As Valentine’s Day approaches, thoughts turn to pretty cards, flowers, boxes of chocolates and declarations of love. I would like to recommend a book that is a love story, to be sure, but one of a son’s love for his mother and of their mutual love of books.
Will Schwalbe has written a dear memoir of the time he spent with his mother, Mary Anne, who as the book begins, has just been diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer. Mary Anne suggests that they begin a book club of two to while away the endless hours waiting for doctor’s appointments and chemotherapy treatments. The title of his book, The End of Your Life Book Club, is certainly appropos, if not a bit grim, but as they begin this adventure together, the books they read add some emotional relief, easing their journey to the inevitable. Will’s publishing company had just published the Randy Pausch book The Last Lecture about a 47 year old man who was dying of the same cancer as Will’s mother, and he considered the possibility of a book about her and the example she was to others.
The Schwalbe children, Will, Doug and Nina, grew up surrounded by books and avid readers. “Mostly when I look back, what I remember is not Mom rushing about; it’s Mom sitting quietly in the center of the house, the living room … there would be a fire in the fireplace and a throw over her lap, her hands sticking out to hold a book. And all we wanted was to be there with her and Dad, reading quietly, too.”
This is not to say that Mary Anne was a shy, retiring type. In her 70+ years, she had taught high school English, been the admissions director for first Radcliffe then Harvard College, was the founder and first director of the Commission for Refugee Women and Children, and was instrumental in raising millions of dollars to establish a library in Afghanistan. Her days were full, returning numerous emails and phone calls, attending conferences, raising money for worthy causes—all for the betterment of people she didn’t even know. Right up to the last month of her life, she was actively involved in the pursuit of the establishment of the library she so wanted for the children of Afghanistan.
Because of Mary Anne’s many interests, the book club choices run the gamut from science fiction and classic children’s stories to popular fiction, religion and biography. (There is a complete list at the end of the book.) Any book was open for discussion, including those with a focus on death and dying. Topics that had once been scary to talk about suddenly opened up and provided the two with the impetus to address the grieving that was consuming them. They spent many valuable hours with deepening love and appreciation for each other. In her last days, Mary Anne emailed her son the following advice: “Tell your family every day that you love them. And make sure they know you’re proud of them.”
Because this book is written with such honesty and openness, I did not come away feeling sad and depressed. Quite the contrary, I found it to be poignant, to be sure, but also had a real appreciation of a life well and fully lived. To conclude, I would like to share part of the final paragraph of the book:
Mom…never wavered in her conviction that books are the more powerful tool in the human arsenal, that reading all kinds of books, in whatever format your choose…is the grandest entertainment, and also is how you take part in the human conversation. Mom taught me that you can make a difference in the world and that books really do matter: they’re how we know what we need to do in life, and how we tell others. Mom also showed me that books can be how we get closer to each other and stay close, even in the case of a mother and son who were very close to each other to begin with, and even after one of them has died.
Note: As a cancer survivor and hospice volunteer, this book resonated with me in a very personal way. Did this review evoke any special memories or images for you?