“You can no longer assume, the way you could when I was growing up, that anyone is reading anything. But it’s a question my mother and I asked each other for as long as I can remember.”
Will Schwalbe’s mother, Mary Anne, was a dedicated educator and humanitarian who traveled the world, volunteering as an electoral observer in the Balkans, and serving as the founding director of the Women’s Refugee Commission. In 2007, she returned from the Middle East with what appeared to be hepatitis, but which would eventually correctly be diagnosed as Stage IV pancreatic cancer, which had begun spreading to her liver. Advanced pancreatic cancer is almost incurable, and many patients die within six months. As Mary Anne begins treatment to try to slow the advance of the disease, she and her son start swapping books, and discussing them when Will accompanies her to her various medical appointments. This informal book club of two becomes both a celebration of his mother’s life, and a way of coping with her imminent death, as well as reminder of the importance of continuing to live and take advantage of her remaining time. Despite her sickness, she was instrumental in planning and fundraising to help the Dupree Foundation build a library in Afghanistan, right up until her death in September 2009.
Both Will and his mother are well-read, and like to discuss what they have been reading. When Mary Anne becomes ill, talking about books sometimes serves as a proxy for the more difficult conversations between mother and son. They indirectly address how Will’s father will cope with his mother’s death when they discuss Sid, a character in Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner, who loses his wife, Charity. “Do you think he’ll be all right?” Will asks his mother. “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 replies, neither one acknowledging who they are really discussing. Charity is dying of cancer when the novel begins, so this book is particularly apt, but not all of the analogies between the books they choose and life are quite so direct.
The End of Your Life Book Club will undoubtedly appeal most strongly to avid readers, and perhaps be a little incomprehensible to those who don’t share a powerful love of books. Will says that one of the things he learned from his mother is that “reading isn’t the opposite of doing; it’s the opposite of dying,” but many non-readers would find the idea of spending the last months of your life on books unbelievable. Mary Anne also travels and spends time with family and friends, as most people would do, and continues her charitable works, but fellow book lovers will recognize in her the overwhelming desire to get to all the books you want to read before time runs out, and the frustrating knowledge that it wouldn’t be possible even if you had many years yet to live.
Despite the centrality of books and reading, this is also a great memoir for understanding terminal illness, and it includes important discussions of palliative care, end of life planning, and references to books such as Susan Halpern’s The Etiquette of Illness, from which Will draws valuable lessons about how to talk to his mother about her illness when she wants to discuss it, and how to set it aside and discuss other things when she doesn’t. While Will and his mother often come at hard conversations indirectly, through the books they are reading, they also have some very candid conversations as Mary Anne prepares for her final days.
In case your TBR pile isn’t already large enough, the numerous books discussed in The End of Your Life Book Club will probably result in more than a few additions. The full list of titles and authors forms a six page appendix to the book. Each chapter is named after a book, but often more than one book is discussed per chapter. The discussions shared here aren’t deep literary analysis, but are rather chosen by Will to highlight aspects of his mother’s life and accomplishments, and particularly their conversations about mortality. Undoubtedly there was more to the conversations than gets shared in the book, but the parts that are included all drive towards these themes. The books play a prominent role, but the central story is that of Mary Anne’s life and legacy.