Themes

Education

Education is one of the most important themes in When Breath Becomes Air. It is central to the plot, forming the backbone of the narrative as Kalanithi works his way through high school in Kingsman, Arizona, college at Stanford and Cambridge, medical school at Yale, and finally returns to Stanford for his residency in neurosurgery. Near the end of his life, Kalanithi receives the medical degree for which he had been studying for years. Unfortunately, his disease had progressed too far by then for him to pursue a career as a neurosurgeon, and he later succumbs to his illness, having completed his training as a doctor.

Family
Kalanithi's family plays a major role in his life, and the theme of family recurs throughout the book, becoming most important in those moments when Kalanithi leans on his wife and family for support during his illness. Fittingly, the first family member Kalanithi introduces is Lucy, his wife, whom he met in medical school. She sticks with him in sickness and in health, surviving the rough patch right before his diagnosis, when they drifted apart. His mother and father also play a large role in Part I of the memoir, with his mother taking a pointed interest in his education. His father, a cardiologist with a private practice, was largely absent and doesn't appear often in this memoir. In the end, Kalanithi's most important familial bonds are with his wife and daughter, Cady, who is born just days after Paul is released from the hospital.
Life and Death

Life and death are the two most important themes in this memoir, and one could argue that the entire book is a long spiritual meditation on the "twinned mysteries of death, its experiential and biological manifestations: at once deeply personal and utterly impersonal." Death appears in many forms in the memoir, first taking the shape of a cadaver in an anatomy class, then the underdeveloped bodies of a pair of premature twins, and eventually the tumors riddling Kalanithi's lungs and body. At one point, he asks, "If the unexamined life was not worth living, was the unlived life worth examining?" That's just one example of the philosophical insights Kalanithi provides into the nature of life and death. It may be that he was surrounded and later hounded by death, but he was also part of a profession that has devoted itself to preserving and improving...

(The entire section is 1036 words.)