There is great value in reading a book about books, and The End of Your Life Book Club is no exception. This book is different in one respect, however. It is about Mary Anne Schwalbe, the mother of the author Will Schwalbe, and the book club is how mother and son spent time together while Mary Anne received chemotherapy treatments for Stage 4 pancreatic cancer—a treatable but incurable disease. The books they read and discussed helped moderate Mary Ann’s suffering; eased Schwalbe’s grief; and lightened the load during the last two years of her life.
On every page, you are aware that Schwalbe’s time with Mary Anne was limited: Will she live three months, a year, or even longer? This question is uppermost in your mind as you are writing down the titles of books they read, have read, or are going to read, all the while knowing that you will never have time to read every book. Nevertheless, Schwalbe presents you with an eclectic list to sort through—this, at the same time you are focused on the story of Mary Anne.
The second value—of no less value than the first— is getting to know Mary Anne through her son Will. She was an extraordinary person, balancing her life as mother, grandmother, and wife with her various careers—this during an era when the wife typically raised the family and the husband went to work. While Will and his brother Doug and sister Nina were growing up, Mary Anne was director of admission at Radcliffe and Harvard, as well as dean of admission and financial aid; a college counselor at the Dalton School, a private K-12 school in Manhattan; and head of the university-prep school Nightingale-Bamford in Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
Later in life, she switched careers and co-founded the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children (now the Women’s Refugee Commission) at the International Rescue Committee. Her work took her to Afghanistan, Bosnia, Liberia, Sudan, East Timor, Gaza, Cote d’Ivoire, Laos, Monrovia, and West Africa. While she was with the Women’s Commission, she went to Bosnia to help monitor the elections; traveled across the Khyber Pass from Pakistan into Afghanistan in 1995 to report on the conditions of refugees; and flew on a Russian helicopter out of Darfur when it became too dangerous to stay. And there was the time she shared a hostel in Afghanistan with “twenty-three mujahideen warriors.” Mary Anne was unflinching in her commitment to the refugees: She traveled to war-torn countries undeterred by the violence she would face.
In May 2009, Mary Anne celebrated the twentieth anniversary of the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children with an audience comprised of mostly women. At the banquet in Manhattan, Liv Ullmann, co-founder of the organization, paid tribute to Mary Anne, and a film was shown about the history of the commission and the part she played in its early years. After the program, friends and colleagues surrounded her to express their love toward her and appreciation for her presence at the anniversary. Schwalbe writes, “There’s no price I wouldn’t have paid for Mom to be at that lunch, or to have witnessed it myself and to be able to hold that image in mind: a small, gray-haired lady surrounded by people she adored and admired, people who felt exactly the same way about her.”
It is safe to say that her attendance at the banquet was a personally courageous achievement, comparable with traveling to dangerous countries overseas. Prior to this event, Mary Anne had spent eighteen months going through chemo. Schwalbe catalogues the effects: “mouth sores, swollen feet, nausea, headaches, weight loss, lack of energy, diarrhea, constipation, cramps, and fever, and hours in doctors’ offices, emergency rooms, and hospitals.” Four months after the 20th anniversary of the Women’s Commission Mary Anne co-founded and to which she had dedicated the last years of her life, she died.
The third value—an unmitigated, all-embracing one—is learning how Mary Anne and Schwalbe tackled the end of her life: The subject of dying is foregrounded on the pages of The End of Your Life Book Club. After all, why would it not be? You learn about cancer treatments, chemotherapy routines, and side effects, but if you pay close attention to your feelings as you read, you might learn something about your fears as well: Would I fare as well as Mary Anne if I were in her shoes? Will there be a “Will” to provide respite at the end of my life? Would a book club palliate the suffering?
There is no doubt that the book club helped to alleviate Mary Anne’s daily battle with cancer. While Mary Anne was receiving her third chemotherapy session on a November day in 2007, she was reading Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety—a book Schwalbe had “flown around the world.” Sitting alongside his mother, he decided he would finally read it. “If we’re reading the same books, and talking about them,” he asked her, “why can’t we call that a book club?” The two-person book club was born. Over nearly a two-year period, they read and discussed several dozens of books.
Each of the twenty-eight chapters that comprise The End of Your Life Book Club (the epilogue is the twenty-ninth) bears the title of a book they read: Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner, Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara, Seventy Verses on Emptiness written around A.D. 200 by Nagarjuna, and Marjorie Morningstar by Herman Wouk, to name a few. In each chapter, Schwalbe interweaves biographical notes about Mary Anne; autobiographical notes about his own life; and a discussion about the book itself—its relevance and meaning in their lives.
In the twelfth chapter, for example, they discussed Continental Drift by Russell Banks. As with each book they read and discussed, Schwalbe gives a short synopsis of Continental Drift: Characters make bad decisions that unravel their lives; they are unable or incapable of changing what happens to them; fate, not choice, gets the upper hand. It’s “savagely depressing,” he writes, full of sexual violence, other types of violence, and rage and cruelty. Nevertheless, both he and Mary Anne were eager to read and discuss it. Still, Schwalbe feared that the book was too depressing for his ill mother, and his fears were confirmed when she told him “it may be the most depressing thing I’ve ever read.” Yet, Mary Anne awakened one night “thinking of people who should read” Continental Drift.
It’s not as if Will and Mary Anne began the book club to while away the time because they were bored. Quite the contrary. Mary Anne was a lifelong reader. She and her husband read on the weekends and taught their children the importance of reading. Schwalbe remembers his mother and father sitting in the living room, a fire in the fireplace, both of them reading, and Schwalbe and his siblings wanting to be with them, “reading quietly too.” His mother believed that books teach people how to live, as they make the difference between a moral and unprincipled life.
Schwable could have written a depressing book, as you might expect with a title like The End of Your Life Book Club, and you would have forgiven him for putting you through the ordeal of reading poignant descriptions of Mary Anne’s declining health. It’s not that he doesn’t describe in detail his mother’s suffering— rapidly growing cancerous tumors, unabated fevers, increasing weight loss—or that he doesn’t admit his regrets that his mother will die without seeing her grandchildren grow up.
It is just that The End of Your Life Book Club abounds in a special joy that permeated their lives because of their two-person book club. Through books, they found solace that, perhaps, they would not have found any other way. Schwable credits his mother with showing him “over the course of two years and dozens of books and hundreds of hours in hospitals, that books can be how we get closer to each other, and stay close, even in the case of a mother and son who were very close to each other to begin with, and even after one of them has died.”
Schwalbe and Mary Anne recommended books to each other and discussed them, even taking notes to enhance their discussions. Books lightened the load as Schwalbe watched his mother slip away, as Mary Anne gave of herself to the end. The mother-son book club gave to them books—lots of books—to read and cherish, but the most important gift books gave to them was helping Mary Anne “on her journey toward death” and helping Will to live without her.