When Breath Becomes Air
I remember the last meaningful conversation I had with my Aunt. It was in May of 2016, and we were at her house having an afternoon coffee.
The conversation turned to travel, and she said, “If I could go anywhere right now, I think it would be Ireland. The land looks so pretty, and the people seem friendly.” Being from Alabama, open friendliness had always ranked high on the character quality list for both her and my mother.
I told her Ireland was on my travel radar, and I hoped to get there soon. She responded, with her former spark of hope and tenacity, “You know, maybe I just will too.”
She had been diagnosed with cancer in October of 2015, but she had gone through the usual chemo and radiation and had been told that she was in remission. Although she tired easily, she seemed to be getting her life back into some state of normalcy.
Journal Entry | July 12, 2016, 10:35 pm | “My Aunt will die soon. Only weeks left. I found out tonight. My sister told me. Her cancer has metastasized. Basically everywhere.”
I was in a hotel room in Melbourne, Florida when I received that call. The next morning, I sat by the ocean, squinting into the bright sunshine reflecting off the waves, and began reading When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi.
All night I had thought and dreamt about death, so why not read about one man’s story of his own journey to the inevitable?
“The fact of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live.”Paul Kalanithi | When Breath Becomes Air
I finished Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air that same day. And cried quite a few times as I lay reading it on the beach. Salty tears slid past the dark frames of my sunglasses, but I didn’t care.
I cried for him, his story, and I cried for my Aunt. Paul Kalanithi had already passed on by the time I was reading his book, and the specter of Death was at my Aunt’s door. “She’s only 65…isn’t that when you’re supposed to retire? Travel? Enjoy your so-called “golden years”? Go to Ireland…?
“I would have to learn to live in a different way, seeing death as an imposing itinerant visitor but knowing that even if I’m dying, until I actually die, I am still living.”Paul Kalanithi | When Breath Becomes Air
Journal Entry | August 11th, 2016 | 12:25 am: “My Aunt died today.”
The funeral was on Saturday, August 13th, and afterward, we drove to St George Island, Florida to join a group of close friends for a week at the beach. I couldn’t help but feel some strange circularity to it all. Or maybe I just happened to go to the beach a lot that year.
Whatever the reason, I found myself revisiting Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air one more time as I spent those sunny days on a Florida beach. I felt sadness somewhere deep down and numbness, like none of it had actually happened. I would go back home; she would be there. But, my brain told me she wouldn’t. I had seen the casket in the earth, and she had passed…on.
Having been surrounded so much by disease and death, you might think it would be unhealthy to immerse yourself more in it by reading a book about someone’s struggle with disease and death, but I found it soothing.
When I didn’t know how to talk about loss, or even really want to, When Breath Becomes Air allowed me to have an inner conversation with Kalanithi and an eventual understanding–a means to cope in a way that no living person, no matter how dear, could provide.
“Maybe in the absence of any certainty, we should just assume that we’re going to live a long time. Maybe that’s the only way forward.”Paul Kalanithi | When Breath Becomes Air
Journal Entry: August 14th, 2016 | “I don’t know what life holds for me, and it terrifies me a whole lot of the time. Both my Grandmothers had cancer, now my Aunt. What if my Mom is next, or my sister, or me?
But, we don’t know, so therefore we must live. I feel sad so much, but it will fade. Until it is here, what can death do? More reason why we need to live now, not later. We don’t know what will happen or what is in store. Live now. Be in the now. Find some peace now.
It’s been years now since my Aunt’s death. I know my Mom still hasn’t fully recovered and most likely never will. Almost every time I see her, she brings up a story or mention of her sister.
While some might say that it’s not healthy to linger over the lost, maybe it’s her own way of coping, her own way of keeping her alive.
“Human knowledge is never contained in one person. It grows from the relationships we create between each other and the world, and still it is never complete. And Truth comes somewhere above all of them.”Paul Kalanithi | When Breath Becomes Air
Journal Entry: May 11, 2017 | “Ireland is so small. I think I see the Cliffs of Moher below me. I’m glad I have a window seat…so much green. Time to put the laptop away. We’re about to land in Dublin.
“I don’t believe in the wisdom of children, nor in the wisdom of the old. There is a moment, a cusp, when the sum of gathered experience is worn down by the details of living. We are never so wise as when we live in this moment.”
On Living a Meaningful Life
“Because the brain mediates our experience of the world, any neurosological problem forces a patient and family, ideally with a doctor as a guide, to answer this question: What makes life meaningful enough to go on living?”
On Living | On Dying
“He who should teach men to die would at the same time teach them to live.” | Michel de Montaigne That to Study Philosophy Is to Learn to Die
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