Book Review

When Breath Becomes Air

to have lived, and then to meet death

Viraji Ogodapola
The Howling Owl
Published in
4 min readJan 10, 2024

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Photo by Jr Korpa on Unsplash

As the sun does rise in the morning, so it sets in the twilight. In coming to life, we bring forth death — inevitably, inescapably, and so enviably. For sometimes, we would rather get out evasively than live it out arduously.

Not the case for Dr. Paul Kalanithi though, who set out to live life stoutheartedly in the face of impending death. Being diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer at just 36 years, Kalanithi resolves to continue pursuing his neurosurgery career (his “calling” he reckons), write a book (this book) as he had always wanted, and have a child with his wife, Lucy, just as they have planned in their life before — cancer.

Titled aptly after Greville’s You that seek what life is in death, Kalanithi’s memoir written under dire physical constraints in his last year gets published posthumously as When Breath Becomes Air, winning awards and hearts, becoming a bestseller of no less significance than being short-listed (finalist) for the Pulitzer Prize (for biography or autobiography) in 2017.

The real life account of the young neurosurgeon’s approach to confronting the fact of a life cut abruptly short, When Breath Becomes Air, is a remarkable reflection of how, in the face of death, each of us gets reduced to the frail biological organism that we are, compounded yet with all the moral obligations that we carry.

Grappling to come to terms with the burning why me? from deep inside — the answer to which, he quips, is why not me?! — Kalanithi gives the best of himself (or what’s left of it) to furthering the skills that he is passionate about and eventually excels at them all.

As such, this book will dictate the terms you would want to live your life in. It will place a weight on your shoulders, and as Kalanithi observes quite rightly¹, weight comes with gravity and all things with gravity have an integral force attached. So the book will bring home some heavy stuff with a force of urgency that you would not want to put off for later.

It is this urgency with which you would want to change or steer the course of your own life, that Kalanithi leaves behind as his legacy.

When Breath Becomes Air — cover pages. Pic by author.

I often worry about the state I’d leave my children behind when it’s my time to go. Have I managed to instill the values that I’d like to see in them? Have I taught them well enough to clean after themselves, to never harm another being, and managed to give a healthy dose of the Total Perspective Vortex while at it?

Will they know their true worth, and somehow learn to ignite the spark from within? Will they remember me for what I was striving to be for them? Will they also, perhaps, carry forth some semblance of me in themselves? Is the love I’ve given them enough for them to go on?

Kalanithi gives me the answers I seek. At just eight months, I could tell his little daughter will be carrying all the love he meant for her, his hopes and dreams bundled into the aspirations of the beautiful being she will one day be. For that’s what he had succeeded in instilling in her through his short, but vivid living years. His vigour, passion, compassion, commitment, and dedication will have been deeply felt, fondly remembered, and longingly cherished by the ones he loved way beyond the numbered days he had.

It’s in the living years — in the choices we make, the bonds we form, the relationships we nurture, and the lives we touch in one way or another.
It’s in our daily grind, the high-flying posts we hold, the passions we pursue and the foolish blunders we make being only human.

It’s in the love we share, the empathy we feel, in our vulnerabilities and imperfections just as well as in the silent resilience we bear our lives with.

It’s in the living moments — in what we give of ourselves to each moment that gets carried forward as the essence of the life we lived, after our death.

It’s in the words we write and the air we breathe. The air that once was the breath we took.

I already knew how to be mindfully present in any given moment. After this book, I now simply live it out, for;

²We are never so wise as when we live in this moment.

© January, 2024.

You that seek what life is in death,
Now find it air that once was breath.
New names unknown, old names gone:
Till time end bodies, but souls none.
Reader! then make time, while you be,
But steps to your eternity.

- Baron Brooke Fulke Greville,
Caelica 83: You that seek what life is in death.

  • 1 — “Moral duty has weight, things that have weight have gravity, and so the duty to bear mortal responsibility pulled me back into the operating room.”
  • 2 — “There is a moment, a cusp, when the sum of gathered experience is worn down by the details of living. We are never so wise as when we live in this moment.”
  • 1 & 2 — Excerpts from When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi.
  • Trailer — When Breath Becomes Air:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aetY_zS7Q6M

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Viraji Ogodapola
The Howling Owl

ashes dusted away in morph, in that moment next I’d be.. for now, here I am, grappling in just being..