When Breath Becomes Air, Book Review (sort of)

“I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”– Samuel Beckett

The only way to avoid the inevitable truth that I will one day die is to live with my head buried in the sand. As Paul Kalanithi said in his memoir, When Breath Becomes Air, “all organisms, whether goldfish or grandchild, die.” Because of this undeniable truth, over the years I have become obsessed with the idea of living my passion in the hope that it will give meaning to my life. It seems impossible that our time on Earth should simply be spent living the predetermined path “they” laid out for us: birth, school, work, pay bills, buy a house, and if you’re lucky get married, etc. There must be more. Something so profound that your existence and absence will have mattered, truly mattered.

I first started to feel this way while I was on maternity leave with my youngest son, Cameron. Before that, I’d decided that I had been born into my family because they needed me. Yes, I had colored myself as quite the martyr. I needed to be there to care for my younger brother as he died from cancer. I needed to be there for my mom as she struggled to find value in who she was. I needed to be there as an anchor as both my ex-husband and dad struggled with drug use. And when my marriage fell apart, I needed to be there for my kids to love them as I never had been and to help pave the way to a life that would different from what I’d lived.

But when I was pregnant with Cameron, I began to want something that wasn’t so draining. Something that offered me the slightest glimmer of hope. And I became a school teacher. I’ve been teaching for eight years; next school year, I begin my ninth year of teaching.

At one point in his memoir, Kalanithi describes the delivery of twin preemies. “With their bones visible through translucent skin, they looked more like the preparatory sketches of children than children themselves.” After reading this, I think of the time, as a reporter, I wrote about the NICU unit at the Regional Medical Center here in Memphis, how I immediately started to wonder how I could be a part of this. I wanted to volunteer to hold the newborn babies, to provide that vital human touch. But life happened and I moved on to the next story and didn’t think about that until some years later. It was clear, though, that I felt a special calling for working with children. After reading about the babies in Kalanithi’s book, I also think about the students I’ve been teaching. At the school where I used to teach, many of those children were just like the newborn babies born too soon. A lot of people in the community view them as helpless and hopeless cases, but it was there at that school where my life developed meaning. Kalanithi, who loved literature as much as neuroscience, spoke about how important words were and how words develop meaning only when exchanged between people. Here, I think about one of my former students, LeKendrick. I think about how frustrated he was when we began our Shakespeare unit. Shakespeare’s words helped us forge a bond. And through that bond, we’ve shared many more words over the years. He lets me know when he does well on his report card, even though I’m no longer teaching at that school. I let him know how proud, but unsurprised I am. “I always knew you had the potential to do what you want to do.” He’s going away for an aeronautic program this summer and I can’t wait to hear about all his new experiences. And I think about Raven. How through our love of words –reading and writing—we forged a relationship, one that has continued to thrive years after she left my classroom. And there are so many others.

Like Kalanithi, I am no savior nor do I want to be. I just allow myself to exist fully with my students. I heard their words. I heard their frustrations. I have listened as they tried to navigate through trying to discover who they really are. “Human knowledge is never contained in one person. It grows from the relationships we create between each other and the world, and still is never complete,” Kalanithi said.

What does any of this have to do with dying? Well, in facing and accepting the fact that I will die, I am more concerned about knowing that I have lived a life that matters. And that means to focus on my living. Trying to make decisions that make my spirit glad. Doing a lot of small things in love. And as I close out another school year, I hope that I encouraged at least one student to believe in his ability to succeed at whatever makes his spirit glad. I hope that I made at least one student see that if no one ever told him/her, that, yes, they are more than capable. I think of one of my students, one of my SPED students, who I had an opportunity to have a hear-to-heart with before the school year was over. “You have become one of my better writers this year,” I told him. “But you got a slow start because you refused to try at first. Just imagine how much more you can grow if you work hard from the very beginning. Show your teacher next year just what you are capable of because you have made considerable growth this year. Don’t let that go.”

Just as surely as every day, we get closer to dying, I hope that every day I’m living and not just existing. And that in the grand scheme of things, I am creating a life that has meaning. And that when my breath finally becomes air, I will have left behind people who know that I loved them. And everything I ever did was done in love.

Paul Kalanithi’s book is an excellent read. It was full of profound and illuminating statements. It was about focusing on the living and not the dying even in the face of a terminal illness. I’d recommend it for anyone to read.

Peace & Love,

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Lost Innocents

For Kingston, Tyshawn, and Relisha, as well as the countless others whose lives have been taken from them with guns that have become gods and evil masquerading as love.

The darkness
has always been there
an eclipse

The light extinguished
two damp fingers
to snuff out the flame
eternal darkness
continues to pervade

a six-year-old is dead
in the back seat, killed
a shower of bullets rained
from a child’s toy gun
the other’s eyes forever dimmed

Google six-year-old killed
an avalanche of names, overload
the hits you see today are only
the ones that are trending

A hierarchy of hate
killing off the children
who were never supposed to

Phantom images of
lost innocents
crouch in hidden spaces
nowhere for the children
to hide

Let their memories breathe

My soul
has threatened to give up many times
too hopeless to exist in a space where
six-year-olds drown in blood
too deep for them to swim

We have lost our children
our children have lost their way
the blood of our children     too deep
to wade in, don’t go back
to the shore   without the children

Peace & Love,

Above all else, we must protect our children. This we do through love.

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Love Letter From Me

Sometimes love is like a fist, it
can break through the veil of eternity

A faint feathery whisper that brushes
the cheek like the back of a hand

The tip of Love’s fingertip tracing
against an unsuspecting cheek

The dizziness becomes delirium, a
rising fever impossible to extinguish

Yesterdays and tomorrows blur into
infinite possibilities of never being without you

Chasing memories out of darkness
calling on the gods to right the wrongs

Unable to say it enough, I love you.
I love you. I. Love. You.

Peace & Love,

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How I Know

When I stop
that’s when I

Three years we spent together falling in love with love
twenty-three times squared the number of times marriage was discussed
four missed opportunities from before we ever met
twelve late night talks while we cuddled, dreaming with our eyes open
one thousand times we made love

one day I
stopped counting

And I watched you
walk away

So I began
number the space
between us

Two days with no call from you
two weeks before your face faded into memory
six hundred thousand seconds tasting bitter loneliness
twenty-six months of trying to grasp what was fleeting
one lifetime spent wishing things could be different

But I’ve stopped
and that’s
how I know

Peace & Love,

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Emergency Room

Late night shift with a patient struggling
to breathe. Fighting death, she twisted & writhed
on the bed. Watching her battle, I thought of

You. And how breathing is so much like loving.

Death just sneaks up on you and confuses like
a love that poisons the blood. How can you ever

Learn to breathe artificial oxygen that is killing you?

Sometimes I wake at night to find the bed covers twisted
around me and the space beside me empty. Still.

I watched her fight end. Finally. The emptiness that moved into
her eyes and wanted to shatter the mirror before me.

Peace & Love,

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The Most Beautiful Lie

The most beautiful lie
is the one that
never feels like a lie

Sometimes there are no words
to replace what’s been lost as a
beautiful lie exposed becomes truth

But the beauty of the lie
makes it impossible to regret;
every smile every sigh every exhale

Belongs in the world of the beautiful lie
without shame without denial where

Words once were poetry and smiles were
1980s love songs; how easy it was to get lost
how easy it was to not be found

Out. That’s the beauty of a lie that doesn’t
feel like it at the time. You can look back
on it without sorrow because

The most beautiful lie
is one that
never feels like a lie.

Peace & Love,

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We thought we’d finally
found love. Our delusions
made us easy prey. Pray
that when this is all over we
will still believe. We
will still long to feel love
in our bones, love with no
coverups. Naked.
The kind of love that
doesn’t strike out at you
like a copperhead snake,
leaving you thinking you’re
dying inside when you’re only
living. Prey.

Peace & Love,

P.S. Happy National Poetry Month!

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A New Birth

The miracle of
birth. Watching love give birth to
hate. Breathtaking lies.

Peace & Love,

Happy National Poetry Month, Day 15

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Less than 24 hours ago, two sisters were killed by the husband of one of the women. Two days before that, a school teacher and one of her students was killed by her husband. A day before that another woman was killed by her ex-husband. Twenty-four hours ago, a man’s body was found in the street. His wife or girlfriend was arrested. Twenty people per minute are reportedly (reported) abused by an intimate partner. Why? Why? Why?


I cannot decipher messages in the clouds but
I am learning to interpret the meanings relayed
through scars. A story for every scar even the
ones covering the heart. The ones you think
no one can see because like a masterful artist
you’ve learned to hide the ones covering your body.

I hear you telling the untold stories whenever we
are together. The words deftly concealed in every
sigh, in every tear you manage to keep from crying,
in every effort you make to hide behind a façade of
plastic smiles.

Who told you that love was supposed to
leave scars on the heart? Or just scars?

Who told you that love wasn’t supposed to be

Is there some riddle that must be unraveled, an
equation to be solved to explain why women
are being murdered as such an exasperating rate?

We, like fallen soldiers, perishing in a war, a search
to find love. Trying to piece together broken hearts with
tears. Holding on to broken pieces that, like glass, hurt us
until we can’t help crying.

Who told you that discarding piece of yourself to accommodate
someone else was love? Who told you that to compromise in
love means to fill up the empty parts of yourself with
someone else?

I speak many languages, but mostly the language of love.
I will hold you here until the bruises are gone. I will hold you
here until you know that it isn’t love that hurts, it’s the absence
of love that’s staring you in your face becoming more and more
angry because you want to walk away.

Peace & Love,

P.S. Love doesn’t hurt. Don’t believe the hype. When you are truly loved, you are valued and you will never have to question whether you are loved. If someone is hurting you, leave. You can get over a heartbreak, but your family will never get over losing you if you are killed by someone who claimed to love you and you knew all along that it was never love. Love yourself first.

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Whispered Memories

I hear you whisper memories in my ear
like death you will not go away. I press
the pause button continuously but still
your words vibrate in my ear, a nonstop loop
of promises you never could keep. Poetry is not
an apology. Love is not obligation. And illusions
can never be real.  But imaginings can continue to live
even as your words are lost to me like gilded
dreams caught up in a springtime wind storm.

Have you ever witnessed the moon kissing the sea?
Have you ever once wished you knew how to read my
poetry?  Have you ever wanted to catch a falling star
with your bare hands? Have you ever tried to unravel
the mystery of love? Have you ever shivered from only
the memory of love’s first kiss or a first love?

I imagine your words dancing in the wind like fallen
leaves and I wish I could remember the melody so
that I could dance along too. And there will be times when I remember
the steps of the dance but I will choose to free fall in the dried leaves of
words that long ago lost their true meaning.

Peace & Love,

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