love for questions that dealt with life and death, and illness and then, as he rises to take off  into a hard earned career in neurosurgery, the discovery of stage IV lung cancer and how he and his family dealt with it.
Bodley Head, 228 p, 

Paul writes about his feelings - his shift from doctor to patient (in the same hospital) and his wondering about the small things they overlook as doctors without knowing exactly how patients feel. His world comes crashing - his plans of a family with his wife Lucy now have to be hurried as he can foresee his death. They have a daughter who gives him some of his most cherished moments before his eventual death. Lucy and Paul's family stand by him throughout. Paul goes back to surgery after chemo treatment and gives up only when he feels he cannot handle it anymore.

Paul writes in a voice that says everything but yet not everything which is why Lucy's epilogue completed the book in the way it should have. The two also complement each other so well that it is perhaps fitting that Lucy provides the missing pieces, the angles, that Paul could not complete.

The book was written in the last stages - when Paul had to make up his mind between surgery and writing - chose surgery first and then wrote. He wanted to finish this book and he did (almost, from what I could make of it) and it was completed by Lucy and the editorial team at Random House. It's a moving account of a bright life who for some reason also wanted to experience the suffering and the pain of death, and who found himself facing a situation he wanted to alleviate for so many more.

The book is about death and life. How inadequate we are to deal with something as inevitable as death. Paul talks of how he felt that the cadavers were treated casually in the anatomy labs and how he understood why many people did not donate their bodies for science. Somewhere Lucy talks about why death is not celebrated still and there is mourning and sadness around it.

These are thoughts I have thought about too. That my death should cause the least trouble to those around me, to the world in general. I would be quite happy if my organs were donated to others if they were found fit, my body donated to a medical college, and the pain of the rituals which have never made sense to me anyway, be spared to those around me. What I would insist however is that my friends and family celebrate the time I spent with them, think of a few fun moments and go home after playing a few songs I enjoyed, crack a few jokes, share a few anecdotes and down a couple of drinks so they go home with a smile. Now that  is something I would insist on - a celebration of my life - and the theme would be fun, happiness, bon homie and smiles. 

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