I was going to title this post with the Samuel Beckett words mentioned in “When Breathe Becomes Air,” (you’ll get it in a minute) but that seemed too click-baity and that wouldn’t be my intent.
So let’s get to the two random topics mixed in my title, shall we?
First off – thinking about this book…
I read the book, “When Breathe becomes Air” by Paul Kalanithi sometime in early April. The premise of this non-fiction book (a memoir, I guess), is that a neurosurgeon who deals with cancer patients finds that he now has stage 4 lung cancer.
SIDE NOTE: Before you get all twirly, his stage 4 is not my stage 4. Mine is curable. Mine is treatable. His prognosis was very grim. Very low odds. I have awesome odds, so stop being uncomfortable about what you’re about to read. Now let’s continue.
And so he starts writing this book about the meaning of life and death and his experiences of treating cancer patients vs. now being a cancer patient and how that has changed his perspectives. And then, well, the book gets sad because he dies before he can finish it and then his wife picks it up and gives you the final details of his last days.
I know what you’re thinking. Why, Jamie? Why?
First off – this isn’t a book about dying. I mean, obviously, the author himself dies, but the things that he writes are so interesting from both a medical perspective and from a contemplating-the-world-around-you-and-your-place-in-it perspective.
I had heard about this book last year when the author penned a letter to his newborn daughter who was born just months before he died. The letter got published in some big publication – the New York Times, maybe? – and it was the sweetest letter ever about how he never truly knew life until she was born and he knew that he wouldn’t see her grow up, but he wanted her to cherish life and be happy and all that good jazz (I’m doing a terrible job of summarizing that letter – just go find it and read it). Anyway – it caught my attention and then I ended up putting that book on my wish list later when I heard he had passed away. (To be noted – that letter ended up being one of the last chapters in the book.)
Second – his background is this. He studied literature and never wanted to be a doctor because his family was made up of doctors. He didn’t like how little time his dad spent at home with the family. He never wanted to be like that. But he was also extremely fascinated in death and dying. In his literature studies, he continually tried to find the answers he was looking for on what it was like to die and although he found some very profound and poetic answers through various works of art and literature, they just seemed so out of reach. He wanted answers he could touch and feel. It was finally then that he decided to become a doctor, a neurosurgeon who would be in control of those living and dying every day. Surely this would give him the answers he needed. He would be face to face with it in doctors offices and operating tables every day. But then when he got cancer and knew he was likely facing certain death, that was when he felt like he was finally seeing death for what it was, and it could only be seen properly by the people who were actively dying.
So all of this is to say you have a book with these mixed perspectives and the guy can write REALLY well, and my goodness, why wouldn’t I read this?!?!
Also, it was April when I read this. I hadn’t yet known what was in store for me, even though I did get a little buggy (I.e. maybe I freaked out a bit) when the author talked about his back problems being a first sign of his cancer.
So that’s why I read it. But just recently I keep thinking about that book. Obviously the weight of its meaning has shifted a bit for me, but I still have no regrets reading it.
What I keep thinking about, oddly enough, isn’t even really what he went through, but the fact that in the face of a cancer diagnosis he feels compelled to write about his experiences because they are unique – he’s seen it from both sides. He feels like he must leave this mark on the world. He had always wanted to write a novel and now the clock was ticking.
This is not uncommon. When faced with our own mortality, many people finally get up the nerve to do the things they’ve always wanted to do. The bucket list. The dream vacation. The book that needs to be written. The skydiving adventure. The quitting of the unfulfilling job to become a scuba instructor in some tropical locale. Whatever it may be, it seems clear that death is quite the motivator.
Which brings me to…me (cause it’s always about me, right?). I keep joking about how I need to write my novel. Okay, not even joking all the time, I just need to write a novel. Plain and simple. I mean, many of you may have just started following me, but this is kind of a theme with me. I like to talk a lot about how I need to write a novel. One time I was even in the act of writing a novel. I wrote a first draft and it is just…well…it’s on the back burner right now. But the point is – I’m a lot of talk, but not a lot of action on this (except for that one time). And after I got diagnosed with cancer, one of my third or fourth thoughts (maybe fifteenth…its hard to say), was that I should probably set out writing that novel I kept talking about.
But honestly, the urgency isn’t there. Before I got cancer, if someone had said, “Hey if you get cancer, do you think that will finally push you into writing that novel?” I would have said, “Heck yeah! I mean, that seems like a no brainer.” And then for some reason I imagine I’d take a bite of a really good cheese curd because for whatever reason in my mind I was eating cheese curds during that weird conversation (to be clear, the fried kind, not the squeaky kind).
And now that it has happened? I just feel like…I WANT to write a novel. But it’s no more urgent than it was before. I’ve always wanted to write a novel. And now I just still want to write a novel. It’s not I HAVE TO WRITE A NOVEL BECAUSE I KNOW I AM LEAVING THIS EARTH SOON AND PEOPLE NEED TO KNOW I CAN WRITE, GODDAMMIT. It’s more like, I should definitely keep some sort of record of what’s happening here (and the icky stuff I don’t publicly write about). I should definitely still keep writing in other capacities. I should definitely distract myself from what’s going on with fictional stories I could create and embellish on. But there’s no inevitable feeling of death that’s prompting me to hardcore write this novel I keep going on about.
Which is a good thing. Paul didn’t have that feeling. He was going to write the hell out of his book and he was going to do it lickety split because his egg timer was winding down quickly.
Me? I have a lot of living to do. Even on my crappiest days it doesn’t feel like this is a life or death situation. Because it’s not. It’s an “oh this is SHIT-TY” kind of a situation, but it’s not a “death with a capital D” kind of situation.
Side note: I say all this now and then someone’s going to publish my blog after I die and say “Ya know, she really didn’t take this seriously enough.” KIDDING. KIDDING. Stop looking at me like that.
And then oddly enough, I kind of get jealous that I don’t have more urgency to write a novel. I mean, I did REALLY well in college when I was put under pressure with papers. I prided myself on these all nighters, the night before the paper was due, finding obscure sources in the library and whipping out this beautiful ten page work of art (single spaced, mind you) with no less than six credible sources listed and a really compelling theme. I got A’s every time. So yeah, I kind of want that urgency. But I guess, not in the way that I want Paul’s urgency, per say.
So for now, I appreciate the body of work that Paul put out – given the urgent nature of his life. And I guess I’ll just appreciate that I don’t feel that urgency…just yet.
Finally – this was one of my favorite parts of his book. After the first week of chemo, I can feel the truth of the Samuel Beckett words even more now than I did when I first read the book…
“I began to realize that coming face to face with my own mortality, in a sense, had changed nothing and everything,” he wrote. “Seven words from Samuel Beckett began to repeat in my head: ‘I can’t go on. I’ll go on.’”
– Paul Kalanithi from “When Breathe Becomes Air” –
Second, coloring is sooo for adults…right?
As evidenced by my last post, you may have noticed that I started the whole adult coloring phase that one gets into when they have a lot of time on their hands. Which, obviously, I do have. So that’s what I’m doing when I’m not working on blog posts or watching Arrested Development season 1, or making my dad run me to Target or Michaels (he came down to hang for a couple days – it was some good bonding time). It started with gel pens and two coloring books. Today, I’ve expanded into colored pencils and two new coloring books. I have one piece I’m working on today, but then I might crack open this puppy and give it a whirl.
A fox? In a hat and a suite? Color me intrigued!
And that’s it for this installment of “What in the holy hell did I just spend ten minutes reading? Goddammit. I should have just skipped to the fox.”