I hadn’t really allowed myself time for sadness. I’d been keeping busy with my job and also the bills and the dry cleaning and the emails, all mundane tasks that fill my life. So I tried to just be still and sad – but I couldn’t. I could be still. And I knew I was sad. But waiting for the dawn to come up, I found myself unable to focus on my sadness for more than a minute or two at a time, as much as I thought I’s wanted to. I’d cried over David Halberstam’s death than I had over my mother’s terminal illness. I’d cried more over the Hugh Grant romantic comedy Love Actually. I’d cried more over the death of a beloved character in an Alistair MacLean thriller.
To pass the time until morning, until I heard the familiar thump of The New York Times being chucked against our apartment door by our local news carrier, until David would rouse and we would put on coffee. I turned on a solitary light and went searching for my copy of The Hobbit. I wanted to see if it still entranced me – if I could get lost in it again.
Soon I found my copy – and started reading at random. It had been nearly forty years since I’d more than glanced at it, but it all sprang magically back to life: hobbit houses, silver spoons, runes, orcs, dwarfs, spiders. After twenty minutes or so, I stumbled across the part of the book, about halfway through, where our hobbit hero Bilbo and his dwarf companions suddenly find themselves, scattered and separated from one another, in a dark wood.
Bilbo races around in circles, frantically calling his friends’ names. He can feel and hear them doing the same. “But the cries of the others got steadily further and fainter, and though after a while it seemed to him they changed to yells and cries for help in the far distance, all noise at last died right away, and he was left alone in complete silence and darkness.”
Tolkien continues, “That was one of his most miserable moments. But he soon made up his mind that it was no good trying do to anything till day came with some little light.” (pages 81-82)
As I have mentioned in my Sunday posts, this is the year of cancer. Not only my father as well as my good friend but more family friends than I can shake a stick at. I have been to doctors appointments, radiology appointments, and the emergency room. I have read research papers, learned terminology, and kept copious notes in a notebook that is rapidly running out of room. It hasn’t been all bad – I am stronger than I would have thought I was; I have become more mindful; and even buried a few demons. And I am extremely grateful that aside from my father, my family is well. But there have been nights when I think of cancer before I go to bed, I dream of cancer, and I think about it when I wake up.
So why did I pick up a copy of Will Schwalbe’s memoir The End of Your Life Book Club? Well there wasn’t much else at the library that day and I do like reading about books so I thought I would give it a try. And yes, parts were difficult to read and I shed a tear or two or three, but in the end it turned out to be a good read for me.
Mary Anne Schwalbe is busy with her life, her humanitarian work with refugees, her husband, children, and grandchildren, traveling, and reading when she is diagnosed with Stage IV pancreatic cancer – a diagnosis with a very short and fatal prognosis with patients generally only having a few months to live. Soon her life is rounds of chemotherapy and side effects and during this time, her son Will accompanies her to some of her appointments. Will works in the publishing industry and one of their ways of connecting is to talk about books.The memior outlines the two years between the diagnosis and Mary Anne’s death.
Obviously books are very important to the Schwalbe family and Mary Anne Schwalbe was a remarkable woman. She cared deeply for her family and for the greater world. I don’t think that Mary Anne had any concept of a stranger as it seems that she saw every person she came across as having the potential to enhance her life in some way. And in the book she often talks of the importance of acknowledging the humanity in people. Both those aspects of her life came across well in the book and represent the some of the best parts. I really enjoyed hearing about Mary Anne’s life as an Admissions Director at Harvard as well as all the international work she did in very difficult and sometimes dangerous situation. I equally enjoyed hearing about the different books they read and discussed particularly when I had also read them. In fact when Will talks of Gilead by Marilynne Robinson I had the urge to reread the novel. However, to some readers, it may seem like a list of books rather that a recounting of the discussion of a book group.
Despite the title, this is not the story of a book club and the books that club reads. Instead it is the story about a son coming to grips with the fact that his mother is dying. This wasn’t very clear to me at the beginning and I spent some amount of time trying to determine the author’s purpose in writing the book. It took me a while to see the swirling emotions circling round and round with individual books serving as catalysts for a thought the author wanted to convey or as abstractions from greater issues.
Schwalbe talks about the difficulties of knowing what to talk about concerning the hard stuff – the leap between asking someone how are you feeling to talking to that person about their death – how he struggles with this in his conversations with his mother. But we are not always privy to those personal conversations between mother and son. Questions are posed in the abstract with the author stating, “and there is a world of difference between knowing you could die in the next two years and knowing that you almost certainly will.” (103) and then not exploring what that statement means for his mother. I found there to be a distance between what was happening to mother and son and how I as a reader perceived what was happening. The books drew me in and made me feel as if I was there and at the same time, they seemed to serve as a barrier preventing me from experiencing the intimacy between the author and his mother. At times this was disconcerting to me, again, because it left me unsure of the author’s intention.
However, I ultimately found these to be minor points as I appreciated the book for its honest look at someone going through one of the worst illness one can have and the helplessness a loved one can have in watching this process, so much a part of the experience and yet so much outside of it as well. I have found out this year that cancer is complicated, not only as an illness, but also in how people respond to it. So I appreciated it when Mary Anne tells Will at one point, “The world is complicated….You don’t have to have one emotion at a time.” (page 88) The book speaks of the importance of the new normal – the changing routines, the fitting life around one’s physical capabilities given the debilitating effects of cancer treatment and how difficult it can be to embrace that new normal whether you are the patient or someone close to the patient. The book eloquently speaks of the loss to come not only of what was, but what will be, for those continuing to go in the future without the presence of the dying person.
And the book talks about the importance of reading in our lives and also the importance of speaking about the books we read to other people. The discussion of what we read may have just as much significance as the act of reading itself. Books are connectors; they bring insight and comfort, solace and escape. This book reminded me of why I read and if that was the authors intention – he definitely succeeded.
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