What Makes Human Life Meaningful, Even In The Face Of Death And Decay?

When Breath Becomes Air is an impactful memoir of Paul Kalanathi.  A doctor by profession who was diagnosed with cancer, narrated his journey to what motivated him to become a neurosurgeon, love-life, work experiences, and learnings and how it changed him as a person, a doctor, and a patient until he died.

The story was as normal as it can get. There was nothing extraordinary about it, except one thing. The quest to answer the question – What makes human life meaningful, even in the face of death and decay?

I loved the narration. It has two chapters. They were heart-breaking, breath-taking yet beautiful.

Chapter one detailed the journey to and as a neurosurgeon. The responsibilities, pressure, complexity, learnings, dealing with patients’ immediate relatives, life, and death decisions, etc were well detailed and described. I can still feel the intensity of the situations as I write this.

Chapter two narrated the time he got cancer and had to step down. The medication, stages of deterioration, the ups and downs of the disease, and how it affected the family and immediate relatives were described in detail.

It was heart-breaking, folks. The reality of most cancer patients – dead or recovered.  He learned that life isn’t about avoiding suffering. It was heart-breaking when Paul said, “I worked my whole life to get to this point and now you give me cancer…”

The memoir includes Abraham Varghese and Lucy Kalanathi’s forward and epilogue. The forward raised my expectations while the epilogue… I was speechless.

The book’s start says for Cady… It hurts to know who Cady was. 

The scientific details of subjects like C-section and neurosurgery were interesting and informative.

I liked Paul’s character. His failures taught him that technical excellence was a moral requirement, that good intentions aren’t enough when the difference between tragedy and triumph was defined by one or two millimeters.

With every passing page, I got to know more of him as a doctor and I loved it. He believed that it was his duty to understand the patient’s mind, that in taking up its cross, one must sometimes get crushed by the weight.

I could relate to his love for reading and loved his view of literature. He says, “Literature not only illuminated another’s experience, but it also provided the richest material for moral reflection.”

When breath becomes air is an amazing memoir that I would recommend you read. He narrates his story as a doctor and patient that covers two sides of the same coin, triggers your emotions, and will teach you a lot about life and death.

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