When Breath Becomes Air

I can’t go on. I’ll go on.

One of my friends was the first person to introduce me to this book. We go through these things often. Finding the next book to read is my least favourite part of reading. So stuck in a classroom, waiting for a professor to show up, I asked her – “Have you read anything good lately?” And she said, without a moment’s thought- read this book, ‘When breath becomes air’. The title itself intrigued me. When I came home a few months later, I found one of my grandfather’s friends had said almost the exact same thing to him, and lent him the book to boot. So when I found it around the house, I leaped on the chance to finally read it.

When Breath Becomes Air is a memoir of sorts, by Paul Kalanithi, published posthumously. It’s the story of this neurosurgery resident, 1 year away from graduation. He’s one year away from this thing he’s worked so hard for, for so long. In one year, he can finally unpause his life, get a six figure salary, take it at a slower pace, ease his strained marriage, have kids. Then one fine day he wakes up with excruciating back pain. At age 36, his diagnosis is Stage IV lung cancer.

This book is not another cancer story. Or a doctor’s story. It’s this man’s story. It’s a story of life and death, and what is more universal than that? It’s his very fascination with this concept that’s the backbone of this book, and in fact, his life and his career in neuroscience and medicine.

He talks about his experiences, the slow transformation from civilian to medical student, student to doctor, doctor to scientist. As a medical student, with much of the same existential questions, his fascination with these concepts was especially resonant.

In our rare reflective moments, we were all silently apologizing to our cadavers, not because we sensed the transgression but because we did not.

He talks about fortunately or unfortunately, slowly losing the human touch, realising that, and trying to make amends. He talks about the incredible science behind what he does.

He talks of being a surgeon, of handling people’s brains, their very identity. He describes his first birth, his first death, these experiences so profound, you’d think anyone wouldn’t have words to describe them. He finds the words. He talks about panicking on handling his first patient by himself in an emergency, and it slowly becoming routine to the point that he was able to rescue his ice cream sandwich and finish eating it after a trauma call. The life of doctors indeed.

Those burdens are what make medicine holy and wholly impossible: in taking up another’s cross, one must sometimes get crushed by the weight.

He also talks about his own life after his diagnosis, his further fascination with the concept of death, his understanding of what his life meant to him, his methods to deal with his sudden disability.

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. The fact of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live. Death may be a one-time event, but living with terminal illness is a process.

We see him changing from doctor to patient to human being and all the way back again. We see him as he grapples with major life decisions, talks about relationships that he forged that pulled him through this time, and things he gained because of this time.

“Will having a newborn distract from the time we have together?” she asked. “Don’t you think saying goodbye to your child will make your death more painful?”

“Wouldn’t it be great if it did?” I said. Lucy and I both felt that life wasn’t about avoiding suffering.”

This book is an intelligent, touching, telling of the story of a man. Several times, you have to stop to think about something you never thought about just that way before. Often, you have to pause to identify with the same things he’s feeling.

Strangely extremely relevant to me, as a medical student, and as a person interested in all the same things this man was interested in, this book was a must read for me. It will be for you too. Even if you don’t share these interests. This book is one of those you carry with you long after you put it down. So go pick it up as soon as you can.

Poetry in life.

This is not going to be a philosophical discussion about how we should appreciate the beauty of the smaller things in life, about how poetry lies in a child’s smile or a mother’s hand. No, I am going to talk about how poetry affects our lives. Even the lives of those who don’t really read poetry.

Poetry is born from emotions. Love, heartbreak, anger, disgust, hope, hopelessness, nostalgia. Poetry is born when we feel something, and for this very reason, is as powerful as it always has been. When done right, of course.

My childhood included a lot of poetry. For this, I have my school textbooks to thank. From nursery rhymes- aren’t they poetry? They capture an emotion. Joy. Childhood. Happiness. Silliness. Yes, they’re poetry – to Shakespeare.

Row, row, row your boat,
Gently down the stream,
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,
Life is but a dream.

Life lesson right there.

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall.
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.

Don’t sit on huge walls. Great advice on how to stay alive.

When we grew up, it only got better. The first one I remember was Rain in summer by H. W. Longfellow. I still remember our amusement with that name. But his words couldn’t be more true.

How beautiful is the rain,
After the dust and heat,
In the broad and fiery street

Living in India, I couldn’t have appreciated it more. I could all but see it. Actually, I think I did.

Wordsworth with his Daffodils.
I came across this one a couple of times. At first, it was just something about a yellow flower I’d never seen. And then it was about how you keep certain memories and you bring them up when you’re sad, or pensive, or lonely, and their warmth lights you up from the inside. And he called it Daffodils.

We all had Road not taken by Robert Frost, more than once. I took it literally the first time,had no idea what the big deal was all about. It was just a guy taking a walk. And then years later,

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.

I can’t say I know what he’s talking about. I don’t think I have that kind of courage.

We had a fun poem about the English language once.

If I speak of my foot and show you my feet,
And I give you a boot, would a pair be called beet?
If one is a tooth and a whole set are teeth,
Why shouldn’t the plural of booth be called beeth?

Then the masculine pronouns are he, his and him,
But imagine the feminine: she, shis and shim!

English is a beautiful language.

I discovered Tennyson.

Home they brought her warrior dead: 
She nor swooned, nor uttered cry: 
All her maidens, watching, said, 
‘She must weep or she will die.’ 

Then they praised him, soft and low, 
Called him worthy to be loved, 
Truest friend and noblest foe; 
Yet she neither spoke nor moved. 

Stole a maiden from her place, 
Lightly to the warrior stepped, 
Took the face-cloth from the face; 
Yet she neither moved nor wept. 

Rose a nurse of ninety years, 
Set his child upon her knee— 
Like summer tempest came her tears— 
‘Sweet my child, I live for thee.’

It was the first time I heard words work together like that. Like music. I learnt that poetic license had a purpose, and that my mind could make music.

Poetry has made a mark, if I liked it or not. There’s too many that did, to cover in one go. Stay tuned!

One big machine

 

I’d imagine the whole world was one big machine. Machines never come with any extra parts, you know. They always come with the exact amount they need. So I figured, if the entire world was one big machine, I couldn’t be an extra part. I had to be here for some reason. And that means you have to be here for some reason, too

The invention of Hugo Cabret
– Brian Selznick.

When the darkness beckons:

We are drawn to evil. Have you noticed? When you read a book, its the bad guy you’re attracted by. The hero is a cliche. He’s a saving the damsel in distress, slaying the dragons cliche. The villain, however has no limits. He can be anything and anyone he wants. And most often, if its done right, you like him a little bit too. Sometimes, more than a little bit.

Come on. He’s evil. He’s terrifying. He wants to impose suffering on the world. He wants to torture your heroine. He wants world domination. He just wants to eat the other characters. He is limitless. And you just can’t hate him.

Why is evil so fascinating, so attractive? Is it the scary part? Is it that you can empathize with these characters, a little bit? Is it the forbidden fruit thing? Is it that there’s a little bit of evil in all of us? Why do writers want to write evil characters? Why do actors relish playing villain? Why is evil so memorable? Because it is.

All time famous villains have a special place in our heart. You can’t hate them and you can’t love them. But they’re there, sucking you into the story with their black inky damp dark cold ways.

Growing up with books and films, I’ve met quite a few.
>Cruella de vil, from 101 dalmations. Come on, what can be more evil than a -excuse me- woman, who wants to kill cute little dogs so she can make a coat out of their skins. While we’re at it, let’s add all the other Disney villains. Those guys make the best villains.
>Agatha Trunchbull, from Matilda.
I don’t know how many of you remember her, but she was the quintessential villain in the mind of a child. Hates children, has rumoured secret ways to torture, tall and huge and strict and scary, and always willing to torture a child just for the fun of it. And she had her own torture chamber. And she’s headmistress. Very convenient. The rumoured ‘poochandi’ our parents told us about.
>Napoleon, from Animal farm.
The evil pig who takes over animal farm after kicking Snowball out, he’s brilliant, in the lines of the most famous dictators of all time. He plays mind games, divides and conquers, uses chants and sayings and propaganda, so the animals are more miserable and work more than they ever have before, but do it believing they’re better off than they ever were. And he sends off his most loyal supporter to be butchered when he’s too sick to work. All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.
>The white witch, Chronicles of Narnia.
She’s evil and imposing, draws innocent children in with her cold charm, and turns into stone anyone she doesn’t want in her way. Into stone. At least Medusa couldn’t help it.
>Sher khan, the Jungle book.
He’s bitter and hurt and doesn’t want man in the jungle. All justified. He tries to hurt Mowgli, sure. But he’s a villain you just can’t hate. He fears Mowgli will bring fire into the jungle, and wants him out. Guess exactly what Mowgli brings into the jungle.
>Professor Moriarty, Sherlock Holmes.
Well, we needed someone to challenge Sherlock, and who do we have here. A hero is only as good as the villain. And Professor Moriarty is the brilliant nemesis to Detective Sherlock Holmes.
>Loki, The Marvel Universe.
Enough said. Evil and ambitious. The poor adopted boy always in his brother’s shadow. The charming scoundrel. Admit it. You all liked him better than Thor.
>The Joker, The Dark Knight.
He was the best. I do not have to say anymore.
>Hannibal Lecter, The silence of the lambs.
Sophisticated. Cultured. Brilliant. And a cannibal. He’s chilling, because he could be anybody. He could be the man sitting next to you at the restaurant, and who knows what he could be eating. Oops. Who he could be eating. The pinnacle- when he served a man his own cooked brains, and had him eat it.
>Lord Voldemort. The Harry potter series.
You know who he is. Pun intended. He who must not be named is the most evil wizard of our time, and is a standing favourite. If you don’t know why he’s on this list, what are you still doing here?

And of course, who can forget, Shakespeare, who gave us some of the most famous villains. Ever. Case in point,
>Macbeth. Wait. Lady Macbeth. Wait. The pair of them. No. The witches.
The best part, they weren’t villains. They were the story. The reluctant evil, the guilt, the ambition (  Ah, the Hamartia). With the dagger and the hand washing and the bubbling cauldron. I did not appreciate this book when I had to study it for two years. I was an idiot.

There are so many I’ve missed, and many I’ve yet to meet. Add to our collection, and give me books to go read.

Oh. Don’t add Dolores Umbridge to the list. There’s evil, and then there’s EVIL.

A good day.

Its a good day. I’m happy. You know why? I’m on an adventure. I’m all settled in, soft bed, feet tucked in, and I’m going on an adventure. I open the book in my hand.

You know how, sometimes, it doesn’t take much to give you a boost through the day?
A smell that took you back ten years- you’re walking past the kitchens at your convent and there’s bread baking. There always is.
A sound that’s familiar. A half remembered voice in an unfamiliar world. Its a reassurance. A show of support. You can do it. You’ll make friends. It’s new, and it can be exciting, though it’s scary.
A feeling in the air. The sun shined just so. The air tasted just so. There was the smell of rain in the mud. It was a good day.
A sight that’s an echo. A half forgotten memory. A mother holding her daughter’s hand at the checkout line. Friends hugging after a match went well. There’s happiness in the air.
All it takes is a sound, a smell, a feeling. A coldness to the wind, a warmth to the sun, a breeze through the leaves, and you’re back, living your way through a good day, all over again.

Different people have different pick me ups. Things that give them a boost through the day. A cup of coffee in the morning. A kiss before you go out the door. A bar of chocolate. A hey, it’s a good day song. A sweaty workout. Well, whatever works. For me, it’s a book.

I don’t mean to say books are always a pick me up. They don’t always elevate my mood. But they’re my go to. At the end of the day, it’s what I want to do. You know why?

Because it’s pure magic. Its a couple hundred pages. Its black squiggles on a white background. And they make sense to me. They tell me a story. They make me laugh with a good joke. They make me cry with a mushy sentence. They make me feel, for characters that don’t exist, except in my brain, because, now, in my brain, they do. They soothe and they inspire. They make me sit up in the middle of the day and go, you know what, it’s a good day.

The feel of a book in my hand is like a ‘hi, nice to meet you!’. The smell of a good old book, is like an old friend saying hello. Opening it and getting lost, is like a good warm hug. Because, you know its been a good day.