I picked When Breath Becomes Air up only because I’d seen it mentioned by a few of my friends. Not a single review had given it anything less than a perfect 5. Now I know why.
What is with the equanimity of those that have come to terms with death? I came to this after reading Oliver Sacks on death, and I expected to read something different; something with a sense of urgency in it. After all, time is what you should be stringent on, especially when you know for a fact that you’re running out of it.
The book started with Paul Kalanithi introducing himself, as if accompanying us on a train journey, now familiar because he’d taken it so many times; pointing at the various scenes outside the window, narrating a story behind each of those. It was as if he was blissfully unaware that the last station was fast approaching. It is a skill, to be aware of how much you have left to say even before you start saying something. It seemed like Paul possessed it in abundance. Either that, or it was enough no matter how little he said. For the most part, it felt like I was the one being convinced that it was going to be ok. He was a doctor after all.
I was told I was going to be weeping as I read the book. I didn’t deny that as I had a tendency to get emotionally invested too quickly for my own well being. But it didn’t happen right away. I read this in two sittings. I was halfway through and I had to remind myself that I’m reading the last words of a man whom I didn’t want to stop talking. He spoke so beautifully, knowing when to quote Eliot and when the Bible.
Abraham Verghese in his foreword asks us to read Paul’s last words out loud, because it would have the same effect as when he read Religio Medici, written in the prose of 1642. I thought he was being dramatic. Thankfully, he wasn’t. I didn’t look ahead in the book. When I read the last paragraph that Paul had written, I didn’t know those were the last words of the book. There were a few dozen pages left, and just like I’d mentioned, the book was so gentle, so calm and lacked a sense of urgency that I didn’t see the end coming. I’d already read the last paragraph several times, not knowing this is what Verghese was talking about. When I turned the pages, the epilogue began with the words “Paul died..” Then it hit me. I went back to his last words, read them over and over again, unaware of whether it was a few times, or several.
I hadn’t cried yet. I raced through the epilogue. The irony strong in the fact that the sense of urgency had set in when the concept of time no longer applied to Paul, just like his words that were now timeless. I stopped when Lucy (Paul’s wife) mentioned an instance a few months after Elizabeth (their daughter) was born. Paul, while going through his everyday exercise of reading poetry out loud on video to track his deteriorating health, insists that he would recite that particular piece again, now from memory. With the family sitting around, his mom exclaims, “So like him!” That’s when the tears came.
By that point in the book, Paul was an old friend. I was grieving. The train had stopped and I’d gotten down, but the journey was far from being done. I had known Paul for a wonderful 200 pages, and it was quite the friendship. He would have turned 40 yesterday.
There are several people, living and dead, who have left behind so many lessons on how to live life. But Paul here taught me how to face death, as for a man, nothing is as sure as death. He was the third Peverell brother who “greeted Death as an old friend, and went with him gladly, and, as equals, they departed this life.”