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When Breath Becomes Air

Life is short, even when it is long. Knowing the history of the dying, although it seems a bitter lesson, is the best way to learn to live. The American doctor bestseller Paul Kulanithi is the week's tip of this series of books to understand death

Dustin Lee Unsplash

We should talk, listen and read more about mortality. We should try to understand death better understand death so, when confronted with our own or from those we love, we can be more prepared. The books are great companions on this journey and can guide and inspire an important reflection that we always postpone.

One of these remarkable stories, worth the emotional investment (and the tears shed in it’s reading) is the young doctor neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi that in his last year of medical residency in Stanford, California, had his plans interrupted, at the age of 35, by the discovery of an aggressive cancer that had spread throughout the body. By giving the news to a friend, he had shown how he intended to deal with the new reality: “The good news is that I have lived more than (Emily) Brontë, (John) Keats and Stephen Crane. The bad news is that I did not write anything.”

Two years later, when he died on a Monday, March 9, 2015, surrounded by family in a hospital bed, he had a daughter he and his wife, Lucy, also a doctor, conceived in the course of the disease and his first and final book ready.

The story of Paul Kalanithi became a worldwide best-seller
The story of Paul Kalanithi became a worldwide best-seller

The story of his life before and after the disease has the beauty, wisdom and sincerity that is only achieved in the face of imminent death. The best summary of what we can learn from reading the book When Breath Becomes Air (Sextant Publishing, 2016) is at the beginning, in the beautiful preface to his teacher, the doctor Abraham Verghese, “Get ready. Sit down. Listen to the sound of courage. Notice how difficult it is to show yourself like that. But, above all, understand what it is to stay alive and be able to influence the lives of others after you’re gone. We live in a world dominated by fast communication with eyes fixed on small rectangular screens and attention consumed by ephemeral activities – but take a moment and experience this dialogue with my young deceased friends, timeless and eternal. Listen to Paul. In the silence of his words, listen to what you have to answer. Therein lies his message. I listened. I hope you can do the same. This is a gift”

The book ends as inspiring as it begins with the postscript written by his widow, Lucy Kalanithi: “This book shows the urgency of a race against time to expressthe important things that Paul had to say. He faced death – examining it, fighting it, accepting it – as doctor and patient. I wanted to help people understand the death and face their mortality. Nowadays, dying before the age of 40 is unusual, but dying is not. ‘Lung cancer is not something exotic‘ wrote Paul to his best friend, Robin. ‘But it is tragic enough and also imaginable’. The (reader) can put himself in my place and say: So death is like that seen from here … but sooner or later I will come back to my point of view. This is my objective, I guess. Not the sensationalism of dying, not the motivation to pick roses, but yes: Here is what lies ahead on the road.