When Breath Becomes Air - Paul Kalanithi

FOREWORD

Abraham Verghese

IT OCCURS TO ME, as I write this, that the foreword to this book might be better thought of as an afterword. Because when it comes to Paul Kalanithi, all sense of time is turned on its head. To begin with—or, maybe, to end with—I got to know Paul only after his death. (Bear with me.) I came to know him most intimately when he’d ceased to be.

I met him one memorable afternoon at Stanford in early February 2014. He’d just published an op-ed titled “How Long Have I Got Left?” in The New York Times, an essay that would elicit an overwhelming response, an outpouring from readers. In the ensuing days, it spread exponentially. (I’m an infectious diseases specialist, so please forgive me for not using the word viral as a metaphor.) In the aftermath of that, he’d asked to come see me, to chat, to get advice about literary agents, editors, the publishing process—he had a desire to write a book, this book, the one you are now holding in your hands. I recall the sun filtering through the magnolia tree outside my office and lighting this scene: Paul seated before me, his beautiful hands exceedingly still, his prophet’s beard full, those dark eyes taking the measure of me. In my memory, the picture has a Vermeer-like quality, a camera obscura sharpness. I remember thinking, You must remember this, because what was falling on my retina was precious. And because, in the context of Paul’s diagnosis, I became aware of not just his mortality but my own.

We talked about a lot of things that afternoon. He was a neurosurgical chief resident. We had probably crossed paths at some point, but we hadn’t shared a patient that we could recall. He told me he had been an English and biology major as an undergraduate at Stanford, and then stayed on for a master’s in English literature. We talked about his lifelong love of writing and reading. I was struck by how easily he could have been an English professor—and, indeed, he had seemed to be headed down that path at one point in his life. But then, just like his namesake on the road to Damascus, he felt the calling. He became a physician instead, but one who always dreamed of coming back to literature in some form. A book, perhaps. One day. He thought he had time, and why not? And yet now time was the very thing he had so little of.

I remember his wry, gentle smile, a hint of mischief there, even though his face was gaunt and haggard. He’d been through the wringer with this cancer but a new biological therapy had produced a good response, allowing him to look ahead a bit. He said during medical school he’d assumed that he would become a psychiatrist, only to fall in love with neurosurgery. It was much more than a falling in love with the intricacies of the brain, much more than the satisfaction of training his hands to accomplish amazing feats—it was a love and empathy for those who suffered, for what they endured and what he might bring to bear. I don’t think he told me this as much as I had heard about this quality of his from students of mine who were his acolytes: his fierce belief in the moral dimension of his job. And then we talked about his dying.

After that meeting, we kept in touch by email, but never saw each other again. It was not just that I disappeared into my own world of deadlines and responsibilities but also my strong sense that the burden was on me to be respectful of his time. It was up to Paul if he wanted to see me. I felt that the last thing he needed was the obligation to service a new friendship. I thought about him a lot, though, and about his wife. I wanted to ask him if he was writing. Was he finding the time? For years, as a busy physician, I’d struggled to find the time to write. I wanted to tell him that a famous writer, commiserating about this eternal problem, once said to me, “If I were a neurosurgeon and I announced that I had to leave my guests to go in for an emergency craniotomy, no one would say a word. But if I said I needed to leave the guests in the living room to go upstairs to write…” I wondered if Paul