February 2013: The End of Your Life Book Club
A Book Club of Two
When New York City publishing executive Will Schwalbe’s beloved, force-of-nature mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, he found himself sitting in many a medical waiting room with her. Under these trying circumstances, the mother and son forged an even closer bond by reading and discussing literature in a very personal book club of two. This graceful, moving true story was originally recommended to the No-Obligation Book Club by Anderson Cooper. RealSimple.com Deputy Editor Krissy Tiglias led the discussion of The End of Your Life Book Club.
The End of Your Life Book Club: Through “People of the Book”
I hope everyone is enjoying the book so far. When the story opens, we’re introduced to the only two members of the book club: Will and his mother, Mary Anne (a.k.a. Mom) Schwalbe. Will is an editor-in-chief at a book publishing company, and Mom is a retired teacher, former admissions director, and founding director of the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children. Mom is well-traveled, busy, brave, and the rock of her family. Mom was diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer, which is almost always fatal within six months. It’s during the time Will and Mom spend in the waiting room of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center that this intimate mother/son book club takes off. Their brilliant and honest conversations revolve around one phrase: “What are you reading?” And, just like that, this duo embarks on a brand-new terrifying adventure together.
Early in the story we see how books can help people connect, grieve, and learn a lot about one another. Books are natural conversation starters. Despite being in a somber hospital waiting room, Will and Mom escape deep into the pages of each and every book. As Will says, “When there’s only two of you, you can’t really fake having read the book.” They challenge each other with their questions. They’re inspired by words. Mom says, “Really, whenever you read something wonderful, it changes your life, even if you aren’t aware of it.” I couldn’t agree more.
Bookies, I’m not sure about you, but as I’m reading, I immediately feel like I’m part of this book club. (And I haven’t read half of the titles they mention!) Schwalbe’s engaging writing style makes me want to join their discussion, add my two cents, laugh out loud, and join the fight to keep Mom around.
How do you read a book? I loved this exchange in the story. Even though Mom cherishes how a book opens, she always reads the ending first. Have you ever thought to ask someone—perhaps someone in your own book club—how they read a book? (I’ll be the first to admit that I never read the ending first because I love the suspense—and the element of surprise. Plus, I’ll obsess over the ending the entire time I’m reading.) Within these first 100 pages, we start to realize the true power of books—of conversations—in this story. For Mom, books focused her mind; they calmed her nerves. Books removed her from the reality of what she was up against in life.
Are books as powerful for you as they are for Mom and Will?
Does reading calm you? Do books help you cope? When I need to escape from life, I either reread a favorite book (so there are no surprises) or I listen to music. Reading calms me and music just lets me be.
As we read on, we’ll see how the book club can help two people find peace. And we’ll witness a new bond form between a mother and her son.
Do you, like me, feel like you’re part of this special book club?
I’d love to hear what you think so far. Please share in the Comments section below.
See you back here next week!
The End of Your Life Book Club: Through “The Year of Magical Thinking”
Welcome back to our discussion and thank you for your comments last week. I hope you’re still enjoying the book!
As we keep reading, the endless chemo treatments go on, Mom’s disease progresses, and the reading continues. The book club remains strong. Will and his mother make their way through books of all kinds, from the popular to the more obscure. And the titles they choose continue to shed so much light on the mother/son relationship. Will says: “I was learning that when you’re with someone who is dying, you may need to celebrate the past, live the present, and mourn the future all at the same time.” I keep rereading those words, trying to understand the whirlwind of emotions.
Books do so much for the Schwalbe family—they help them grieve, talk, and celebrate life. At one point in this section, Will mentions how he will use books as a way of keeping his mother’s legacy alive. He’ll share his mother’s favorite titles and authors with her grandchildren for years to come. It sounds like, after reading so many of your comments last week, that this is something so many people do to commemorate a life. I love that books can be just as powerful as, say, a photo album or a scrapbook or a journal, to keep someone’s memory alive.
In the chapter “Wherever You Go, There You Are,” Mom and Will discuss mindfulness. Mom says, “It’s being present in the moment. When I’m with you, I’m with you. Right now. That’s all. No more and no less.” It sounds simple. It seems obvious. But how often are we not present and mindful? How often are we distracted for no reason at all?
We continue to witness Mom’s commitment and dedication to the Afghan library. How does she have the energy? Where does she find the tenacity and hope? There are many moments when Will and Mom inspire us to reflect on our own actions and ways of living, doing, thinking. For me, it was the joys of saying thank you. The importance of expressing gratitude was something my own mother worked tirelessly to incorporate into our day-to-day life. And as Mom explains, it’s so much more than being polite: “Gratitude isn’t what you give in exchange for something; it’s what you feel when you are blessed—blessed to have family and friends who care about you, and who want to see you happy. Hence the joy from thanking.”
What do you think so far? Are you still enjoying the book club discussions?
Are you inspired to read any of the titles Will and Mom are reading?
Have you used books as a way of keeping a memory alive?
Please share in the Comments section below.
I hope you’re all looking forward to the ending as much as I am. See you back here next week!
The End of Your Life Book Club: “Olive Kitteridge” Through the End
I can’t believe we’ve reached the end of our book and the final days of the mother/son book club. Based on so many of your comments, it certainly sounds like we’ll all have some new titles to read.
When this section takes off, we witness Mary Anne growing frailer. She is starting to fade away. Mary Anne and Will continue to read, discuss, and ask questions. At one point, they talk about how important it is to honor people while they’re still alive. This conversation made me stop and think. I definitely appreciate people in my life but do I honor them? And, if so, do I even realize that I’m honoring them? Do they know that I am honoring them? I hope so.
During Mary Anne’s final days, she is surrounded by the people and things she loves and cherishes. Her family is by her side. She rests peacefully in her bedroom, surrounded by the books and the authors that touched her life: “She was surrounded by books—a wall of bookshelves, books on her night table, a book beside her.” These books served as her teachers, her traveling companions, her closest friends, and a deep connection to her son.
The book club was an eye-opener for many of us. Especially Will. It introduced him to another side of his mother—one that he may never have met if they hadn’t read together and discussed so many topics. “Eventually I came to realize that the greatest gift of our book club was that it gave me time and opportunity to ask her things, not tell her things.” Sometimes I find that there are relationships with certain people—like a parent or a sibling—that can be taken for granted. Perhaps that’s what Mary Anne meant when she used the word honor? Whether it’s a favorite fruit or a favorite place to visit or a favorite character in a book, do we always think to ask “why?” Sometimes we can learn a lot about someone else—and even more about ourselves—by asking that simple question.
What was your greatest takeaway from this book?
Even though there wasn’t a surprise ending, what did you think of Will’s details of those final days?
Please share in the Comments section below. And please post questions for Will there, too (by next Friday)—as we had hoped, he is happy to take them. Thank you for reading with us!
Author Will Schwalbe Answers Your Questions
Will Schwalbe has sent on his answers to the questions we asked about The End of Your Life Book Club. But there was more: They came with a note that expressed how deeply touched he was that you picked his book and by your careful reading of it and the observations that resulted. As for your “tremendous questions,” he says they “are among the best I’ve had since the book was published—and. . .I’ve had a lot of conversations and a lot of questions!” Enjoy.
From reader himmel: My question for Will is one that came up in our discussions. That is, how much did you experience of your mother’s anxiety/fear concerning her death? Or do you feel that she protected you from that aspect of her journey? Or do you think she was not fearful or anxious about the end of her life approaching?
This is such an important point—many thanks for this question. Mom did share with me some of her fear and anxiety—but usually after the strongest moments had passed. For example, she would say that she had had an anxious night, or that she had been feeling sad the day before. But it was rare that she would even say that. I think much of her fear and anxiety came at the start, right after her diagnosis—when I was abroad, and she didn’t want to worry me or have me cut my trip short.
I also think Mom chose to have different kinds of conversations with different people, the way we all do. Just as we go to one friend to talk about one kind of thing and another to talk about another, so it was with Mom—she and I had certain kinds of conversations over the years; she had different kinds with my siblings; and still different kinds with her minister or with her oldest friends. I don’t think she was protecting me from that aspect of her journey, though that could have been part of it: I think it was more that in the search for normalcy in whatever time she had left, she wanted to preserve the essence of her relationships. Mom and I mostly talked about the kinds of things we always talked about, though the books did allow us to approach some very difficult topics obliquely.
It’s also important to mention that her faith gave her great comfort—she would say that she was sad, but not especially anxious or afraid. And I think that really was the case. She believed in life everlasting. Also, because Mom had such a lethal form of cancer, she was able to see any extra time as a blessing. I should mention again, too, that Mom had researched palliative care and home hospice long before she was sick—and I think making those plans removed a measure of anxiety as well. In addition, the palliative care team and hospice nurses were a great resource to her and to the whole family in the final months.
(A note here: I included my original comment only as backgound to reader himmel’s question, but Will was thoughtful enough to answer it too). From deputy editor Maura Fritz: I admire both the grace and dignity that Mom shows in the face of cancer and her deep commitment to helping others in need. But what do you think of her perpetually even emotional keel? I keep wondering if she never got angry or sad or felt even an ounce of self-pity, all of which seem to me would be normal on the path to acceptance. Do you think that maybe she guarded those emotions from Will and the rest of the family? Or is Will, maybe, protecting his beloved mom by keeping those aspects to himself? Or is it possible that Mom reconciled herself without taking that emotional journey?
Thank you for the wonderful comments and excellent question.
Mom certainly told me that she got angry and sad, and I’m sure there were times she felt sorry for herself. But I think there’s a difference between feeling those things and expressing them. And Mom rarely expressed them to me or in front of me. I’m not sure why, and it doesn’t feel right to speculate—there could have been so many reasons. I think every one of us is wired differently and needs different things—some people more naturally express and share emotions and others prefer not too. I’m not sure that one path is better than the other.
Mom’s faith was certainly a great comfort to her, as was expressing her good fortune and thinking and worrying about others. I do write about the times when she told me she was sad. She confided and I acknowledged it—but there just wasn’t that much more that she wanted to say to me about that.
I think to the degree that Mom was selfless, it was actually one of the ways she coped with and accepted her illness. I think being relatively selfless often gave her pleasure, as it had throughout her life, and was a comfort to her—maybe even a distraction, sometimes.
One of the things I’ve witnessed is that everyone deals with illness (and grief) differently, and there’s no one path that’s right for everyone. For some people, I think, anger is very important and even healing—but for others, it’s just not how they express themselves. I do think Mom had a full emotional journey, greatly informed by her faith, but I think it was a journey that was both private and shared in different parts and in different ways with different people.
From reader karingam: I’ll bet it was very therapeutic to write this book, Will. Thank you for modeling devotion to a parent. In today’s world, I must say, that kind of raw commitment is a bit understated. People are so distracted with their own immediate world and needs that talking so openly about helping his mom is wonderful. Well done, Will, in so many ways. Thank you.
Thank you! I didn’t ever quite think of it as therapeutic—but more as a way to continue our conversations. I didn’t want them to end just because Mom had died. And I really appreciate your observation. I loved spending time with Mom, so the time I spent with her never felt like a sacrifice or an obligation. Certainly, there were things she wanted me to do that felt like obligations! But the time we spent together never felt that way. I’ve had such an interesting journey since, traveling around the country talking to people, and have discovered so many adult children who enjoy spending time with their parents, and parents who enjoy spending time with their adult children.
There are many memoirs that focus on very difficult or broken relationships—and there’s a huge need for these books. But I think there’s also room for books that chronicle happier and easier relationships, as well. That’s one reason I wanted to write this book. Again, many thanks for your kind comments.
From reader DarleneAA: Mr. Schwalbe, I’d just like to send my condolences to you on the loss of your mom and commend you on a wonderfully written piece about such a nice relationship that you shared with your mother. She seems to have been a wonderful person and you were fortunate to have her in your life! I’d like to know, was it difficult or burdensome for you to keep up with the readings of the books with your mother in light of how busy your life was, or did you view the readings as a welcome sanctuary from your busy life? Did you ever do what your mom did and read the end of the book first?
First, thank you for your kind message of condolence and your generous words about the book. And I really enjoyed your question! It was indeed sometimes difficult and burdensome to keep up with the reading of the books. I remember at many points thinking (and even once saying) that I really didn’t have time—and then, of course, I would remind myself that I had the rest of my life, whereas Mom only had months. I never made much of a dent in Joseph and His Brothers, by Thomas Mann, and still haven’t. But I am a fast reader and did have both insomnia (still do) and 21 years of experience in book publishing, a career where you often need to power through books quickly, even if you aren’t totally in love with them. But mostly I did see the books as welcome sanctuary and loved almost all the books we read. So the reading usually brought me great pleasure. As for skipping ahead—I’ll sometimes jump to the end of a chapter but never, ever, to the end of a book. Again, many thanks!
From reader swansonkl: My question for Will: How is the library coming in light of the war in Afghanistan and have you seen it?
I’m so pleased to say that the main library has been finished for several months. It took some months to get the electricity hooked up. But now that’s finally done—so the library is open! There’s an official opening ceremony planned for the end of March—very exciting. I’ve seen pictures of the library and it is absolutely stunning.Thank you for asking!
From reader dconnolly: I have so many questions for Will! If narrowing it to two, I would ask: If he were to write an afterword to EOYLBC what key piece would he include? How have the efforts toward maintaining/growing the library in Afghanistan continued?
What great questions! If I were writing an afterword, I would love to include stories people have shared with me about the way books have played roles in their lives and brought them closer to people they love. I’ve heard literally hundreds of wonderful and inspiring stories. I also might want to include books I’ve read after Mom’s death that have been especially meaningful to me—like Help, Thanks, Wow, by Anne Lamott, and A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki.
As for the library, please see my answer above. I’m also delighted to add that there are now “book-box libraries” in more than 200 villages in all 34 provinces of Afghanistan.
From reader bettyskid: I noticed that you dedicated the book to your family and partner but not your mother, whom you thanked in your acknowledgments. How did you decide to do that?
I gave that a lot of thought. After going back and forth, I figured that I would save a special place for Mom as the last and most important thank-you in the acknowledgments—that she would literally have the last word in the book. But I thought I would save the dedication for the living. I also think that so very much of the content of the book is dedicated to my mother that it was almost redundant to include a dedication to her.
From deputy editor Maura Fritz: Of all the books you and your mom read together, which affected you the most?
The book that affected me the most was Crossing to Safety, by Wallace Stegner. It’s a masterpiece. And that I discovered it at age 45 became somewhat symbolic for me of everything that is still ahead in life. How could I have made it to 45 without reading that book! It’s such a rich, involving, moving work. And I’m not giving anything of the plot away to say that it ends with a character saying one of the most powerful words there is, maybe the most powerful.
From reader 1margo2: This book is one of the best books I have read for a long time. I asked my son if he would start a book club with me and he said yes! I have had cancer twice and am always waiting for the other shoe to drop, but I know I am here for a reason, each day is a gift. The mom in the story is amazing and the son is a rather a normal person with normal reactions; how true of us all. I can’t wait to read some of the books they read, that I have never even heard of.
I can’t thank this reader enough for this comment. I’m delighted to hear that this reader and her (or is it his?) son are doing a book club together! I’m deeply honored that they’ll be reading some of the books we read—and I hope they enjoy them as much as we did. And I’m also wishing for them and for all [the No-Obligation Book Club] readers long lifetimes of great books and great conversations about them.