I had been wanting to read this book since it came out and finally got to it yesterday. I knew the outcome - and still, I sobbed at the end. His words just sang - they were poetry and prose and so beautiful.
I have been reading a lot about the end of life and how the body dies - I am studying to be a death doula or something in that arena. Books like Body of Work by Christine Montross and The Death Class by Norma Bowe really helped open that topic up. Death seems to be relegated to the "do not discuss in polite society," arena and that is quite sad.
If one does not look at death... how does one live?
But I had only really been looking at that one side of it, the after the body dies, what happens part. Sam Parnia's AWARE studies totally grabbed my attention - you should look at his work with NDEs. I was fascinated by the whole thing. But it wasn't until I finished When Breath Becomes Air that it really hit me - the "how does one live" part - or even why does one live?
To live a meaningful life.
Paul Kalanithi lived one his entire life - always searching and always learning - and he put all that he learned into his book. He died before he could finish it - his wife did an excellent job in the afterword of giving the book and the life of Paul, closure, but even though he didn't "finish," it, his words and his emotions, told the story perfectly.
What I kept coming back to over and over was what makes a life meaningful? And how do we live in a meaningful way?
Some quotes from the book and there are so many good ones - you should read the book:
“You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving.”
“Human knowledge is never contained in one person. It grows from the relationships we create between each other and the world, and still it is never complete.”
“There is a moment, a cusp, when the sum of gathered experience is worn down by the details of living. We are never so wise as when we live in this moment.”
“Years ago, it had occurred to me that Darwin and Nietzsche agreed on one thing: the defining characteristic of the organism is striving.”
When faced with his coming death - this is what was asked - in how he wanted to live and what his main focus would be in living during his illness - “What makes life meaningful enough to go on living?”
He was a brilliant surgeon, did he want to continue that life as he dealt with his cancer - or was there another path he wanted to try? And when did he want to stop... at what point would he say this is enough?
And then this:
To his daughter, who was only months old when he died - “That message is simple: When you come to one of the many moments in life when you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more, but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.”
I guess, for me, I need to find something to bring meaning, not just to me, but to leave behind me. We all strive, but for what? To what end? What gives each of us a meaningful life? I think that is why we are here. To use this one life to find meaning and to make the world we share a better place.
For the longest time death was an abstract thought to me. It happened at some point but that was as far as I went with it. But after my brother committed suicide in 1997, it suddenly stopped being so academic.
In having to deal with the fine points of after death care, I learned a lot more than I ever wanted to know about death. And because I have no idea why he did what he did, I read everything I could that could enlighten me. That included his very detailed autopsy report. Those are some mental images I will never get rid of, but in a way, they made it all the more real, in a good way. A way that says this really happened and is not a bad dream.
During the year after his death I started studying EVERYTHING about the topic. Religions and philosophies. Books on the afterlife and what happens to the body as it dies or after it has gone.
It ended up being - not so creepy as I once would have imagined it to be. All the isms and beliefs and thoughts from all those studies, led me to realize that dying may suck, or it may be beautiful, but in the end, we all do it.
I just finished reading Body of Work by Christine Montross and it really added another angle to my own body of knowledge and thoughts of dying, death. She tells the story of her first year in med school, dissecting her first body, Eve. At some points graphic and others poetic she talks about her own thoughts and emotions with cutting into a human body. It ended with the realization of the gift that Eve gave her and of giving a stranger hope, in healing.
It brings me back to the memories and thoughts I had of needing to view my brother's own body after death and all the inherent nightmares that brought. But after a time, those horrors faded, leaving me with a much more open? informed? thoughtful, mind about what happens to us when we die.
I imagine a lot of people would consider this topic gory or distasteful but to me it is another facet of life. It makes me much more aware of how I live my life NOW. I am alive now and someday I will not be. And no matter how frustrating my life can be sometimes, it is still a gift I do not want to waste.
We are celebrated in birth so we should also be celebrated in death. I can help you with that.