The End of Your Life Book Club, Will Schwalbe
I really had no intention of reading another book about a mother's illness and death, so soon after Madeleine L'Engle's The Summer of the Great-Grandmother. But when Anbolyn mentioned this book, the title intrigued me, and after reading the summary on our libraries' website I added myself to the reserve list, expecting a lengthy wait. Instead, it arrived almost immediately (the mystery of library lists). When I had trouble settling on another book after finishing Seward, I picked this one up and was immediately immersed.
The book opens with Will Schwalbe sitting with his mother Mary Anne Schwalbe at Memorial Sloan-Kettering in Manhattan, where she was being treated for pancreatic cancer. As they were waiting to see her doctor, and for a round of chemotherapy, Will asked his mother, "What are you reading?" This was a question they'd been asking each other for most of his life. She was reading Crossing to Safety, by Wallace Stegner, a book he had owned, unread, for years. This time when he picked it up, it clicked with him, and they spent her next appointment talking about it. One of the characters in the novel (which I haven't read) is dying of cancer.
The novel gave us a way to discuss some of the things she was facing and some of things I was facing . . . Books had always been a way for my mother and me to introduce and explore topics that concerned us but made us uneasy, and they had also always given us something to talk about when we were stressed and anxious. But it was with Crossing to Safety that we both began to realize that our discussions were more than casual - that we had created, without knowing it, a very unusual book club, one with only two members.
Books have almost always been a great comfort to me, either as a distraction in the times of stress and anxiety; or as a way of connecting my situation with others, giving it context, trying to understand my experience through someone else's, even if that someone is fictional. But that has been a private and individual response. I am intrigued by the idea that a shared love of books could help a child and a parent through illness and death, that their discussions could "introduce and explore topics that concerned us but made us uneasy" - helping them face their fears and doubts.
Will had another goal for the book club: "I wanted to learn more about my mother's life and the choices she'd made, so I often steered the conversation there." Like Madeleine L'Engle, his book is in part a tribute to his mother and the extraordinary life she lived, as wife and mother, as a student and then an educator, as an aid worker in some of the world's most troubled areas. She was the founding director of the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children and also founded the British branch of the International Rescue Committee (the parent organization of the Women's Commission). When she was diagnosed with cancer in 2007, she was raising funds for a national library in Afghanistan. She believed in the power of books to change people, to change the world. Will's pride is her is clear, and one of the most touching moments in the book is when he tells her that. "I know that Mom knows I love her, but I don't know if she knows I'm proud of her."
His narrative weaves together his mother's life, the books that they read and discuss, and the progression of her disease and the side effects from chemotherapy. Will's father, his partner David, and his siblings and their families are also part of his story, though he notes, "If it's mostly about Mom and me, and less about my father and siblings, that's only because I believe that their stories are theirs to tell, if and when they choose." I enjoyed listening in on their book discussions, though I haven't read most of those they chose. Mary Anne was particularly drawn to books like Khaled Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns that spoke to her experience working with women and children, or with refugees. These included some very dark and difficult stories, which might not be my choice if I were in her situation (more Heyer and Wodehouse). The story of her illness and treatment felt familiar from my mother and friends who have been diagnosed with breast cancer. That aspect also reminded me of a book I read last year, again about a mother's battle with cancer, The Long Goodbye by Meghan O'Rourke.
I found this book moving, in Mary Ann Schwalbe's life and in her courage in facing death, in her close-knit family's care and concern, and in the love between mother and son.