When Breath Becomes Air
How does it feel to have an immigrant Indian mother who, after sobbing alone at night, took it upon herself to give her children a better future？She transformed the Kingman school system, demanding more AP classes. She made her son, at ten years old, read 1984. How does it feel to have a Christian father who eloped with a Hindu, dragging his family to the deserts of Arizona so that he can dedicate his life to serve his patients, almost singlehandedly educating doctors and equipping a hospital? What does it feel like to have parents who are absolutely dedicated to making an impact to society at large, disregarding social conventions?
For someone like Paul Kalanithi, the son of these remarkable people, it should come as no surprise that would use his entire life in the pursuit of the answer of this major question: What is the meaning of life? There is a tension throughout the book as Paul struggles to fulfill what he feels is his duty. Writer or doctor? In the last days of one’s life, should he fulfill his duty as either a writer or a doctor, or should he somehow do both, or even more? “When Breath Becomes Air” possesses an interesting dilemma- at what point does become air? Air is a mixture of gases, but the air that you breathe in and the air that you breathe out are fundamentally different. When one inhales and exhales the same type of air, they’re either choking to death or there’s something very wrong with their lungs. Either way, they’re dead. It’s just the same with life- a living person takes experiences from the world and changes it into something unique and different, something never seen before. To be or not to be, that’s the question- at what point is the singular ‘breath’ combined with the collective air, changed from something personal and precious to a simple collection of gases?
As the saying goes, birds of a feather flock together. This saying is true in the life of Paul Kalanithi, who associated with many who shared the same traits. A prime example is his wife, Lucy, a young woman who never liked the simple, easy choice. Due to his aloofness, she was on the verge of leaving him before he got diagnosed. However, after the discovery, they reunited. Without Lucy’s support, Paul would never have had the daughter he spent the rest of his life watching and loving, never have written his book with the uniqueness of feeling particular to “When Breath Becomes Air”, and even would have fought his cancer the same way. Emma, his doctor, was always stubbornly guarding Paul’s best interests beyond what he could initially understand, surprising him by suggesting that he shouldn’t rule out being a doctor.
Many people wept while reading the book of Paul’s struggles. Among them, there were those who especially understood the pervasive tension that had become an integral part of him, becoming part of many passionate, sensitive readers as well. He refused to let go and simply enjoy life as he had it- Paul decided to fight until the last possible moment, to become the best doctor he could possibly be for the months that he had remaining, for the lives a dying man could still save.
Paul embraced his fate with awe-inspiring courage, grace and nobility rare to the human race. I know, for a fact, that I personally cannot. Will not. For the rationalist, supposing the existence of fate, there must be a supreme power behind it. The supreme power gave Paul this unimaginable burden, but it was exactly what he could bear with his strength, virtues, friends and family. Though many cannot see past their own luck that let them live out their lives, it is a somber thought that there is always someone remarkable at death’s door who deserved to live longer.
February 25, 2018