I finished reading When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanidhi a few days ago.
Peppered throughout the slim volume are references to literary works that appealed to the author during his life. Dr Paul Kalanidhi was a neurosurgeon and neuroscientist. He double majored in Biology and Literature from Stanford University. His love for literature and the underlying angst to understand the question of ‘where morality, biology and philosophy intersect’ are evident throughout the book. His experiences with living and dying as a surgeon only deepened his yearning to understand the truth and he eventually seemed to learned to view his illness as a method of finding out what that very question meant in the face of death.
At one point in time, his oncologist, wanted to start keeping tabs on his mental acuity as tumors spread to his brain. His wife started recording him reading something everyday. One evening, he started reading with his infant daughter seated on his lap. A few seconds into the reading, he put down the book and recited the whole passage from memory. His wife and mother exchange smiles that clearly say, “How typical of him!”. Little glimpses like that made the human being who comes through the pages a very like-able person. A good son, friend, husband, brother, friend, father and doctor.
The book finishes abruptly as time accelerated and Dr Paul Kalanidhi died before he could finish the book.
You can easily skip the prologue. It adds little value to the book or to the personality of the author. But the epilogue written by his wife, Dr Lucy Kalanidhi, was incredible and wrapped up Paul’s story. I read it twice back to back. I loved how beautifully she wrote about the place they chose for his final resting place. A serene place in the Santa Cruz mountains overlooking the coast, and where deer eat the flowers, and gentle rains make the grass grow. It is also the place where the natural elements rage. Much like his life.
There is one particularly moving passage where Dr Paul Kalanidhi writes to his baby daughter, Cady, that there will come a time when she lists her accomplishments and weighs her contributions to the world. At that moment, he tells her never to forget that she made a dying man very happy. I teared up every time I read that.
I felt the same when I read Dr Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture. Both these people may have written their books when they knew they were dying, but both books are incredible pieces on how to live.