Reviewing this book feels a little sacreligious as the subject is a difficult one, but I shall give it a try. For those of you who do not want to read a review that threatens to be morbid, you might want to skip this one, I’ll understand.
What caught my eye as I walked through my local bookshop was the title. It took me a second or so to realise it is about death. Not just any death but the death of the author, Paul Kalanithi. He did not die at his own hands but by that rather too common cause, cancer.
Like a lot of books these days, it punches you in the gut first before allowing you to rest. By that I mean, it deliberately alters the chronological order to highlight a specific point in time. In this case it is the initial diagnosis of lung cancer.
What makes this book poignant is Paul’s life and career. At first he wished to be a writer. He wanted to understand the morality of life, especially when it comes to suffering. However he found language was not enough and so through a series of events, changed his mind to follow a path in surgery, specifically neurosurgery.
Working on the brain is like messing with a person’s personality. One incision in the wrong place (we’re talking millimetres here) could change a person’s life forever. It is downright scary and humbling what neurosurgeons do.
Throughout his career, Paul performed many operations, some more successful than others. He comforted many families, made people’s lives liveable, even if only for a short while. Easing a patient’s suffering was what drove him yet he still struggled with the beast he faced every day, death.
And then it happened. Strictly speaking, it didn’t happen out of the blue. Severe back pain had wracked his body for many weeks and it was only when he lost a lot of weight did he take notice.
With the diagnosis the tables were flipped, he was now the patient. When the cancer was in remission, Paul decided to go back to work. I should point out that a neurosurgeon close to qualifying as chief resident works an incredible amount so it was not a decision to be taken lightly.
To begin with, Paul made ‘baby-steps’. Slowly but surely he increased his workload until it was almost back to normal. Then it came back.
With barely two weeks before his baby girl was to be born, his body rebelled. Both stage one (a drug) and stage two (chemotherapy) had failed. From this point Paul’s health deteriorated.
The exception to his life of pain was his daughter. What joy little Cady gave to her father I cannot begin to fathom. However I do have the last paragraph which brought me close to tears.
Reading this book was hard at times but also revealing. What is it that we strive for in our lives? We want our life to have meaning. We want to do something useful with our time. We want to prove to ourselves we don’t just exist, we take part.
Photo courtesy of theguardian.com