When Breath Becomes Air: The Perfect Book at the Perfect Time

Friday, March 18, 2016 - 5:03am
The New Better Off

When Breath Becomes Air: The Perfect Book at the Perfect Time

I’m sitting on a plane sniffling in between sips of ginger ale. For a time I sat in the dark, my right hand resting on my growing belly where a little being I have yet to see pushes up against my abdomen more and more often these days. I cried.

I looked over at John, my partner, whose head is bobbing as he falls asleep, his arms folded across his chest. Then I opened my computer. Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air lies on the seat next to me.

There are no words left for me to read — this devastatingly beautiful and beautifully devastating book by a neurosurgeon who chronicles his own death and the meaning he gleans from it. The end caught me off-guard. I immediately wished for more words, frantically reading the acknowledgments, his bio, even the table of contents as if they would reveal something additionally important.

Then I realized my sense of being caught off-guard matches his own experience, the experiences of his family and friends. His death rushed in, not long after the birth of his daughter. He lives on through her and through this book — and through this feeling that fills me.

I got my 20-week sonogram last Friday morning. My parents were in town; they came along and sat in the small room with me as the sonographer squeezed the gel onto my protruding belly and started pressing the wand into me, searching for this one-pound mystery that’s taking shape within my body, within the narrative of my life.

My dad marveled, as is his M.O., at the technology, at the technician’s skill, at the wonder of it all. My mom sat near me in a chair, delighted, but also more grounded somehow. I could almost feel the gravity of her experience, of her wisdom. She’s been viscerally intimate with the risk and miracle of all of this.

“Did they do a sonogram like this when you were pregnant with me?” I asked her.

“I know we got a picture, but I don’t remember ever seeing anything on a screen like this: the movement, the clarity,” she explained.

I felt so aware, in that moment, of time folding in on itself. My parents are now witnessing their third grandchild taking form, another piece of the puzzle of their story, a story they can’t believe is filled with good fortune, even as it has been filled with suffering and loss. I felt like a vessel, not just for this baby, but also for a surprising story — one that none of us singularly authors.

We got pictures. In some, it looks like my tiny girl is waving. In another, she’s sucking her thumb (or so the sonographer guessed). Her profile is there, plain as day.

“She’s got your nose,” my dad said. I laughed at him.

By noon the office called to say that they wanted me to come back in for another sonogram.

“It’s not a problem,” the receptionist emphasized in the voicemail. “The doctor just wants a better view of the baby.”

I was immediately filled with dread, imagining all of the things that might be wrong. Her well-intentioned words — “it’s not a problem” — seemed like a trick. John tried to reassure me with rationality and hugs. Friends tried to reassure me via rapid text message exchanges. I tried to reassure myself, thinking: You know that life doesn’t exist on two planes — perfect and doomed. It exists on a spectrum of imperfection. This baby, this story, is not over because it may have some imperfection. All humans do. It’s just a matter of when and how we discover them, what we do about them. That’s how grace is born.

Before I got into bed that night, I crept into my two-year-old daughter’s room and watched her sleep by the faint light of the hallway. I do this almost every night now. Just for a moment.

When I got into our bed, I felt so filled with incredulity that human beings tolerate loss, or even the threat of it. I can imagine that something might be wrong with this pregnancy, and it’s frightening but a sliver of me can imagine being strong about it and working through it. But no part of me understands how to cope with the reality that something could happen to my Maya.

I blurt out to John in the darkness, “How can anyone be a parent and tolerate the truth that something terrible could happen to a child?”

“But we keep her safe. The people who care for her keep her safe,” he reassured me.

“But none of us have total control. She could get in an accident or get cancer…” I trailed off.

My incredulity wasn’t limited to the dread that a parent lives with, but the dread that a human lives with. How can any of us tolerate living when death — specifically death of people we love — is so possible? So inevitable, actually.

“Everything is going to be okay,” he said, the thing we say because we must, and because, depending on your definition of okay, it is true.

The next day, I woke up and fed Maya waffles and we studied a slug on the sidewalk and John and I laughed at ourselves in traffic. The next day I found out there truly wasn’t anything wrong with my pregnancy, just a picture missing.

The next day, I read When Breath Becomes Air.

It speaks to the heart of my incredulity in the darkness of our shared bedroom. We go on, keep loving, risk losing, because we have no other choice. We might die. We will die eventually. Or by some lights, even worse, people we love might die, will die eventually, and there’s nothing we can do.

It’s what makes love so brave. The bravest thing you can do, really. To love a child, of course, doesn't feel particularly brave on the surface, because it doesn’t feel like a choice. My heart-shattering love of Maya grew up as she did, as involuntary as her own tenacious quest to become a person who eats and speaks and walks.

Paul Kalanithi teaches me that meaning-making is not a choice. No, we don’t write our own stories. No, we don’t have ultimate control. But we do have agency to make our time count. And it follows that we can’t make our time count if we are sitting around, paralyzed by the fear of losing those we love. There is meaning in contemplating the fragility of life, but you can’t dwell here too long or you lose track of the opportunity to make meaning in the midst of all the fragility. Kalanithi, even in his final days, sought the pleasure of poetry and ideas and work and service.

He wrote a book, an incomplete book, that felt utterly complete to me in how it transmitted these messages that I needed to hear, on this airplane now rumbling through turbulence somewhere over eastern Wisconsin. I am side-by-side with a partner whom I crave to grow very old and silly with, with whom I am creating a flawed but sturdy home for a restless little being who I hope is healthy. I am the mother of a two-year-old, whose very in-and-out breaths I worship. I am the daughter of parents who I desperately don’t want to lose anytime soon. I am a reader, a writer, fragile and brave, a meaning-maker.

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Courtney E. Martin

is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears every Friday.

Her newest book, The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, explores how people are redefining the American dream (think more fulfillment, community, and fun, less debt, status, and stuff). Courtney is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and a strategist for the TED Prize. She is also co-founder and partner at Valenti Martin Media and FRESH Speakers Bureau, and editor emeritus at Feministing.com.

Courtney has authored/edited five books, including Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women. Her work appears frequently in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Courtney has appeared on the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, MSNBC, and The O’Reilly Factor, and speaks widely at conferences and colleges. She is the recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics and a residency from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre. She lives with her partner in life and work, John Cary, in Oakland, and their daughters Maya and Stella. Read more about her work at www.courtneyemartin.com.

Share Your Reflection



Really it's a educative post . Thank yo so much for sharing this with us.

I always feel like I have received a gift when I read Courtney. Though we are decades apart in chronological age, I always feel the timelessness of her wisdom. This particular essay took me to remembrances of my own mothering of a two-year old, who is now 38, and the sense of connectedness and embracing of life, interlaced with all manner of difficulty. Courtney helps me see and feel more wonder and gratitude for all of it. Deep bows of gratitude to you Courtney.

Having just finished this book my face is still wet with tears...not tears of sadness but tears for Paul Kalanthi's soul piercing honesty & heart felt message to live on. Live on in raw honesty, live on in gratitude, & live on knowing the end can be faced fully intentioned & with love.

Realy , I'm also agree with you that, right time right things or perfect time perfect things.

Loving anyone and parenting specifically are most courageous. Some of us who stepped back from one or both of these experiences could not face the fear of loss of control. Reassuring to have it acknowledged and explored in Courtney's piece. Grateful to be sent to When Breathe Becomes Air as facing loss is imminent.

I loved this book, too, and loved your review of it...beautifully written. Thank you for it.

You have set a sense of your heart in my hands. Very tender and gentle. I am grateful, on your behalf, that you're noticing the moments, the realities, the conflicts, the depth. Good on you.

Your writings - your deep reflecting - are deeply moving to me. I have grown children and grown grandchildren and am growing old. I struggle to find/keep this balance "There is meaning in contemplating the fragility of life, but you can’t dwell here too long or you lose track of the opportunity to make meaning in the midst of all the fragility. Kalanithi, even in his final days, sought the pleasure of poetry and ideas and work and service." Another book that I am learning from is "Ripening Time: Inside Stories for Aging with Grace" by Sherry Ruth Anderson.
Thank you for your grace and wisdom. I live in the East Bay and if you have a mailing list, would love to hear about any of your public appearances. Thank you Anita Goldstein

I did the same thing when finishing When Breath Becomes Air...became a bit frantic, reading the acknowledgments, etc, looking for more....as if it couldn't be true that he is gone. Of course I knew it before I started the book, but in coming to "know" him, I felt his loss rather acutely....me, the hospice nurse. Life is such a beautiful, tragic, awesome journey....takes my breath away!

Again you say it as I feel it, Courtney. Not sure whether it's the Irish-Catholic in me or something else that has me sometimes too entranced by the tragic, the loss, the fear. I can get too entangled there. It's as you suggest--those parts of life aren't supposed to get the final word. If they did, civilization would never go on. I think of myself as a meaning-maker, too, in spite of all that sometimes threatens my ability to do so. As Brene Brown reminds me, we're built for struggle. I look forward to When Breath Becomes Air because I, too, see something miraculous and even super-human in folks who, staring right at death, continues to make meaning and bestow offerings. I so much want to be like that. Thanks for this one, Courtney, and blessings to you and John with the news of your new little one.

Thank you for sharing. You are my friend though we've never met. I wish the best for you. Be well. Love.

I felt much the same way after reading Courtney's reflection that I did upon concluding When Breath Becomes Air: stunned, shaken, moved, humbled. Courtney, your writing hits me at the very center of my being, just as Paul's did (and Lucy's, too, for that matter; her epilogue was astounding in its eloquence and grace). How right you and Paul both are: meaning-making is not a choice. And: how brave we are to forge onward with our lives when love and loss and beauty and pain are all invariably and inextricably connected. Thank you for this magnificent reflection.

Beautiful Courtney...thank you for your honest voice. Your exquisite naming of the human love experience. When I took our newborn, Patrick (now 31, walking... and skiing 60 mph on his own!) for his first walk in historic Crocus Hill...I looked hard at every crack in the sidewalk. What if I stumbled? Fell? Our precious little one harmed? It was acute present-centered consciousness. And I instantly knew I couldn't live that way. You frame the Love Courage Paradox (just made that up) so beautifully. I love you...and confess I don't want any of my beloved ones to die, either. Ever. Now----the best thing I can do about that is to jump into the deep end of my heart and live fully, right? Thanks----I loved loved loved When Breath Becomes Air, too.

I follow the blog, A Cup of Jo, and this book was written by her brother-in-law. I made the mistake of reading the sample while I was at my office. Tears! I enjoyed what I read and I plan to read the rest as soon as I can. I loved your post. You always do a beautiful job capturing what I am thinking and don't know how to express. Bless your little girls and glad to hear that all was ok. It's so scary to get that phone call even if they assure you it's not a problem!!!

so amazing ..just felt your fear .. being divorce my biggest worry if the time comes and if my kids go to their dad and how life is without them ...