When Breath Becomes Air


Paul Kalanithi

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Breath Symbol Icon

In When Breath Becomes Air, breath stands in for life. The “breath” of the title is derived from the poem that becomes the memoir’s epigraph: “Caelia 83,” by Baron Brooke Fulke Greville. The poem reads, “You that seek what life is in death, / Now find it air that once was breath.” The difference between “air” and “breath” is mostly semantic: breath is simply air that had once flowed through a living human. Therefore, the moment in which breath becomes air describes the act of dying, with breath representing life. Using breath as a stand-in for life is apt for the memoir because breathing is automatic, just as the way people treat their time on earth is often automatic. People don’t often think about their remaining time or whether they have had meaningful lives until they truly confront their mortality, as Paul does. Additionally, Paul is dying from stage IV lung cancer, and in his final months his breath becomes labored and eventually he must use a BiPAP machine, a breathing support system. Paul decides he would rather take the mask off and spend time with his infant daughter Cady, instead of prolonging an existence tied to machines. Breath literally becomes the crux of his life, and without it, he feels he does not possess the hope of more meaningful time on earth.

Breath Quotes in When Breath Becomes Air

The When Breath Becomes Air quotes below all refer to the symbol of Breath. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Time Theme Icon
Prologue Quotes

And with that, the future I had imagined, the one just about to be realized, the culmination of decades of striving, evaporated.

Related Characters: Paul Kalanithi (speaker)
Related Symbols: Breath
Page Number: 16
Explanation and Analysis:
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Breath Symbol Timeline in When Breath Becomes Air

The timeline below shows where the symbol Breath appears in When Breath Becomes Air. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Part 1: In Perfect Health I Begin
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Human Mortality, Strength, and Support Theme Icon
...and how she gradually succumbs to congestive heart failure and also gains a shortness of breath because older blood is less able to take up oxygen from older lungs. Nuland describes... (full context)
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Knowledge, Experience, and Judgment Theme Icon
Human Mortality, Strength, and Support Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
By the spring, Paul needs supplemental oxygen to make his breathing comfortable. The cancer infiltrates Paul’s brain. The prospect of neurological decline hits him hard, as... (full context)
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Human Mortality, Strength, and Support Theme Icon
That evening, Paul’s condition worsens abruptly, and he struggles to breathe. Lucy calls an ambulance, and Paul tells her that this may be how his life... (full context)
Human Mortality, Strength, and Support Theme Icon
Legacy Theme Icon
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...that Cady doesn’t understand that this moment is a farewell. As the room darkens, Paul’s breathing becomes faltering and irregular. Just before nine o’clock, he inhales and exhales “one last, deep,... (full context)
Human Mortality, Strength, and Support Theme Icon
...he never felt alone. A few weeks before his death, Lucy asked whether Paul could breathe okay with her head on his chest, to which he responded that it is the... (full context)