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The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe

The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe Every once in while I read a book that is so magnificent, one I think is so important, that I would just like to take a pile of books, give them to all my friends, and everyone else as well.

I have just finished reading The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe, and I am feeling overwhelmed with emotion, invigorated and weak at the same time. Will Schwalbe tells us the story of his mother, Mary Anne Schwalbe, and the final years of her life after she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

During those long months they spent a great deal of time together in hospital waiting rooms, during chemotherapy treatments and other hospital stays, or quietly at home. Always close, and both great readers, it was natural that they would talk about the books they were reading, and the books they’d read in the past and wanted to share. I began to read this book just at the time that my mother-in-law was first diagnosed with cancer, had surgery and was facing treatment. She is not about to die but it was just a little too close to home and I put the book aside. I did, however, order a copy of the first book this mother and son discussed, Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner. Like Will Schwalbe, I knew the book but I had never read it. Crossing to Safety is an amazing book – if I had read it when I was younger I’m not sure I’d have understood it as I do now – it is indeed a wonderful book and one I am very glad I have now read.

After reading Crossing to Safety I decided to again pick up The End of Your Life Book Club to find out what came next – at that point it was not so much to find out about Mary Anne Schwalbe as to find out what books would be discussed. What I discovered is that here is a book that may well be about a woman dying of cancer, but really it is a book about love – between a mother and son, their family and friends, and the love of reading and books that we share with those we love.

It is also about “mothering” as Will Schwalbe remembers his childhood and his life as Mary Anne’s son. Will Schwalbe is ten years younger than I am, and he grew up in much more privileged circumstances but there were so many things the same – the freedom we had as children at that time, parents who were both great readers. Our home had fewer books but we did own a copy of a book I looked at regularly, The Family of Man with photographs by Edward Steichen. Of course, as a child, I had no idea who Edward Steichen was but I do know that in this book there was a photograph of a woman, very demurely naked behind a sort of sheer curtain. Growing up in a home where there was never a naked body to be seen I thought this photograph amazing. That Will Schwalbe knows this book I found a delight.

The End of Your Life Book Club is also so much a book about parenting that I will give it to my own adult children. As Will Schwalbe writes, “mostly, when I look back, what I remember is not Mom rushing about; it’s Mom sitting quietly in the center of the house, in the living room, under the swirling colors of a Paul Jenkins painting; there would be a fire in the fireplace and a throw over her lap, her hands sticking out to hold a book. And we all wanted to be there with her and Dad, reading quietly too.”

Through all of the many, many, many chemotherapy sessions, and the sometimes brutal side effects she suffered, as I read, I sometimes wondered why this woman would put herself through this treatment. But I soon discovered what an amazing woman she was, her career as an educator, her involvement with charitable organizations, her fearless travel to help others in dangerous countries experiencing war and political turmoil. And, her absolute love of her family, wanting to live long enough for her grandchildren to really know and remember her, she regrets that she does not have more years to be able to give them “massive quantities of love”. She wants to be with them, to share all those birthdays and holidays, to continue to be part of the life of her family for as long as possible. She chooses to live among the germs of family life, even if she “shouldn’t be”. Here is a woman who wants as much time as she can possibly get. As her son writes, “What could be more human than to want to live?”

This book will remind all of us that we must live our lives, we must mindfully live each day, and feel that we are lucky to have had it.

There are lighter moments, Mary Anne and Will browsing in a bookshop, the discoveries that can be made looking through the shelves and then sharing the books they have found. I also loved that many of the books they read and shared are books I have also read and loved, Joan Didion who knows more about grief than most, Olive Kitteridge, Suite Francaise, Too Much Happiness, and I loved it when I turned the page to discover that they would read Brooklyn and knew they would love it as much as I did. I also made discoveries of books I now plan to read.

Some people talk about life as a journey. I suppose it is, a journey with wonderful and unexpected experiences along the way, and sadness and grief as well. Mary Anne and Will read Jon Kabat-Zinn, who writes, “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf”.

A very wise Mary Anne herself writes, on a scrap of paper, her son finds in a book, “We all owe everyone for everything that happens in our lives. But it’s not owing like a debt to one person – it’s really that we owe everyone for everything. Our whole lives can change in an instant – so each person who keeps that from happening, no matter how small a role they play, is also responsible for all of it. Just by giving friendship and love, you keep the people around you from giving up – and each expression of friendship or love may be the one that makes all the difference.”

We all know that life can be long, or far too short. Some of us are given more serious challenges than others. This book re-enforces what I have somehow always known – live your life.

Mary Anne Schwalbe was only 74 when she died, not an old woman. She lived a very full life, a life where she “managed to have it all – a husband, a career, three children”. She told younger women that her friends with regrets were more likely to be the ones who hadn’t tried to do it all. She also left her family wise and wonderful advice – the rules they grew up with, including giving thanks not only for gifts but for kindnesses, and one she thought the most important “You should tell your family every day that you love them. And make sure they know that you’re proud of them too”.

After her death Will finds himself still sharing his thoughts with his mother about the books he is reading, still quietly, mourning, sharing something they both loved. Will and Mary Anne Schwalbe had the great good fortune to live close by each other, physically spending time together makes it possible to have the kind of relationship that cannot be had long distance no matter how much love there may be.

Mary Anne Schwalbe was a much more courageous woman than I am, in her life and in her reading. But anyone who reads widely and shares their books with others will understand what Will Schwalbe means when he writes, “We’re all in the end-of-our-life book club, whether we acknowledge it or not; each book we read may be the last, each conversation the final one.”

Will Schwalbe gives thanks to his mother at the end of his book, I’d like to give thanks to Will Schwalbe for giving us all The End of Your Life Book Club.

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