When Breath Becomes Air; Parallels, Reflections and Synchronicity.

 

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I’m of the mind that books—like people, come into our lives when we are oven-ready to receive them.

It doesn’t always happen this way, sometimes a book is just a book, but more often than not I find myself reading something that feels tailor-made for all I need to learn in a particular time frame.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi was one such read.

Originally published on January 12th, 2016, I recall seeing a slow trickle of cover photos splashed across many a social media posts, building to what felt like a synchronistic crescendo.

I knew nothing about the actual story arc, I just picked up on whispers that it was a transcendent and powerful read, and I liked the cover. I’m not sure about you—but covers are a big draw for me. It’s what leads me to pick up the book in the first place and read the back cover and/or flip through some pages. Not having had the recent luxury of visiting a book store, I didn’t have that tactile experience of going through my touchy-feely process and finding out more—just a visual intuition via online optics that I needed to read this book.

It was finally delivered to me by my good friends at Chapters Indigo on March 1st, despite having made a request for it in early February. This is not to highlight any fault on Chapter Indigo’s part, they are always sending me books well in advance for review.  This is more about my belief in receiving knowledge right when we need it and how the universe conspires on our behalf. In this case it was due to my late request and promotional back orders, that I received it when I did.

I read, nay, drank in When Breath Becomes Air in 8 straight hours. I experienced a flash flooding of memories and parallels that this book brought forth concerning my own mothers death, some painful, many of them comforting—more on this later.

When Breath Becomes Air, is about author Paul Kalanithi’s decade worth of training towards becoming a neurosurgeon—only to find out that he has terminal lung cancer in his last year of residency. The book details the many transformations and rebirths that Kalanithi experiences as he bravely and humanely comes to terms with his impending death sentence. Or does he? Can we ever really be ready?

Paul Kalanithi Photo: © Norbert von der Groeben

While it’s certainly not the first memoir to be written by someone describing their terminal illness as they were actually cycling through it, it was unique in that Kalanithi had a previous interest in the emotional response to death and dying and how to parlay that to his patients before he was ever diagnosed with terminal cancer. His young age (he was 36 when diagnosed), his wake of incredible accomplishments, coupled with his exceptional facility for writing, all added a unique dimension to this memoir for me. The-doctor-who-becomes-the patient narrative is also poignant as we see him go through the various Kübler Ross stages of grief—albeit, he humorously notes, backwards! It also gives readers a window into how Kalanithi, with his ambitious nature decided to spend his remaining time. Time becomes a precious commodity and the present moment takes center stage.

He writes:

Everyone succumbs to finitude. I suspect I am not the only one who reaches this pluperfect state. Most ambitious are either achieved or abandoned; either way they belong to the past. The future instead of the ladder towards the goals of life, flattens into a perpetual present. Money, status, all the vanities the preacher of Ecclestiasties described hold so little interest; a chasing of the wind indeed.”

In Kalanithi’s case, he and his wife decide to go ahead and have a baby through IVF before his cancer treatment starts. This was one of many passages that turned me into a human puddle from weeping my face off.

Will having a newborn distract from the time we have left together?” she asked. Don’t you think saying goodbye to your child will make your death more painful?”

Wouldn’t it be great if it did.”

***

My mother passed away from breast and uterine cancer that ultimately spread to her brain almost 3 years ago this April 1st. The spread to her brain was a surprise—as a family we collectively thought she was on the mend after she had her breast removed and went through chemotherapy and radiation. Her hair fully grew back, and while the toxicity of these poisonous medications altered her emotionally and physically, we were hopeful that she was going to recover. She then took a turn for the worse, complaining of migraines and began to fall. We thought it was possibly a stroke, and were not prepared for the shocking emergency room diagnosis that the cancer had spread to her brain and that she had days, maybe weeks to live.

She thought she possibly had the flu, and it was utterly heartbreaking having to tell her the diagnosis, after learning of it privately. How do you tell your own mother in so many words that she will never leave the hospital? We were in utter shock. It took us 48 hours of consulting with doctors on how to do just that, whilst unbeknownst to her we began a regimen of treatment to contain the growth of her tumours. I had never lied to my mother in my entire life, and those 48 hours before we told her were an absolute exercise in inner resolve and digging deep deep deep into the ‘soul well’ for every ounce of strength I could muster. I had to pretend that tests were still being done, making sure to never cry in front of her or lead her to believe anything was awry. It was gut wrenching.

When she was told, she accepted the news bravely and with grace. And although the doctors gave her an option to attempt a surgery, she knew it could be fatal or barely stave off the inevitable. The first night that she was moved out of emergency and into a temporary room, I spent the night sleeping with her in her bed, clutching on to her and kissing her, not knowing how much time she had left. I honestly felt g-ds presence with me in that room, in a way I had never felt before in my entire life.

Luckily she lasted 5+ weeks in palliative and did not lose her mental capacities, in the ways we had all feared in those last days. She was most definitely over compensating, but she always knew who her family was, and this was the biggest blessing to all of us.  The month of March brings with it bittersweet memories for me, each day marked with a visceral flashback tied to the weather, scent and certain music that I can barely get through listening now without falling apart. The frisson of winters thaw and impending spring is one that will be forever tied to saying goodbye to her. I recall the sunshine pouring through my mothers hospital window in mid March, with part of me wishing it would stay dark, and winter-like so she wouldn’t feel badly that she would be missing spring.

All of my senses were extraordinarily heightened during that time. I had bionic hearing. All smells were that much more potent. I was a veritable skin covered satellite dish. To say that the spiritual and cosmic dots were aligning and unfolding on a daily basis would be a criminal understatement. Words really don’t do those last synchronistic weeks justice, so I’m going to stop trying for now.

So many parts of this book reminded me of that long stretch of time, watching my mother slowly pass. The book describes the various brain surgeries Dr. Kalanithi worked on during his residency (so gruesome were the details that many times I actually gagged or looked away from the copy as if it were a television screen.) Despite the squirming, I did glean valuable information that reminded me of my mothers case, the various places where tumours can exist and how they can affect different emotions, memory and language. 

It brought the memory of those first 24 hours of my mother in the emergency room into focus, as looking back— after months of experiencing depression—she was actually smiling while we were taking various tests to see what was wrong with her. Her memory was also exceptional, that I’m convinced her tumours were pressing on some sort of happy centres at that point. Her relatively good mood, despite the diagnosis was ever-present for her first full week in palliative. It was an absolute blessing to see. It was also a comfort to be reminded through the book of the close relationship between Dr. Kalanithi and his oncologist. One of the issues that clenched my heart in my mothers last days were that she never discussed that she was going to die with me. I realise this was her protective nature, and was reminded through the book that there were doctors, nurses, and other friends and relatives available for her to discuss these issues if she wanted to.

In the books epilogue Paul Kalanithi’s wife Lucy, writes a posthumous update through loving reflections on her husbands last days. She explains that Paul passed away one year ago this coming March 9th, and again I wept as if I had just lost a very special friend.

He was only 37 years young.

Among her many passages that resonated with me;

Paul napped comfortably in the afternoon, but he was gravely ill. I started to cry as I watched him sleep, then crept out into the living room, where his fathers tears joined mine. I already missed him.”

This lodged an enormous peach pit in my throat upon reading it. It still does, just writing these words. So many times upon leaving my mother’s room, I felt the exact same way. I missed her already. So many times I longed to cry to my mother about LOSING MY MOTHER, but that was obviously impossible. I missed her before I physically lost her, and especially in those last days, the world of the dying becomes that much insular and they slowly pull away from the living.  

But not before I got repeated I LOVE YOU’s that I hold in my heart forever. She passed in the early morning of April, 1st, at 7:45 am lovingly surrounded by her sister, her daughters and grandchildren.

***

Paul Kalanithi’s knowledge of literature and poetry were awe-inspiring and an ongoing theme in When Breath Becomes Air. A compelling standout was how he repeatedly used writer Samuel Beckett’s seven words to help him get through some of his toughest days. 

They read: “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”  

Simple—yet potent, reminding me of a quote that helped me absorb my own personal grief.

That time
I thought I could not
go any closer to grief
without dying

I went closer,
and I did not die.

~Mary Oliver

***

To my dear readers,

I realise this is an off-brand post filled with the uncommon spillage of my own emotional graffiti and not the usual pop culture brilliance, yet frivolity that I normally employ in this space. It was what had to pour out of me after reading this book and I hope you can cull some sort of meaningful takeaway for yourselves. While I read this book quickly, it took some time for me to get through writing of this post, as it was quite painful to relive the loss of my mother as it is every year at this time. This post went through various incarnations, rewrites, and many tears.

However, I don’t see it as a coincidence that it is ready to be published on the eve of Paul Kalanithi’s one year anniversary of his passing, and on International Womens Day.

So with that in mind, I dedicate this post to the strongest, most selfless, and loving woman I have ever known.

My beloved mother Evelyn, who I miss every day—but especially every year in March.

XOXO,

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 P.S. …And now back to our regular programming → *Makes fart noises with my armpit.

February’s Pop Culture Dance Card is FULL

Here at the Pop Culture Rainman™ were rather ‘house proud’ with how BUSY were getting! Here’s a quick glance at all the pop culture extravaganzas we’ll be covering in February!

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First up, tonight Feb 5th at 7pm, I will be taking part in #IndigoBookClub chat with writer Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild and my most recent read tiny beautiful things; Advice on love and life from Dear Sugar.

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The book reminded me of Hugh Prather’s Notes to Myself, in that the advice can be reabsorbed at random, and yet remain timeless. It’s the kind of read that begs passages to be circled and underlined; pages dog eared for future reference.

I particularly loved this passage on the ‘imposter syndrome’ + doubt that writers struggle with when TRYING to write their first book.

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Next up I will be checking out ‘Drawing Toronto’ by visual artist Shantell Martin this Saturday Feb 6th at Cold stream Fine Art Gallery.

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Sunday, Feb 7th I will be having HIGH TEA at Toronto’s famed Casa Loma to celebrate Winterlicious, an annual culinary event that showcases some of this six’s best restaurants for a fixed price menu.

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Next I will be at an exclusive event for Holt Renfrew’s spring All Together campaign on Feb 11th.

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The 2016 Grammy Awards will be on Monday, Feb 15th and I will be LIVE TWEETING @popcultrainman!

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 Prince will insight vocal hysterics from the audience should he make an appearance. Please show up, please show upppppp!

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Be sure to tune in for my music know-it-all color commentary on Feb 15th starting at 7pm.

The next day Feb 16th at 2pm I’ll be appearing on Sirius XM’s Ward and Al show, recapping some of the Grammy highlights.

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Full disclosure; without me—Ward and Al are a fountain of ever-flowing hilarity. With me, they actually become 10% funnier. It’s true. I have all the analytics. And a pie chart.

On Feb 17nd I will be attending the Toronto Notable Awards. I wasn’t nominated this year, but I was recently featured as a Notable Entrepreneur. Check out my interview here.

So there you have it, a detailed list of my Feb whereabouts should you be seeking to kidnap me.
 
Here’s to Next-Level Showing UP and gettin’ social!
XOXO,

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Book Review of The Martian + Twitter Interview with author Andy Weir

Photo Courtesy of Crown Publishing©

I recently joined the Chapters Indigo online book club and the selection for September was The New York Times #1 Best Seller The Martian by Andy Weir.

Weir, a former software programmer struck fortuitous gold, as The Martian was originally self published on his personal website, then added to Kindle after multiple reader requests, and eventually Weir was contacted by a literary agent who sold the rights to Crown Publishing— an inspiring unfolding of events to say the least!

Released in 2014, the book quickly rose atop the New York Times best seller list and the rights were immediately commissioned for the film adaptation, starring Matt Damon which premieres in Canada today. Again not exactlly a typical trajectory for a neophyte published author—so on that basis alone I say WELL DONE!

While I have an undeniable interest in space travel—specifically life on other planets, or alternately aliens who walk among us on earth (oh yes, they are heeerrrrrrrrrrrrrre!) Sci-Fi in general isn’t my bag. Suffice to say, hyperbole aside—I probably would not have picked up the book had it not been the chosen tome for Septembers official Chapters Indigo book club.

The Martian Opens in Canada Today. Photo: Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox©

I feel as though the hype machine for the book—fueled by the film no doubt, is in the space (*pun intended) where most hype machinary Kardashians exists… on the receiving end of a popular vote, not necessarily a critical one. The twain don’t necessarily intersect my friendsicles.

The Martian was a quick and easy read, while I admit to radically skimming over the sections that went into super geekery diatribe mode—which happened often in various passages that reminded me exactlly of this:

What was readily apparent from the get go, was the fact that this book ‘READ like a film’ from beginning to end, kind of like a Campbell’s Chunky Soup ‘eats like a meal.’ (*How’s that for a rando metaphor!)

And while I did not see the film premiere at the Toronto Film Festival last month, I have a feeling that todays Canadian premiere may trump the book—a rariety for books that turn into films. What I did think was painfully lacking was any effort to turn lead protagonist Mark Watney into a three dimensional character? If anything the stories antagonist, the planet MARS had more details and descriptive color?!

There was a dearth of personal intel on Watney, with zero back story to think of. All we knew of about Mark Watney was that he had a set of living parents back home and that was it? His personality, while believable for an astronaught with strict mental strength and resolve, was kind of one note? Two at best, fluctuating from sarcasm to technical geekery. Not once did he reflect on life or loved ones while he was stuck on Mars? I can’t even recall if tears were shed even once? He was almost robotic in his determination at fixing problems as they arose—which is probably what saved him…but his general humane (depth) factor was something that was lacking.

I get that author Andy Weir is a Science Fiction nerd purist, and within that, may genuinely lack a touchy-feely profile that comes with many a scientific mind. But I normally scribble reactionary thoughts, or underline words & passages from every book I read, and I did not have any inclination to do so while reading The Martian.

A Cormac McCarthy, Weir is not. But alas, he does not profess to be, now does he?

I had a chance to briefly pick Weir’s brain this past week during a Twitter author chat, curated by Chapters Indigo, and here is how it all went down.

…and this

…he was asked by another Tweeter if he planned on making a sequel to The Martian. These were my thoughts exactlly as I thought the book had major sequel potential, if only to finally to develop the characters better on the mission back to earth. His answer had all the depth of a personal pan pizza, and that’s me being generous.

Again perhaps the 140 character format was ‘alien’ (*see what I just did there?) to Mr. Weir, and I’m not anti-capitalist, but I think he could have worded his answer better? A bit of artistry would’ve have sufficed? You know, like… “if I thought of an idea that could serve the story and organically push it forward…” I mean even the Twilight + The Hunger Games authors feign an interest in story?!?! Ew.

Finally, I was trying to pluck some substance from Weir, in asking this final this question which I had hoped would result in a multi-layered response…

Umm…Media Training aisle WEIR? Again, maybe his scientific mind doesn’t lend itself to normal social cues (its evident you made money, I was looking for an answer with a bit more… marrow?) I’ll assume such language is not in your StarTrek-speak wheel house? But I know better to judge someones interview skills based on a brief online twitter chat. I’m not a hater Mr. Weir…after all you are now a millionaire and I’m still eating Ramen noodles, so I’m giving credit where it is due.

It’s just that…I’m just not that into you…or your book. It was good, nothing more or less—despite the popular New York Times #1 vote. It was far from memorable in terms of what ranks in my rule book as the architecture of good writing.

A cool story, yes. I’ll give you that.

If anything your out-of-the-box sucess gives me hope that all writers with something compelling to share will eventually get their shot at a juggernaut publishing deal, AND a seperate HBO/Netflix/Showtime series titled RARE BIRDS about 4 women from cosmopolitan Montreal. It’s GIRLS meets Sex in the City meets Prozac Nation meets something that Spike Jonze and Cameron Crowe would co direct AND help produce the soundtrack…but hey…enough about me…lets talk about ME!

HOLLLAHHHHHHH!

Books Matter,

XOXO