The following is excerpted from the epilogue Dr. Lucy Kalanithi wrote for the best-selling memoir her husband, Dr. Paul Kalanithi, began after receiving a terminal cancer diagnosis at age 36. A promising neurosurgeon, Paul died last year survived by his daughter, Cady, and Lucy, who had his book published posthumously
Paul confronted death — examined it, wrestled with it, accepted it — as a physician and a patient. He wanted to help people understand death and face their mortality. Dying in one’s fourth decade is unusual now, but dying is not. “The thing about lung cancer is that it’s not exotic,” Paul wrote in an email to his best friend, Robin. “It’s just tragic enough and just imaginable enough. [The reader] can get into these shoes, walk a bit, and say, ‘So that’s what it looks like from here … sooner or later I’ll be back here in my own shoes.’ That’s what I’m aiming for, I think. Not the sensationalism of dying, and not exhortations to gather rosebuds, but: Here’s what lies up ahead on the road.” Of course, he did more than just describe the terrain. He traversed it bravely. Paul’s decision not to avert his eyes from death epitomizes a fortitude we don’t celebrate enough in our death-avoidant culture. His strength was defined by ambition and effort, but also by softness, the opposite of bitterness. He spent much of his life wrestling with the question of how to live a meaningful life, and his book explores that essential territory. “Always the seer is a sayer,” Emerson wrote. “Somehow his dream is told; somehow he publishes it with solemn joy.” Writing this book was a chance for this courageous seer to be a sayer, to teach us to face death with integrity.
Relying on his own strength and the support of his family and community, Paul faced each stage of his illness with grace — not with bravado or a misguided faith that he would “overcome” or “beat” cancer but with an authenticity that allowed him to grieve the loss of the future he had planned and forge a new one. He cried on the day he was diagnosed. He cried while looking at a drawing we kept on the bathroom mirror that said, “I want to spend all the rest of my days here with you.” He cried on his last day in the operating room. He let himself be open and vulnerable, let himself be comforted. Even while terminally ill, Paul was fully alive; despite physical collapse, he remained vigorous, open, full of hope not for an unlikely cure but for days that were full of purpose and meaning
Adapted from the book, “When Breath Becomes Air” by Paul Kalanithi. © Copyright by Corcovado, Inc. Reprinted by arrangement with Random House, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.