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.
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: Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Vintage edition of When Breath Becomes Air published in 2017.).
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
...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)
...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)