When air becomes breath


It’s a word everyone recognizes, but no know truly understands.  Even when it ravishes through your own body, setting up impenetrable fortresses, and taking over each territory in an ugly game of Risk, it is near impossible to comprehend.

That’s because cancer is an enigma. For life, we need death.  For the proper formation and function of our organs, cells need to die.  Though cancer may be the cause of death for so many, cancer is enigmatically immortality.  The agelessness of cancerous cells is what results in the shutdown of organ systems and ultimately death.

Death is as natural a process as life, and yet we grapple for understanding in its wake.  Being the salient individuals we are, comprehending our own mortality is an impossible endeavor, but that doesn’t stop us from trying.  No one in our time has put it in quite the same context as Dr. Paul Kalanithi in his posthumous memoir When Breath Becomes Air.

This article is not a review of his book, which was one of the few I’ve ever read front to back in a single sitting–it’s short, but also exceedingly captivating.  This is, simply and meaninglessly, my appreciation for Kalanithi’s life and exploration of his own mortality, in his own words.

“Humans are organisms, subject to physical laws, including alas, the one that says entropy always increases.  Diseases are molecules misbehaving; the basic requirement of life is metabolism, and death its cessation.”

“It felt to me as if the individual strands of biology, morality, life, and death were finally beginning to weave themselves into, if not a perfect mortal system, a coherent worldview and a sense of my place in it.”

“I began to realize that coming in such close contact with my own mortality
had changed both nothing and everything.
Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when.  After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when.
But now I knew it acutely.
The problem wasn’t really a scientific one. The fact of death is unsettling.
Yet there is no other way to live.”

“The word hope first appeared in English about a thousand years ago, denoting some combination of confidence and desire.
But what I desired–life–was not what I was confident about–death.”

In striving to understand death (when breath becomes air), Kalanithi came to understand the meaning of life (when air becomes breath).

As I sat reading his memoir, tears pouring down my cheeks for a man I did not know, I felt all at once powerful and powerless.  Death comes for us all, so it’s certainty could be a source of comfort, and yet the uncertainty of what happens when you’ve reached that door is a deep-rooted anxiety that exists in us all.

Kalanithi’s wife finished his beautiful memoir after his death.  She recounts that his final breath was exhaled, becoming air in a beacon of peace, of which I hope he found.

“Maybe, in the absence of any certainty, we should just assume that we’re going to live a long time. Maybe that’s the only way forward.”

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