Every breath

19 Jan

I read several books during the snow week we just had, and have written in the past about my Grandmother’s experience in a tuberculosis sanatorium.  Two books I read during my unexpected vacation got me thinking about her again.

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The first, The Secret Horses of Briar Hill,  by Megan Shepherd, was not what i was expecting. I thought it was going to be a war story. It is set during the Second World War, and might even be considered an allegory for it. But the real story focuses on the experiences of a young girl in an isolated hospital (which I suspect was a tuberculosis sanatorium) in the English countryside.

Publisher’s Summary:There are winged horses that live in the mirrors of Briar Hill hospitalthe mirrors that reflect the elegant rooms once home to a princess, now filled with sick children. Only Emmaline can see the creatures. It is her secret.

One morning, Emmaline climbs over the wall of the hospital’s abandoned gardens and discovers something incredible: a white horse with a broken wing has left the mirror-world and entered her own.

The horse, named Foxfire, is hiding from a dark and sinister force—a Black Horse who hunts by colorless moonlight. If Emmaline is to keep him from finding her new friend, she must surround Foxfire with treasures of brilliant shades. But where can Emmaline find color in a world of gray?

The second made me weep. If you haven’t read When Breath Becomes Air  by Paul Kalanithi, you must. If you never read nonfiction, you must read this beautiful reflection by a man, a doctor, as he comes to the end of his life.

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Publisher’s Summary: At the age of thirty-six, on the verge of completing a decade’s worth of training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. One day he was a doctor treating the dying, and the next he was a patient struggling to live. And just like that, the future he and his wife had imagined evaporated. When Breath Becomes Air chronicles Kalanithi’s transformation from a naïve medical student “possessed,” as he wrote, “by the question of what, given that all organisms die, makes a virtuous and meaningful life” into a neurosurgeon at Stanford working in the brain, the most critical place for human identity, and finally into a patient and new father confronting his own mortality.

What makes life worth living in the face of death? What do you do when the future, no longer a ladder toward your goals in life, flattens out into a perpetual present? What does it mean to have a child, to nurture a new life as another fades away? These are some of the questions Kalanithi wrestles with in this profoundly moving, exquisitely observed memoir.

Paul Kalanithi died in March 2015, while working on this book, yet his words live on as a guide and a gift to us all. “I began to realize that coming face to face with my own mortality, in a sense, had changed nothing and everything,” he wrote. “Seven words from Samuel Beckett began to repeat in my head: ‘I can’t go on. I’ll go on.’” When Breath Becomes Air is an unforgettable, life-affirming reflection on the challenge of facing death and on the relationship between doctor and patient, from a brilliant writer who became both.

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