Thoughts on Will Schwalbe's The End of Your Life Book Club
I was standing in the New Releases section of my local Barnes & Noble Booksellers looking for a new book to send to my mother for her birthday. I had read a favorable review of The End of Your Life Book Club, the reviewer summarizing the book as a memoir about a man and his mother and the books they read together near the end of her life. My own mother is an avid reader and ingrained within me from an early age a similar appreciation of books. The End of Your Life Book Club sounded like it might be a good gift. However, after reading the jacket flap and learning that the man's mother was also dying of pancreatic cancer, I closed the book and placed it back on the shelf. This wasn't just the end of the woman's life. It was the end too soon. It sounded too sad for me and certainly too sad to give as a birthday gift. I bought something else instead and shipped it to my mom.
I called her a few days later after I had received confirmation that the package had been delivered. Mom and I engaged in the usual mother-son chatter and then I admitted my original intent; that I had meant to send The End of Your Life Book Club to her and we would each read it together, a mother and son reading a book about a mother and son reading books. I suggested that while I hadn't sent the book that inspired the idea, maybe I could get a copy of the book I did send and we'd read it together. Mom liked the idea but wanted to read The End of Your Life Book Club instead. I warned her of the subject matter but she insisted that we read the book that inspired the idea. So, I ordered two copies and had one shipped to her and other to me.
The book is simultaneously heart-breaking and heart-warming. Mary Anne Schwalbe was a tremendously accomplished woman. In addition to being the mother of three children, she was an educator and traveled to impoverished and war-torn countries to volunteer in refugee camps, caring for women and children. She was, like my own mother, always reading something and inspired her kids to read. This love of books and reading gives her and her son something to discuss other than cancer treatments. Through the books they read, the two of them find strength, peace, and inspiration. They follow others through their struggles, fictional or non-fictional, and through discussion of these stories, the two find a way to manage their own challenges.
Somehow, through all of the chemotherapy, awful side effects, and bad news from her oncologist, Mary Anne Schwalbe stayed strong. She had a matter-of-fact outlook on the whole situation. She was determined to do what she could do and didn't worry about what she could not control. She seemed almost peaceful about it, or at least that was she appeared to her family. If she was scared, she did not show it and that impressed me. It would be so easy for some people to curl up and hide, but she continued to live her life, travel, attend charity events and work toward her goal of getting a library funded and built in Kabul, Afghanistan. She wasn't dead yet and she didn't want anyone fretting over her or eulogizing her before it was time. I find that inspirational.
I am not really sure I can say I "enjoyed" the book though I am grateful for the experience and grateful to Will Schwalbe for sharing such a deeply personal story. I recently had friend die of colon cancer and his family exhibited a similar strength and togetherness shown by the author and his family. I hope my friend felt as much peace in his final days as the author's mother did in hers.