When Paul Kalanithi finished college he dreamed of becoming a writer.
When Breath Becomes Air, his first and only work, remains incomplete. After a couple hundred pages, the narration of Paul Kalanithi ends before his story does. The epilogue, written by Paul’s wife, picks up the last pieces of the story in the final few pages.
The abrupt end to Paul’s life forces the abrupt end to the book. In his late 30’s, and nearly at the conclusion of his medical training, Paul began a battle with lung cancer. The rarity of lung cancer in adults his age takes Paul and his family by surprise. As a neurosurgeon on the cusp of completing over a decade of training, his future seems shattered.
In this memoir, Paul recounts his life growing up in the dessert mountains of Kingman, AZ as a the son of a medical doctor. The high standards of his parents motivated both Paul and his siblings to achieve education from elite schools. Years after beginning school, he would succeed in one of the most strenuous medical career paths — neurosurgery and neuroscience. Yet, for his first two degrees (B.A. and M.A.) he studied English Literature. Those first years in higher education instilled in him a love of words and writing, which shines through in his prose.
Paul’s writing opens up his life in a bold way. He acknowledges personal, marital and professional struggles. In sharing his emotions and ideas generously, readers receive a view into his person. It appears that dying people can offer honesty that good health often won’t. Because this book pulls you in with such a personal connection with the author, it felt odd to review the book. Could I criticize or evaluate a dying man’s last words?
This book has gained great acclaim in the 18-months since Paul died and in the year since the release of When Breath Becomes Air. The flavor of prose and content of the narrative make this a compelling read. Rarely does our culture offer us such a window into the life of the dying. As acknowledged in the book, we hide and ignore the act of death.
From the time of his diagnosis, Paul lived a certainty of near-term death which made hiding or ignoring the imminent impossible. At such a young age and at the edge of a promising career, the story tempts readers to feel sorry for Paul and his plight. Yet, no where in Paul’s writing does he allow readers to assume such a posture towards him. An oft heralded virtue, bravery stands on acute display in this work. The author demonstrates a courage rarely seen as he navigates his steps to the grave.
Religious and Christian teaching slip into the narrative at various points. Paul confesses to be a backslidden Christian, who finds his way back to church during the final stage of his life. After a stout Methodist upbringing, he fades into “ironclad atheism.” From the content of the book, its difficult to tell the extent or nature of Paul’s Christian faith. He states that he “returned to the central values of Christianity — sacrifice, redemption, forgiveness — because I found them so compelling.” Yet, his confessions about Jesus offer little substance; “the main message of Jesus, I believed, is that mercy trumps justice every time.” Any attempt to evaluate Paul’s faith would be foolhardy. At most we can say that his book feels lacking and vague What exactly did he believe about the person and work of Jesus Christ? Perhaps the publishers, aiming for broad acceptance, muted aspects of his testimony. Or perhaps Paul, on the doorstep of death, couldn’t articulate his faith clearly.
Christians who read this book will sense hints of the authors faith. Unbelievers, will perhaps see just enough faith and hope from the scattered Christian faith, to explore further.