First, read this book immediately. Everyone, before they lead an interesting life, should learn how to write. Paul Kalanithi spent years studying English before becoming a Doctor, and his words are truly beautiful. When Breath Becomes Air is the author’s final piece, discussing his life as he slowly dies of cancer. Such beauty, such tragedy. This book had me in tears. That rarely happens.
This pain was toward the more severe end of the spectrum. I lay down on a hard bench in the waiting area, feeling my back muscles contort, breathing to control the pain—the ibuprofen wasn’t touching this—and naming each muscle as it spasmed to stave off tears: erector spinae, rhomboid, latissimus, piriformis…
I was leaving this small Arizona town in a few weeks, and I felt less like someone preparing to climb a career ladder than a buzzing electron about to achieve escape velocity, flinging out into a strange and sparkling universe.
He had reached some compromise in his mind that fatherhood could be distilled; short, concentrated (but sincere) bursts of high intensity could equal… whatever it was that other fathers did. All I knew was, if that was the price of medicine, it was simply too high.
After I was caught returning at dawn from one such late-night escapade, my worried mother thoroughly interrogated me regarding every drug teenagers take, never suspecting that the most intoxicating thing I’d experienced, by far, was the volume of romantic poetry she’d handed me the previous week. Books became my closest confidants, finely ground lenses providing new views of the world.
Everything teeters between pathos and bathos: here you are, violating society’s most fundamental taboos, and yet formaldehyde is a powerful appetite stimulant, so you also crave a burrito.
Cadaver dissection epitomizes, for many, the transformation of the somber, respectful student into the callous, arrogant doctor.
Cadavers reverse the polarity. The mannequins you pretend are real; the cadavers you pretend are fake.
Anatomy lab, in the end, becomes less a violation of the sacred and more something that interferes with happy hour, and that realization discomfits. In our rare reflective moments, we were all silently apologizing to our cadavers, not because we sensed the transgression but because we did not.
In plunged the doctor’s hands, pulling out one, then two purple babies, barely moving, eyes fused shut, like tiny birds fallen too soon from a nest. With their bones visible through translucent skin, they looked more like the preparatory sketches of children than children themselves.
At moments, the weight of it all became palpable. It was in the air, the stress and misery. Normally, you breathed it in, without noticing it. But some days, like a humid muggy day, it had a suffocating weight of its own. Some days, this is how it felt when I was in the hospital: trapped in an endless jungle summer, wet with sweat, the rain of tears of the families of the dying pouring down.
When there’s no place for the scalpel, words are the surgeon’s only tool.
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Body photo © amazon.com