“We’re all going to die, and we don’t know when, but suddenly the question had become much more urgent.” ~Dr. Paul Kalahanth.
My Grandmother is one of the nicest people I know, and isn’t prone to directing other people on what to do. So when she said I should read When Breath Becomes Air, I paid attention. She often sends us books to read, ones that she’s enjoyed and thinks we would like. But this one was different. This one we had to read.
The story itself is a summary of the life of Dr. Kalahanth, from boyhood through school to his decision to become a doctor and the trials of medical school and residency. But if this had been a Hollywood romance, it would have ended at the moment of marrying the beautiful girl and finally becoming a full-fledged surgeon, with everyone riding off into the sunset to live happily ever after.
Instead of a sunset, he hears that he has CANCER, all-caps CANCER, as he writes. Fast moving, irreversible, terminal cancer.
It should be a tremendously sad and tragic story, and although I had tears streaming down my face as I read the second half, written by his wife, about his last months and his death itself, the book is surprisingly uplifting. We are privileged to share the story of this man’s life, who faces the same question we all face: we are all going to die, and we don’t know when, but suddenly his answers have a poignancy that he shares with us. What will his legacy be? How does he stay true to the core of himself, even in the midst of a defining disease?
He is a surgeon – he stays in the surgery until the physical demands are far too much. He is a husband and he and his wife decide to have a child, knowing that he may not live long enough to see her born, and knowing that it may be more painful to leave a child behind than not. He is an artist, a lover of literature, and has always wanted to write a book, which he does while battling chemotherapy and other treatments, and not simply a book, but a marvellously personal, well written, engaging one that gains international recognition.
When Breath Becomes Air is a powerful read. It offers a unique glimpse of that threshold of mortality, from the perspective of someone who knows that space well. But at the end of the day, it begs the same question of all of us. You are going to die and you don’t know when. Now, what do you do with your life today AND what legacy do you choose to leave? Have you written it down? You don’t need to write a book, but making a will can assist those left behind in knowing your wishes.
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