The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe (Alfred A. Knopf; 352 pages; $25).
No one likes to talk about death and dying. Use of the “c” word can sometimes empty a room. Yet we all have experienced the death of a loved one. Heck, one day, we will all, each one of us, die. Our time is short; therefore, we must make the most of it.
In early October 2007, Mary Anne Schwalbe was diagnosed with cancer. Her son, Will, frequently accompanied his mother to chemotherapy treatments. In the halls of Memorial Sloan-Kettering’s outpatient care center, a book club was born.
“Our book club got its formal start with the mocha and one of the most casual questions two people can ask each other: ‘What are you reading?’”
This was a natural question for them to ask one another. Will was then Senior Vice-President and Editor-in-Chief of Hyperion Books. According to Mary Anne’s obituary, “her first love had been theatre.” She attended Radcliffe College and directed the American auditions for the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. Mary Anne worked at Radcliffe and later at Harvard University as senior educational administrator. Later, the family returned to New York City, where she continued to work in education. However, for the last two decades of her life, Mary Anne “worked directly with refugees worldwide.”
“What are you reading?” was something Will and Mary Anne had asked each other for as long as Will could remember. In the waiting room, and later during treatment, the world of cancer fell away for a brief time. Books were an escape, a respite, against Mary Anne’s Stage IV pancreatic cancer.
Mother and son read old books and new; they read favorite tomes and ones they had only pretended to have read. Will and Mary Anne read clunkers together; they also read thin volumes. Their book club was a book club with only two members. For them, though, two was just enough.
Books offered a connection between them. They were close before the diagnosis, but the book club brought them even closer. They were mother and son, yes, but they were also friends and equals.
Often, the themes of the books Will and Mary Anne read touched on the personal. For example, Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner (1987) prompted Will to ask his mother if a character in the novel would be all right in the end. His wife was dying of cancer. Mary Anne replied, “Of course it’ll be tough on him, but I think he’ll be fine. I’m quite sure of it. Maybe not right away. But he’ll be fine.” She was referring to the character, but she may as well have been referring to her own husband.
Death and dying are difficult subjects to broach, especially when your mother is the one dying. Sometimes she may want to talk about it; some days she may not want to discuss her illness. Soon, they both discovered that reading is the “opposite of dying.”
“Books had always been a way for my mother and me to introduce and explore topics that concerned us but made us uneasy, and they had also always given us something to talk about when we were stressed or anxious.”
After Mary Anne’s diagnosis, they discussed books more and more. Through the stories they read, Will was able to discover things about Mary Anne that he never knew.
Mary Anne fought hard, but pancreatic cancer took her life on September 14, 2009. Throughout the book, you will feel as if you know Mary Anne and Will. When cancer ultimately takes her life, you will feel the loss. I felt as if I had known this spunky, courageous woman who, even sick, was every bit the dynamo.
The End of Your Life Book Club is not only a memoir but it is also a love letter. It’s a love letter to Mary Anne, yes, but it is also a love letter to the written word. Books are powerful; they bridge generations and illness. They bring a mother and a son closer just as her days are waning.
Will writes with tenderness and bravery. His story could not have been an easy one to write. I am sure there were both tears and smiles as he came up with this wonderful, poignant story. Mary Anne most definitely stood over his shoulder making sure everything was done to her satisfaction.
The End of Your Life Book Club is a story for your head and for your heart.