Last night I read the book When Breath Becomes Air
I had heard a little about it prior to publishing and then learned it had become a NYT Non Fiction Best Seller
I feel like reading this book was like walking through an impact area.
Paul Kalanithi's words in this book took my breath away.
I am amazed at the life intersections the author and I have.
No, I did not go to Ivy League School and study science but I have interacted with death, grief, and life. Well, we all have, really.
I loved the way he described his need for education and the question to find out the "why". The dilemma of loving literature and the love and respect he had for science and education.
I wept when he recalled treating an alcoholic patient and the process of his body shutting down and blood not filtering oxygen.
I immediately had a flash back of Tony which led me to deep sobbing.
The kind that makes others shutter to include myself.
It is just a mere three sentences in this book - but they stopped me in my tracks.
Over the last three weeks I have been dreaming about him a lot.
Maybe as a result of some pending changes.
Maybe he is trying to tell me something or approve or nudge me to see what I might not be seeing.
The reasoning that the author becomes a neurosurgeon blows me away. He makes a decision and then he went for it.
The way he explains his craft and the language of the surgical procedures, I am drawn into.
I want to ask him questions that a seven year old girl did not know to ask.
I started to think about my dad's brain cancer. Honestly, I do not remember too much about it, besides that it changed my mom and brother's life forever.
And obviously cut my dad's life short at 36.
I have no one to ask.
How did my dad find out that he even had brain cancer? Did he experience headaches, vision, loss of balance - what changed?
Was he weak - did he loose weight? What were the indicators? Why? How?
What did they think he had when they went in to the hospital? - I am sure oncology was not their first stop.
Did they contribute it to the environmental effects of living near a Nuclear Power Plant?
Then after his diagnosis, what did they actually do from neuroscience perspective to treat him?
Kalanithi talks about gently and strategically carving our tumors from patients brains and then placing the tumors in trays.
It became his art.
He owned it.
Did a physician remove the tumors from dad's head and place them in trays?
Had the cancer spread to other parts of his body?
I know he did chemo and radiation - he lost his hair and had a significant horseshoe shaped scar.
Honestly, I was afraid.
But what were they really doing in 1977 from a treatment perspective? I am not ungrateful, just curious.
I remember my mom said they did some type of experimental treatment with peach pits.
But I was seven, did I imagine that or did we discuss it?
I do remember when we moved to Baycrest - it must have been around the fourth grade - I found a National Geographic magazine that a had a picture of a man in an operating room that I thought was my dad. I showed my mom and we never spoke about it again. (that is how grief was handled - I colored and sent a thank you note to the nice men at Allore Funeral Home and went back to school) As an adult, I realize my mom's cross country road trip the summer of 1978 was the way she handled/processed grief.
As an adult I tried to relocate that issue because I wanted to look at it again, I never found it.
Maybe I will take a trip to the library and canvas through National Geographic 1978-1981 and hunt for it again.
Or maybe they are online now.
At one point my mom may have kept a journal. I should have asked for it, I can vaguely remember her handwriting on a yellow legal pad. But I have no idea the words.
I grieve with Kalanithi when he shares of a close doctor friend that succumbs to suicide.
I think of two people from the Army and so many more service members that choose the same way out. The Profession of Arms can be too much weight for some to carry.
And then... you read he is diagnosed with lung cancer.
Honestly, when I had read the review of the book I did not know about the lung part of the cancer and it rocked me when I discovered it.
At the age of 55 my mom got lung cancer and she held on to almost 57. December 14, 1941- October 10, 1998.
I was one of the people he described in the book - We were going to fight it and we were going to win. We were cancer fighters.
I researched, I prayed, I changed diets, I bought Indian Herbs and teas and freaked the fuck out.
After chemo and radiation (my mom's only tattoo) - I thought she was good
And then it happened. I cannot tell you how this changed everything
. It sent the closest people in life into a tailspin.
You see I had read all of the hospice books and I read about death and dying and none of that mattered. I was not prepared
I was broken. And everything began to crack with it.
I walked through the valley of the shadow of death.
I am firm believer if my mom would have not died, Tony would not have not drank himself to death. That is straight up optimism and the power of the presence of my mom. We cannot rewrite life and yes everything happens for a reason.
Cancer popped back up in my life at the beginning of this year when in one week I knew of four people taking aggressive cancer treatments. Consuming straight up liquid poison; fighting for more life.
Some of them are still fighting and one dear friend is now resting just around the corner from Tony at Fort Logan National Cemetery.
And then I had my first ever biopsy that came back all clear but took me four weeks to wait for an appointment and another week for the results. I silently rehearsed the words I had planned to use, I will save them for another time.
Then Pino died - when I called the florist I could barely speak coherently to order yellow roses and get out words "Until Valhalla" - WTF.
I guess the "C" word probably chases all of us in some way. Or atleast in my family.
Death certainly does.
So, there you have it.
I feel empowered to keep volunteering and face grief head on.
Death has closed chapters and opened new one's for me.
Maybe that is why I love TAPS
and the mission.
I cannot thank Paul Kalanithi enough for writing this book and his wife Lucy
for making sure it was published.
Labels: cancer, death, grief, memoir, Paul Kalanithi, When breath becomes air