Many months ago, I read an article from the Washington Post called “Two dying memoirists wrote bestsellers about their final days. Then their spouses fell in love.” I knew then that I wanted to read Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air. This nonfiction, medically-heavy memoir is not what I usually read, but the Kalanithis sounded like people I wanted to know more about. With 13 years of Grey’s Anatomy under my belt, I was able to make enough sense of the clinical terminology and experiences to make this read worthwhile. I was incredibly surprised by how lyrical the prose was written. I hadn’t realized that while Paul Kalanithi was studying biology and neuroscience in college, he was also studying English literature, even applying for a masters in English literature at Stanford. Science and literature are sometimes clashing concepts, but Paul wanted to figure out the answer to the question: What makes human life meaningful? Whether the answer existed in language and meaning, or in the brain, he couldn’t quite decide, but he pursued the answer for his entire life. Despite finding out that he was terminally ill at the age of 36, Paul lived with dignity, following Samuel Beckett’s words, “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”
I’m sure this book would affect me differently if I was experiencing a medical crisis in my own life or in the life of someone I know. I think this book would be more powerful at different stages of my life. Paul was intellectual, making him seem strong, but also distant from the reader at times. I would have appreciated more anger from Paul – it would have been completely understandable – or humor (as Lucy later points out, Paul was “wickedly funny” and also sweet and tender, crying many times throughout his prognosis). I was moved to tears reading Lucy’s epilogue. The book builds with an increasing tension as you realize that Paul’s time is about to run out. I was going to put the book down and go to sleep, but then kept reading because Paul’s story deserved the attention to see it through to the end. I stared at the beautiful family portrait of Paul, Lucy, and their baby daughter Cady at the end of the book for a long time. It just didn’t seem fair that this young husband and father and intelligent, caring doctor should be gone so soon. The book hurts, so it’s hard to say that I “liked” it, but I do respect it.
My next book after When Breath Becomes Air was The Probability of Miracles by Wendy Wunder. It wasn’t a particularly uplifting reading week for me, as this book also had to do with death and dying with dignity. However, it was kind of fitting to get a teen, fictional voice on cancer after such a heavy book.
The Probability of Miracles introduces readers to a teen named Campbell who has been battling cancer and receives some bad news at her recent trip to her doctor. Basically, the only thing that can save Cam now is a miracle, and Cam is not the miracle type. She’s spent too much time watching her family and friends work at Disney to believe in magic. Cam is cynical and sarcastic, distancing herself from people so that when her time comes to leave, it won’t hurt as much. Cam’s mother learns of a little town in Maine that is said to have magical powers, so she picks up her two daughters, loads up a U-haul, and goes in search of a miracle. After a road trip, Cam ends up in Maine and the quirky town seems to be making her feel better. But is it just a bit of relief before the end or a real miracle? For once, Cam allows herself to feel hopeful and open to possibilities.
At first, I found Cam to be a bit too cynical for my taste. After all, she really doesn’t speak very highly of Disney, and who does that?! But she is dealing with cancer and I’m sure her attitude is one way to handle the upset. She’s young and instead of dreaming about her future, she may not even make it to her 18th birthday. Cam changes during her time in Maine, and learns several important lessons, including, “It’s better to be kind than to be right.” In time, the book grew on me and I enjoyed it.
Whether fiction or nonfiction, stories provide tools for us to express our both our fears and dreams.