Never was there so much life in a book about someone dying.
Will Schwalbe’s memoir of his mother’s last two years glows with inspiration. This is a beautifully written new work that has an urging and urgency that will move you to read more books and better books while at the same time compel you to get up off your couch and do something, to both relish time with the ones you love and to be a person for others, a person who dares to help a stranger, even strangers around the globe.
If you love to read, you won’t want to miss “The End of Your Life Book Club” (Knopf).
If you want to absorb some wisdom from a person who got the most out of life and gave back even more, read this book.
If you want to meet a woman in whom the spiritual wasn’t just part of her but imbued in her every fiber, read this book.
Mary Anne Schwalbe was a remarkable woman both before and after pancreatic cancer made its presence known.
A leader among women
She was the first woman director of admissions at Harvard and Radcliffe and first woman president of the Harvard Faculty Club. She was the founding director of the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children and deeply involved with the International Rescue Committee. She was an election monitor in Bosnia, a college counselor and head of a high school. She was a trustee at Marymount Manhattan College and counted De La Salle Academy in Manhattan as one of her favorite schools.
Even as the cancer in her abdomen sapped her strength she worked to form a foundation to build – what else – a library, in Afghanistan, a country she visited nine times in order to be able to report on the status of refugees there.
The anecdotes about her heroic efforts in refugee camps on several continents are merely the mortar in between the bricks that make us this exceptional work.
Those bricks are books.
And when Mary Anne Schwalbe’s son Will writes about he and his mother reading books and sharing their thoughts about them, they create a fine a piece of literature.
‘What are you reading?’
Author Will Schwalbe acknowledges honestly that the “book club” is something his mother started unwittingly and he joined grudgingly. The family had always discussed books and movies and the like, so when mother and son found themselves together regularly for hours both before and during treatments for the tumors in her pancreas, the question, “What are you reading?” came up naturally, and this unique, two-person book club came into existence.
Chapter titles are the titles of the books the pair read and discussed.
Here’s just a handful and the snippets of “book club” comments and conversation.
There’s “Gilead” by Marilynne Robinson: Reading the novel, Mom said, “was like praying.” It “gave her another chance to talk with God.”
There’s “The Lizard Cage” by Karen Connelly about life in prison in Burma, “which, Mom says, makes one forget any problems here.”
A book shouldn’t just inspire you, Mary Anne Schwalbe claims, “It should make you furious.” And she took from “Gilead” a question she thought all should ask themselves: “What is the Lord asking of me in this moment, in this situation?”
They read Patricia Highsmith’s “The Price of Salt,” eliciting Mary Anne to comment, “That’s one of the amazing things great books like this do – they don’t just get you to see the world differently, they get you to look at people, the people all around you, differently.”
The Schwalbe mother-son book club balanced reading new works and older ones, fiction and non-fiction, Mohsin Hamid’s “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” as well as T.S. Eliot’s “Murder in the Cathedral”; “The Elegance of the Hedgehog” by Muriel Barbery and “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” by Stieg Larsson.
In their pages the two find insight into friendship, loneliness, fate, the effects of choices, the joy of thanking, benevolence, stewardship, anger, forgiveness, suicide, absolution, joy, death, kindness, aging, relationships, second chances.
Books help us talk about something we don’t want to talk about, Will Schwalbe declares.
A spiritual life lived
A Presbyterian, Mary Anne Schwalbe kept “The Book of Common Prayer” handy and Mary Wilder Tileston’s 1884 “Daily Strength for Daily Needs” even closer.
She succumbed to the cancer some two years after it was diagnosed, having bookmarked a page in “Daily Strength” that contained the quote from John Ruskin: “If you do not wish for His Kingdom, don’t pray for it. But if you do, you must do more than pray for it; you must work for it.”
She tended to steer the book club toward works where Christian faith played an important role, her son wrote.
The book offers insight to us all in how to talk with those ill with a “treatable but not curable” disease. Ask not “How are you feeling?” but “Would you like to talk about how you’re feeling?” And, if you are thinking about sending a message to someone in hospice, do it.
Author Will Schwalbe noted, as he and his family dealt with the situation, “I was learning that when you’re with someone who is dying, you may need to celebrate the past, live the present and mourn the future all at the same time.”
There’s a slice of the author’s mother’s wisdom on every page.
For example, after a chemotherapy treatment one day, she doesn’t perk up. She explains, “I’m feeling a little sad. I know there’s a life everlasting – but I wanted to do much more here.”
That Mary Anne Schwalbe did enough while with the living we’ll leave to her creator’s judgment.
But the story of the book club that she and son Will devised have left a remarkable gift for those of us left behind.
Will writes what he learned from his mother:
“Books are how you take part in the human conversation, how we know what to do in life and how we tell others, how we get closer to each other and stay close.”