At the age of thirty-six, on the verge of completing a decade’s worth of training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. One day he was a doctor treating the dying, and the next he was a patient struggling to live. And just like that, the future he and his wife had imagined evaporated.
When Breath Becomes Air chronicles Kalanithi’s transformation from a naïve medical student “possessed,” as he wrote, “by the question of what, given that all organisms die, makes a virtuous and meaningful life” into a neurosurgeon at Stanford working in the brain, the most critical place for human identity, and finally into a patient and new father confronting his own mortality.
What makes life worth living in the face of death? What do you do when the future, no longer a ladder toward your goals in life, flattens out into a perpetual present? What does it mean to have a child, to nurture a new life as another fades away? These are some of the questions Kalanithi wrestles with in this profoundly moving, exquisitely observed memoir.
Paul Kalanithi died in March 2015, while working on this book, yet his words live on as a guide and a gift to us all. “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.’” When Breath Becomes Air is an unforgettable, life-affirming reflection on the challenge of facing death and on the relationship between doctor and patient, from a brilliant writer who became both.
If you enjoyed Paul Kalanithi’s unflinching journey, check out these six awesome indie titles:
Trading Places: Becoming My Mother’s Mother by Sandra Bullock Smith
Author Sandra Bullock Smith shares her personal experiences spending ten years caring for her ailing mother. This heartfelt look at the trials and tribulations of that decade offers powerful insight and encouragement for anyone entering into a similar period of life. Smith’s touching stories share the heartbreaking, and sometimes comical, moments she experienced while providing assistance to her aging parent—and how they mirrored similar events from her own childhood.
In a very real sense, the two women traded places. Smith found herself uttering phrases she heard all too often as a child, such as, “Don’t give your food to the dog” and, “You’ve had enough sugar today.” Smith began jotting down the things she said, and thus this charming book was born. Filled with respect, compassion, and love, this uplifting and amusing memoir is for anyone involved in elder care or who may face the role in the future.
Questioning Protocol is a healthcare solutions book from a mom’s perspective.
Randi Redmond Oster shares the tips, tools and tricks from her corporate experience, engineering skills and compassion for her son to navigate the broken health care system. Learn how she maintains control when her healthcare crisis seems overwhelming. Discover how she creates a high performing healthcare team focused on her son. Understand how she manipulates the hierarchy of the healthcare system to help improve her son’s care. See how she finds ways to feel grateful, even when her world seems upside down.
I’d Rather Wear Pajamas by Chelsea Walker Flagg
Everybody has the awesome opportunity to find their own strength and path through life. Some come about their self-discoveries through studying and working hard. Others, like Chelsea, spend their time nearly burning down kitchens and driving around the country with a car full of hangers.
Chelsea grew up wanting to be “strong.” She thought arguing her way through childhood and becoming a world-class attorney would get her there. But, through a series of humorous, and only slightly embarrassing events, Chelsea comes to realize that maybe her strength is meant to shine in different ways. Spoiler alert: This book is secretly going to brainwash you into home birthing your children. No, I’m not kidding.
Managing Bubbie by Russel Lazega
Her devoted family only wants the best for their Bubbie. Mostly they want to ensure that their matriarch’s twilight years are spent in comfort, safety, and serenity. But how do you manage an aging, immutably stubborn Holocaust survivor who has risen above the squalor of Poland’s ghettos; fled across the war-torn German wilderness; and survived the winter-ravaged Pyrenees alone on foot with three children? You probably don’t.
Managing Bubbie is the heartrending, hilarious family memoir by Russel Lazega that recounts the frequently hectic, ever-exhausting trials of one Jewish family in Miami Beach as they try to oversee the care of the elderly, unmanageable Lea Lazega. As they scramble for an acceptable assisted living facility and struggle to get her medication in line, they discover the difficulties of controlling a woman who time and again eluded catastrophe by refusing to be told what to do.
Heaven’s Child: A True Story of Family, Friends and Strangers by Caroline Flohr
Sixteen-year-old Sarah, is killed in an accident involving eight teens taking a midnight joyride. This memoir seeks to teach readers how to surrender to their losses and celebrate the gifts of death while rediscovering life. It is told through the eyes and heart of Sarah’s mother, Caroline and tackles deep questions and universal misunderstandings while drawing readers to journey beside Caroline as she opens the domestic scenes of home, heart, family, and community.
Heaven’s Child encourages the reader to find life’s purpose and shows that, while the grieving process is personal, it is one that is seldom accomplished alone. And finally, that grieving is not just about endings…but about new beginnings.
The Waiting Room by Piper Punches
Charlotte thought she knew her mother. As a highly regarded, country doctor in the small farming community of Marion, Missouri, Dr. Sylvie Day was successful, respected, and responsible for delivering nearly half the population of Marion. She was a single mother, forced to raise her daughter alone after her husband’s tragic and sudden death. But Sylvie wasn’t merely a devoted mother. She was a woman with secrets – Secrets and lies that threaten to destroy Charlotte’s memory of her mother.
On the day of Sylvie’s funeral, Charlotte comes face to face with Harold Klein, the one person in Marion her mother loathed and shunned. It is during this fateful meeting that Charlotte learns of the lies and betrayal that were always lurking in the shadows of her childhood. Now, Charlotte is forced to confront not only her mother’s past, but her own failures as a daughter, learning to forgive herself, while accepting her mother for the woman she really was.
Family legacies, happiness, grief, bonds made stronger through struggle and everything in between—this is a proper group of stories! If you liked When Breath Becomes Air, delve into one or two (or all!) of these titles. Bring Kleenex of course, but also be prepared to laugh, love and appreciate your family’s quirks, and your own life, a tiny bit more.
Note: Many of the titles featured in this post are also available through IndieBound. Enjoy!