Our team at AP Renewables Inc. opened 2018 with a major event called the Kabataan Inyovators. It is a youth development program participated by 160 youth leaders from the communities hosting our plants’ facilities. Inyovation was derived from inyo or yours and innovation, one of our organization’s core values. We engaged the youth leaders to think of innovative solutions for problems in their communities.
During this last weekend in January when the youth leaders presented their projects, one of the tasks assigned to me (actually I assigned to myself) was the writing of the event’s script. It is a behind the scenes task I’ve joyfully handled for years. Once in a while I cover the talking points I prepare but I would rather have roles like the inspirational messages be delivered by someone more senior in experience, position, and conviction. So when my boss and mentor suggested that I do the closing remarks after I sent the script, I was both amused and caught off guard. Not that it is the hardest task in the world but how do I genuinely sum up a day that brimmed with ideas for the development of lives and communities?
When I was given the task, I was more than halfway through When Breath Becomes Air. Dr. Paul Kalanithi’s memoir became the inspiration when I rewrote my closing remarks.
When Breath Becomes Air was posthumously published in 2016. Paul Kalanithi was a dedicated neurosurgeon on his way to becoming a neuro-scientist. He was passionate about literature. Literature for him provides the richest material for moral reflection. But he later on realized that while literature provided a rich account of human meaning, the brain was the machinery that enabled analysis of daily life. The brain is largely responsible for man’s decisions, actions, and personal progress. Thus he pursued neurosurgery, a profession where he flourished more.
But at age 36, after a decade of training, he was diagnosed with fourth stage lung cancer. He wrote When Breath Becomes Air during his last few months. This was when he acknowledged that he will no longer be the neurosurgeon-scientist he thought he would become and decided to spend his remaining time living for his wife, Lucy, and newborn daughter, Cady.
When Breath Becomes Air teems with reflections on living, striving, and leaving a legacy. This is one of the most beautiful, life affirming yet purely heartbreaking books I’ve read. It killed me knowing that such luminous individual passed away too soon. But he left behind this book that would outlive him even if he lived to be a hundred. When Breath Becomes Air shall be immortal.
The first part of the book was about commitment to a chosen path and the excellence required for the profession. It was from here where I lifted my message for the youth leaders we trained. Understanding the huge responsibility of caring for his patients, Paul Kalanithi reflected that technical excellence was a moral requirement in his job. Inasmuch as the singular goal of doctors is to restore their patient’s quality of life, he knew that good intentions are not enough. The smallest mistake during surgery could devastate lives: that of the patient and his family.
The second half of the book dealt with the impending mortality. It was here that the memoir took an elegiac turn. There was no better way to die than to live. This was the idea that’s why he resumed work when his body was adjusting well with the medications. He had a searing realization, something not found in the teachings of the ancient fathers of medicine: the physician’s duty is not to stave off death or return patients to their old lives, but to take into our arms a patient and family whose lives have disintegrated and work until they can stand back up and face, and make sense of, their own existence.
This is morbid but I sometimes wonder how I would like to die if it were up to me. Kevin Spacey’s death in American Beauty seems the easiest only that it’d be messy and cruel for those I am leaving behind. Paul Kalanithi passed on in the presence of his family. He was able to say goodbye to his wife and write a love letter to his eight-year old daughter. And he left behind this book, the pinnacle of his short life. One of his memorable lines was this: you can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymtote toward which you are ceaselessly striving.
Until the very end, even when his body was methodically giving up on him, he was striving. Thank you, Dr. Paul Kalanithi, for this book. I am truly grateful.