When breath becomes air

There would come a day when I will be strong enough, I told myself as I wept. I felt the foggy stares from the passengers. How could some people casually dismiss death with “it happens to everyone.” No! It doesn’t! Shut up! I screamed – inside my head. The book had gone quite by now. Breath had become air. Fog became dank darkness.

Some books affect us in surprisingly emotional ways. I wrote about one book last year. This year, I picked a book expecting no such surprise. Because I knew this one would hurt.

When breath becomes air – Dr. Paul Kalanithi

As I started reading the foreword to the book, there it was – the looming hurt. Paul is dead. I didn’t think it would show up so early. How could a foreward bring tears? It was an afterword.

Every few pages, the weight of my eyes made the rest of me feel very light. With regular breaks to purge my emotions, I read. I found myself stopping at 100 pages. The book was riveting. But, I couldn’t take any more for the day. I sank in the chair staring into blank space. The heaviness of the heart sank me further down.

I got through the middle fairly quick, but I couldn’t get myself to read till the end. I knew what was coming. Like Paul. There was a time I cried for Lion King and comforted myself by saying, it’s just cartoon! But what do I tell myself here? That I don’t know Paul? How can someone become your best friend and then a stranger inside a book within hours?

I finally got myself to finish the book in a train – big mistake! You’ve got to have eye drops for wet eyes. I knew it was coming, and yet, here I was – hoping Paul would say his cancer has gone into remission, and that he was back in the hospital, practicing. But, so much unraveled in last 10 pages and — it was over.

Enter, my head:

It can’t be over. Say something man. Doc? Paul? Tell me you are working on the next book. Where’s the page that says this is a work of fiction? Now that I know you, you go into the unknown?

Paul was gone and it felt like I had lost a best friend. Every once a while someone comes along to remind you of the meaning of life. I am glad it was a book this time. Or Paul. Paul’s book is not about death. It’s about life and how to live one. And that’s why I think we must read it.

Paul’s message to his year-old daughter:

That message is simple: When you come to one of the many moments in life when you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more, but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.


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