Today I read Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air, a memoir of an extraordinary man on the cusp of achieving his dreams of becoming a fully-qualified neurosurgeon, forced to face terminal lung cancer. On Wednesday, I went to Showroom Cinema and watched Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the sea, the story of an ordinary man, and his nephew, forced to face life after the sudden death of his brother. Prima facie, both stories addressed death closely and personally, and both moved me in ways that only exceptional media can, to make me address my own mortality and circumstances, in order to further understand myself. But, in a way, the two stories could not have been less similar.
It is not necessarily the differences in the characters, or settings; of course, the town of Manchester-by-the-sea, Massachusetts, is a living entity, comprised of people only as much as it is defined by the weather, landscape, and wider culture. In comparison, there is no similar setting in Kalanithi’s piece. Only the dusty landscape of Kingman, Arizona, his childhood home under his father’s regional practice, acts as a natural backdrop to his life, soon migrating to the ethereal sense of quiet libraries, his oft-used car, and dominantly, the clean walls and bright lights of the hospital in which he works. Yet, whilst worlds away in their solidity, they serve as similar frames for journeys. Both represent a combination of homeliness, and yet reluctance as to their presence, resulting in a juxtaposition of what is desired and what is necessary. The seagulls fly, and the cadavers are cut, and they are both ancillary and central to the nature of their respective stories.
But where it separates is on the central tenet; not necessarily death, but what comes after. In Manchester by the sea, the discussion begins with death, and in When Breath Becomes Air, the story is inextricably linked with death, not in its explicit presence, but in its role as an underlying fog. But in between, Lee and Paul may fight fire, or they may undertake care for children, and life continues to circumvent the black hole of death. What is so dominant, rather, is how death is to be approached. I considered Lonergan’s piece a desperate plea of a movie, wrapped up in cold weather, choppy seas, and the consistent presence of Lee’s past which rendered death truly an old foe. When I read Kalanithi’s memoir, I was met instead with a more explicit dance with death, bookended by a steely logic only available to one who is familiar with the concept, and philosophising facing those who soon realise that they can never truly know death, as one can never truly know what another feels.
From the former, I took a walk home and felt largely introspective, not about how death would next approach me but how much it can take for death to become just a regular presence alongside oneself, something Lee battled, and something I can imagine plaguing anybody with extended experience with death. From the latter, I sat and considered how something so ever present, and widely considered by any keen reader who are driven to consider what it truly entails, can be a surprise, an unknown quantity, and a foe whose arsenal is a mystery. I was drawn to these works, both fictional and real, and was forced to consider mortality not of itself, but what is underlying; the irreparable fracture of one’s universe, where light or darkness must seep out without prejudice, dealt with by one with a proactive search for the truth, poking open the hole and searching behind the wall, and by another with large swathes of plaster, to stand numb until the light is so great that one cannot help but to face it, burning bright and hot like a house fire and forcing one to see what he has neglected.
It is a consideration that I hadn’t expected to address, when I thought about consuming these stories. But once I did, I couldn’t help but to sit and write about what this entails for us, who are perhaps less exceptional, or more so, than any of these protagonists. But when death comes, or even simply the end of life, we are forced to address something which is so obvious that it cannot be studied until it stares us right in the face.