David Treadwell

David Treadwell

Thanks to my mother (”Moo”), I got into the habit of reading as a kid. Today, I read 30-40 books a year; most of them could be considered “good” books. When I’m on an airplane, however, I’ll often read one of those trashy “true crime” paperbacks, because I can finish it just as the plane is landing. To her credit, my mother jotted down a few sentences about every book she read as well as her reaction to it. I always vow to follow her lead, but I never do. Sorry, Moo.

About once a year, I’ll read a book, which prompts me to say to friends, “You have to read this book!” Last year that book was “All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr. I’ve already read a must-read book this year: “When Breath Becomes Air” by Paul Kalanithi.

At age 36, Dr. Paul Kalanithi had it all. He was a brilliant neurosurgeon with a superb educational background (Stanford, University of Cambridge and Yale Medical School), a smart beautiful life partner (also a doctor), and a promising life ahead. In May 2013 he was diagnosed with lung cancer. He died less than two years later in March 2015.

Kalanithi lived the last 22 months of his life in high-octane mode: performing surgery as long as he could; fathering a child, Elizabeth Acadia “Cady” Kalanithi; giving inspirational talks; and writing a powerfully moving memoir, “When Breath Becomes Air.”

Kalanithi was a true Renaissance Man: philosopher, writer, scientist, poet, explorer. He was a deep thinker with feet planted firmly on the ground. His interests were so broad that he had difficulty deciding which career path to pursue.

He initially planned to become a writer, and the recounting of a summer camp memory reveals the depth of his mind and the power of his prose: “To the east, the full light of day beamed toward you; to the west, night reigned with no hint of surrender. No philosopher can explain the sublime better than this, standing between day and night. It was as if this were the moment God said, ‘Let there be light!’ You could not help but feel your speck-like existence against the immensity of the mountain, the earth, the universe, and yet still feel your own two feet on the talus, reaffirming your presence and the grandeur.”

The human body — especially the brain — always fascinated Kalinithi: “There must be a way, I thought, that the language of life as experienced — of passion, of hunger, of love — bore some relationship, however convoluted, to the language of neurons, digestive tracts, and heartbeats.”

He decided, ultimately, to become a neurosurgeon.

Kalanithi never forgot the human dimension of medicine: “Technical excellence was not enough. As a resident, my highest ideal was not saving lives — everyone dies eventually — but guiding a patient or family to an understanding of death or illness.”

As his illness progressed, Kalanithi wrote, “Like my own patients, I had to face my mortality and try to understand what made my life worth living.”

Lucy and Paul Kalanithi struggled with the decision whether to have a child, given that Paul would likely die when the child was just a toddler, perhaps younger. They went ahead and their daughter Cady was born on July 4, 2014. As it happened, Paul’s condition worsened rapidly after Cady’s birth, but the last entry in Kalanithi’s book — he never actually finished it — confirmed that having a child had been the right decision.

“When you come to one of the many moments in life where you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.”


David Treadwell, a Brunswick writer, welcomes commentary or suggestions for future “Just a Little Old” columns at [email protected]

Comments are not available on this story.