I read Paul Kalanithi's beautiful book this week When Breath Becomes Air. I was hesitant about reading it for a long time because I wasn't sure if I would find it too close to home to read about someone dying from cancer. But a fellow transplantee said I should give it a chance and because it's just a small book, I did.
Kalanithi writes about how his journey to become a neurosurgeon started with him wanting to learn more about death. After finishing a Masters in philosophy he decided the way to understand life and death was to study the brain intimately. He became a top neurosurgeon and when he was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer, he, remarkably still preformed surgeries until he no longer had the energy. The book is not a descriptive play by play of what it's like to get cancer but more of a reflective journey of what it means to live and die well. He talked about finding meaning and doing things that were important to him in every step of his life and death.
Besides learning about how intense you need to be to become a neurosurgeon, it left me thinking about death. Something I haven't thought about much since ending chemo because it seems when you're healthy, it's not something you think about. Realistically, it's something I haven't had to confront since my transplant. Not to underplay how scary cancer and chemotherapy were but at no time did I have that overwhelming feeling that I might die soon (except during some of the chemo fevers but that only lasted a day or two). While waiting for a lung transplant, it was more prevalent as there was the real fear that if I didn't get a transplant, I would die. Or that I might die during the transplant. And when I went into lung failure right before the transplant, it was very imminent.
Now that I'm healthy, it's just not on my mind as often. This book brought me back to thinking about what it means to have a life well lived. Kalanithi talks about how much more he wanted to do with his life, as a top neurosurgeon who saved a ton of lives. It makes my life of saving zero lives and cutting zero tumours out of anyone's brain seem small in comparison.
I have no answers about what defines a meaningful life but obviously we don't all have to be neurosurgeons to make an impact on the world. I think just trying to leave the
world a tiny bit better than when you came into it is a fairly good goal. And to be a positive energy to those you encounter seems like a good start. It doesn't have
to be anything grand.
I would recommend to read the book if you have the chance (your local library probably has a copy!) or listen about it on CBC's White Coat Black Art.