Magazine article The Christian Century

Somewhere near the End

Magazine article The Christian Century

Somewhere near the End

Article excerpt

When Breath Becomes Air

By Paul Kalanithi

Random House, 256 pp., $25.00

The Violet Hour: Great Writers at the End

By Katie Roiphe

Dial Press, 320 pp., $28.00


OF THE MAKING of books there is no end, but with books about death there is a waxing and waning. Right now, two books about death stand astride the New York Times best-seller list: Paul Kalanithi's When Breath Becomes Air and Atul Gawande's Being Mortal. Between them, they've been on the list almost 100 weeks.

Back in the early 1960s, when Gloria Steinem was in her twenties, she tried to interest publishers in something she called The Death Book, a compendium of quotes and stories. There were no takers. The times were a changin' in those days, and the focus was on youth. Now they're a changin' again, and the interest in death and aging is reaching a crescendo. Aging feminist Betty Friedan led the way. Nora Ephron, Jane Fonda, and Steinem herself have also published books about aging and death.

"Mortality is hot," said a recent reviewer in the Los Angeles Times. Books about death span many categories. Books have preserved the dying testimonies of Oliver Sacks, Christopher Hitchins, John Updike, and Jane Kenyon. Notable literary memoirs about the death of loved ones include those by Joan Didion, Donald Hall, and Calvin Trillin. Other books explore particular issues surrounding death, such as The Good Death, by Ann Neumann, and The Undertaking, by Thomas Lynch.

Paul Kalanithi, a surgeon who died at 37, begins his memoir of his own dying this way: "I knew with certainty that I would never be a doctor." Though Kalanithi was born into a second-generation Indian-American family brimming with physicians, his first love was not science but literature. He majored in English literature at Stanford and went on to earn one master's degree in literature and another in philosophy. His turn toward medicine was inspired by poet Walt Whitman, who said that only a physician could understand the "physiological-spiritual man." Kalanithi craved a new kind of sublime, "to forge relationships with the suffering, and to keep following the question of what makes human life meaningful, even in the face of death and decay." He did not drop the mantle of literature; he laid it aside.

As he was finishing the seventh year of a neurosurgery residency, Kalanithi learned at age 36 that he had stage-four lung cancer. He chose to return to the surgery theater, standing on his feet for many hours, swiftly and deftly unzipping skin and extracting tumors, knowing that a millimeter on either side of the knife could mean the difference between life and death or between keeping an identity and losing it. Often in physical agony, he explained how his calling persisted: "Moral duty has weight, things that have weight have gravity, and so the duty to bear moral responsibility pulled me back into the operating room."

The strength it took to enact Samuel Beckett's words--"I can't go on. I will go on"--by going back to surgery was just the beginning. Kalanithi's final vocation emerged after chemotherapy failed, and it became clear that he would lose the battle sooner rather than later.

After he could no longer hold a scalpel steady, he returned to his first love--reading and writing. He wrote the essay "How Long Have I Got Left?" on a plane and sent it to friends for comments, one of whom sent it to a New York Times editor, who accepted it. The response was immediate and exhilarating. As he read the e-mails flooding his box, he gained inner strength. He began to envision the merging of his two vocations of healing and meaning-making. His body grew weak as his spirit expanded. He got a book contract.

As he wrote, under blankets and with his baby daughter Cady close to him, reminding him of life that would continue, he drew on his memory of the literary canon and his thoughts took on an increasingly spiritual cast. …

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