I finished the beautiful and moving When Breath Becomes Air on the subway yesterday on my way to an endocrinologist appointment. I could have finished it in a day or two, but I stretched it over five days, which meant I arrived at my doctor’s office, after finishing the epilogue, in tears. The book is a memoir written by the late neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi in his final months of life as he faced his terminal cancer diagnosis and fought to make and find meaning in the limited time he knew he had left. He and his wife, also a doctor, decided to have a baby (a girl) knowing that Paul would likely not see her grow up. He hoped he would at least live long enough that his daughter might remember him. She was eight months old when he died last March. The book is dedicated to her and is meant to be a way for her to get to know him. It is also meant for other people to reflect on their own lives and how they find and make meaning in them and how they think about facing their own deaths one day.
The idea of mortality and making meaning of the life we have is never too far from my thoughts. But in recent years, especially since becoming a mother, I think of these ideas even more deeply. I think about the legacy I want to leave and how the way I’m raising my children is a way to extend my life — or at least my influence — even after I leave this physical plane. I think about my relationships and about whatever impact I might have on others through this site. Connecting with people and being part of a community — or communities — is, to me, the most valuable way, beyond parenthood, of making meaning in my own life.
And then there’s the idea of facing death — like, the actual process of dying — which is not something I’d thought too much about prior to this fall, when, over the course of about a week, I watched my father-in-law die. It was an experience that was stunning in its profoundness, beauty, sadness, and, at times, tedium. Anyone who has sat through someone’s final days of hospice care knows what I’m talking about. And the whole while, baby Joanie was there, her young life overlapping ever-so-briefly with her grandfather’s. The description in When Breath Becomes Air of Kalanithi’s 8-month-old baby being present in his final hours reminded me of those days this past fall. Of course, there was not so much tragic about our experience, sad as it was, and so much tragic about theirs, but the sense of comfort and peace a baby can bring in those moments, I think, is probably pretty universal. And so is the sadness; He won’t get to see her grow up. She won’t remember knowing him.
Anyway, this is a book that stays with you, which is the kind of book I crave. And now I don’t know what to follow it up with. Stay with the same theme or switch gears entirely (this sounds good!)? (I’ll probably continue with a memoir though…). Recommendations welcome, and I’d love to hear what you’re reading these days, too!