Dr. Paul Kalanithi told NBC Bay Area News that it was “a surprising and great experience to have something that was my own personal experience resonate really deeply with so many people.”
In 2014, the then 36-year-old Stanford neurosurgeon, diagnosed with stage four lung cancer, had written a column in the New York Times called “How Long Have I Got Left?” which drew an outpouring of support.
Paul died last March at age 37, but not before writing a stunning memoir about his short life. How pleased he would be if he knew his new book “When Breath Becomes Air” (Random House) came out last week to rave reviews. His wife and fellow Stanford doctor Lucy Kalanithi helped finish and push his book through the publishing process, completing her husband’s dream.
NBC BAY AREA: Many people feel close to your husband Paul through articles and TV appearances before he passed away. What other sides of Paul’s personality does the book reveal?
DR. LUCY KALANITHI: The Paul that comes across is sort of like deep core of Paul: he was calm, he was thoughtful. In real life, he was very witty and wry. He also was adorable and really hilarious. So he’s funny in the book: he’s kind of cheeky at times.
NBC BAY AREA: There have been rave reviews for “When Breath Becomes Air” so far. How do you think Paul would feel about the response if he were still alive?
LK: I think he would love it. He set out to write a description of what it’s like to face mortality at a young age. It was a meditation for himself, but he was writing it for readers. People are having conversations about big issues as a result of reading the book and that’s really what Paul hoped so. I feel that real pride and joy and love for Paul seeing that happen.
NBC BAY AREA: You were essentially the keeper of your husband’s words.
LK: As Paul was writing the book, I was reading it in real time, daily or weekly. I would say, “Hey, how’s it going? What are you writing? How’s it coming?” It was a way for us to talk about his inner most feelings too.
NBC BAY AREA: What does the book mean to you now?
LK: Reading it now, it’s a consolation to have Paul’s words as something I can go back to and feel close to him. This book has actually been a centerpiece, along with our family, in my life since Paul died actually -- the great effort it took to stand in for him, make sure it was published, make all the decisions for Paul like what the cover would be like.
NBC BAY AREA: Was there ever a point where you and Paul weren’t sure if he would live long enough to finish the book?
LK: I think both of us had the idea that he could die before he was finished. He was a fast and clear writer so that really benefited him. We really worked hard to adjust his schedule and medications for him to be able to pull it off physically.
NBC BAY AREA: Do you think his determination and love for writing helped keep him alive until he finished?
LK: I don’t think it specifically kept him alive for longer, but I think it filled his days with real purpose.
NBC BAY AREA: Have you read Paul’s book to your daughter Cady, who it’s dedicated to?
LK: No, but Paul used to read Cady real literature instead of baby books. I’m curious what it’ll mean to her in the future, but it’s this real expression of his love for her.
NBC BAY AREA: And you – how are you coping?
LK: Interestingly, the experience of being a caregiver and experience of working on this book and thinking about the deep questions that faced Paul and faced me is not at all orthogonal to my own professional interests going forward, so me stretching forward into the future I think I’ll be taking a lot of this with me and building it into what makes sense for me and Cady moving forward.
NBC BAY AREA: When Paul was first diagnosed, he wrote: “Prepare to die. Cry. Tell my wife that she should remarry.”
LK: It just brings tears to my eyes because he really did say that. It was his way of expressing deep caring for me and my life going forward. My first thought was I don’t want to remarry; I want to be married to you. And I don’t want you to die. And it was such an intense moment.
NBC BAY AREA: It’s been 11 months since Paul died. Do you feel that remarrying could be in your future? I noticed you’re not wearing your wedding ring anymore.
LK: I’m still wearing Paul’s wedding ring and my engagement ring on my other hand in a place where it doesn’t signify that I’m married but it’s still a piece of Paul I feel is still important to have. Do I hope I get remarried: Yes. Is it something I’m thinking about actively? Not at all.
NBC BAY AREA: You seem to be coping well.
LK: I really felt I would only be sad and heartbroken after Paul died, and it’s kind of interesting to notice that I still have all these really good positive feelings, like loving paul or feeling proud of Paul. You know, it’s nice to be in love. It’s a good feeling to love someone so it’s funny to notice that love carries forward even when Paul’s not here.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.