This Christmas one of my very good friends and I decided to do a book exchange. We each picked a book out and sent it to the other. She sent me a book called, When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. It is a true story of a young Doctor about to complete his Neurosurgeon Residency, when he gets a terminal cancer diagnosis. For months that book sat on my side table waiting for me to pick it up and read it, but I didn’t. Usually I devour books, but I held off on reading this one. After a while I decided that I would save it to read on our upcoming vacation. Instead, yesterday I picked up the book and devoured it in a few short hours.
The book started out with a beautiful forward written by a new friend of the author. I knew right away this was a book that would make me cry. I turned then to the first few words written by Paul, the author. It first started with Paul and his wife taking a separation from each other. They had been having marital troubles because of the stress he was under with his residency and his health. As his health declined on a quick trip, he knew he had cancer. From there the story moves on to his life and how he got to the point of diagnosis. You could tell you were reading the thoughts of an intelligent man, however he wasn’t trying to impress you with flowery language. His first section of the book was a quick read. I don’t know if it was just his style of writing or if it was because I was so engrossed in his story. You could tell he loved life, he loved his family, he loved his upbringing, and he loved medicine.
I read about his education and how he struggled with the decision to become a doctor. I read about his first few months of medical school, then his first time on a hospital floor. He didn’t shy away from his failures. He explained the lessons he learned. He didn’t just outline his triumphs to pat himself on the back. He showed his love and passion for what he did though in his stories. One of the lines that stuck out to me was, “if it’s not your passion then it’s just a job.” There was a turning point for him though while going through his residency, he saw how to read people and learned how to deliver news. He told about tough decisions he had to help families make, on prolonging a life but at what cost. As I was reading I knew he was an amazing doctor.
Then I came to his diagnosis. He talked about his feelings openly. He explored the decisions he and his wife were making. He was vulnerable. He shared meeting with his oncologist and how his oncologist helped him realize what he needed and wanted. His oncologist was another amazing doctor. He outlined the joys and the sorrows he had. He outlined how he felt while prolonging his life with a new treatment. I rooted for him as he made it back into working grueling hours as a surgeon. I wept with him as he talked about his last ever surgery when his cancer flared back up. I prayed for him and his wife as they brought a child into the world. I wanted their child to have fond memories of him.
I then sobbed as his wife took over the remainder of the book. I sobbed for the pain he and his family went through. I sobbed for the unfairness of life. That’s where my husband found me, sobbing in my chair over a family I had never met, when he told me the news my uncle was going on Hospice. Honestly, I felt as if God wanted me to read that book yesterday. I learned so much from that book. I learned that it’s always going to hurt to lose someone no matter how prepared you are. It is always unfair. However there is a grace in death, and learning to accept it. Knowing death is just another part of life, and you can prolong it but at what cost. Is it fair to keep your body moving when there is no more enjoyment in life for you? When your mind is gone is it worth still being here? What hurts your loved ones more, not being able to communicate with you but having you there withering away, or having loving memories of you? I needed to read that book to see death from a doctors perspective. I needed to read that book to learn you know when it’s your time. I needed to read that book to know there is beauty in controlling how you will die.
My Uncle passed away shortly after we had heard the news he was going on Hospice. My heart aches for the pain that my Aunt and cousins are going through. I pray for comfort for all of his friends and family. But I know now there was beauty in his passing. I will always get to remember him as the tallest person I have ever met. I always had to crane my neck up to catch a glimpse of his mischievous smile. He was the type of Uncle everyone wanted. He was fun, boisterous, he could draw, he could do all the voices when he read stories, and he let me be a California girl briefly. He was the type of Uncle that was interested in your life. Whenever we did talk about my accomplishments though he always peppered in comments about his kids. He is the proudest father to three lucky children, and I know they have the best memories of him. I am so lucky to have known him. This is going to hurt for a lot of people, but knowing he is at peace now is comforting. Knowing he was able to make the decision is helpful. It is good to know he was ready for his breath to become air.