I finished reading Paul Kalanithi's When Breath Becomes Air today. I am in awe and admiration when i found out that, when the thought of merging together science and literature, integrating subjective meaning and value with objective epistemology just starts hovering around my inner horizon, still tinge with neonatal bafflement and murkiness, Paul has made such a perfect and heart wrenching exemplar of it, blending philosophical prodding of death, literary reflections with scientific practices and knowledge so seamlessly and artistically.
In the very first beginning, like everyone else, Paul is a toddler, born in the raucous NYC, then he grows up in the desert of Kingman, Arizona, exploring his life in the dusty and stormy yellowness, heeding scorpions on his shoes at anytime, listening and making fun of country facts, and reading and relishing all those high literature of prose and verse assigned by his well educated mother who will not tolerate her children being deprived of the chance of being admitted to a ivy league university. It is the summer after graduation from high school, via a page-turner novel introduced to him by his girlfriend back then, a worldly college student who took a semester off to earn her tuition fee, that aroused his first interest in and idea of blending spiritual quest with scientific researches, a goal which is pictured by Walt Whitman as "spiritual-physiological man".
The death looms large. The time could not be more merciless and despairing, when Paul is about to finish the 7 years of residency with an excellent working record and job offers trickling from all over the states, when he is about to claim the pinnacle of his career, even when he is looking forward to adding a newborn child to the family, he and Lucy and their kid, happily cuddling together, overviewing the best life could offer in front of them. With tumors spreading all over his lungs, ominous as a harbinger of imminent death, he did not combat the tragic news with neither blind faith nor passive numbness. Instead, from the beginning to the end, he pondered hard and unwavering on the question of what is the most important to him? Simply put, what is the meaning of his life?
The answer changes in successive circumstances. First his work. Having described his work as a calling rather than a job, he determined to come back to the normal trajectory of being a life-saving and crisis-solving neurosurgeon, keep bringing consolation and guidance to his patients. Then his daughter Cady was born, which adds a new light of hope and happiness to his limited life, being a father becomes his all new motivation to live. Then, he starts laboring on keyboard, fully aware that though he would not be physically present in his daughter's growing up, the words and their voices would be his legacy for her, and people he loves. Moreover, he intends to show his readers what would await all of us: life in a second, death in a second. The struggle we made to come into this world, and the tolls and tears when we come out of. Therefore, in this book, death ceases to be an abstraction, a figure of speech, instead, it is flesh and blood, inexorable, egalitarian, unromanticalized, yet deeply humane and empowering. This book, Paul hopes, would better prepare us to embark on that inevitable journey toward the end, that ultimate transformation and transcendence, when breath becomes air, from life to death.
After getting a BA and then an MA degree in English literature in Stanford, considering the answer to the capital Truth, to death itself can never be gained by reading but only by experiencing, Paul departed from the road of the academia of literature for the medical training, determined to confront the death face to face. Yet in his last months of life, he seeks again the comforts and strength in words of some of the best verse and prose produced by the masters before us. As Hemingway neatly put: gain the rich experience, retreat in the cogitate, then write about them. Words become Paul's medium to convey and understand his direct experience: of living, dying, reflecting the past, coping with the regrets, expressing love and saying goodbyes to the loved ones, all the while staring at death right in the face, frail yet not weak, light of life dimming yet not wavering. Thus, the book in our hands, becomes the utmost valuable scripture, providing guidance, pep-talks, and lively anecdotes to prepare us, in concrete and deeply humane terms, for the ultimate crossroads we would soon reach.
I would like to conclude with the last three sentences of the epilogue written by Lucy, Paul's wife, Cady's mother:
"For much of his life, Paul wondered about death-and whether he could face it with integrity. In the end, the answer was yes.
I was his wife and a witness."