Will Schwalbe’s memoir, The End of Your Life Book Club, is about the last couple of years before his mother’s death from pancreatic cancer and it is a beautiful tribute to family, faith, hope and books. Always books. This book has been languishing on my tbr shelf for ages and it’s one of those books that when I finished, with a satisfied sigh and perhaps a tear or two, I thought I wish I’d picked you up sooner. I guess Schwalbe and his mom, Mary Anne, might say that the book found me at the right time.
I imagine Schwalbe’s family as sort of East Coast aristocracy, without the snobbish bits. His parents both worked in academia, and then his father got into concert management. Schwalbe describes his mother as “the hub” of the family.
Mom didn’t confine herself to coordinating our lives. She was also helping to coordinate, almost always at their request, the lives of hundreds of others: at her church at The Woman’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children (she’d been the founding director), at the International Rescue Committee (she’d been board staff liaison and founded the IRC’s UK branch), and at all the other myriad organizations where she’d worked or served on boards.
Mary Anne is clearly a force to be reckoned with and her cancer diagnosis is a setback not a death sentence. She’s diagnosed in 2007, first with hepatitis, and then eventually with pancreatic cancer. Mary Anne’s oncologist calls her cancer “treatable but not curable”, and these words offer Mary Anne and her family (her husband, and Schwalbe’s brother and sister) hope.
The Schwalbe family have always been readers and soon Will and his mother have formed a book club of two, reading and discussing a variety of books over the long hours at Memorial Sloan-Kettering in NYC, where Mary Anne gets her hope by way of chemotherapy.
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?
Beginning with Wallace Stegner’s 1987 novel Crossing to Safety, a book which I read many years ago, the mother and son read their way through classics, non-fiction, popular fiction and do what any book lovers do – debate, deconstruct and discuss. They don’t always agree, but they appreciate each other’s choices, and as any reader knows many a great discussion can be had even if you didn’t necessarily love the book. These discussions also allow them to share their lives with each other in a meaningful way. Schwalbe is hyper aware that he knows his mother as ‘mom’, the person who kept his world on its axis, but perhaps he doesn’t know her quite so well as Mary Anne, the woman. This is his opportunity.
Mary Anne’s faith is the constant in her journey, and although Schwalbe doesn’t share her certainty about God and the afterlife, he is buoyed by hers. Mary Anne constantly sees the upside. When hearing of a friend’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis she says “I feel so lucky […] I can’t imagine what it would be like not to be able to know the people I love, or to read, or to remember books I’ve read or to visit my favorite places and remember everything that happened there, all the wonderful times. “
The End of Your Life Book Club is not as maudlin as it might sound. It’s a beautiful book that reminds us of the value and irreplaceable nature of family, and reminds us how important it is to cultivate relations with the people in our lives. Mary Anne struck me as the kind of woman who looked you in the eye when she talked to you. As Schwalbe reminds us “we’re all in the end-of-our-life book club, whether we acknowledge it or not; each book we read may well be our last, each conversation the final one.”