The phone rings. I glance at the clock – it’s 6:15 pm – and I already know for sure who’s calling me. Without a doubt, it’s my father, right on time. By now, he’s already eaten dinner and he’s eager to tell me about his day. After that he’ll update me on the book he’s reading. Even at the ripe old age of 91, he proudly admits that he reads a book a day, cover to cover. In fact, one of my responsibilities is to keep recommending new titles for him to check out of the neighborhood library. These regular “book talk” phone conversations have become one of our most cherished rituals.
Maybe that’s one reason why Will Schwalbe’s memoir initially hooked me – a relationship with an aging parent focused on books they read and discuss together. That’s my story too! But this book is so much more. In The End of Your Life Book Club, the author shares his mother’s two year long experience as a patient treated for pancreatic cancer at Memorial Sloan-Kettering.
The son accompanies his mother to her monthly chemotherapy appointments. Seated side by side in the waiting room, they pass the time discussing books, plays, poems and short stories. Their eclectic book club author list, (included in the book as an appendix), runs the gamut from Arthur Miller to Stieg Larsson, Mary Oliver to William Shakespeare.
“What are you reading?” writes Will Schwalbe. “It’s something of a quaint question these days…You can no longer assume, the way you could when I was growing up, that anyone is reading anything. But it’s a question my mother and I asked each other for as long as I can remember.”
The book shares their conversations about books. In actuality, their “book club” meetings provide them opportunities to indirectly speak about life and death issues as the mother’s disease progresses.
“The novel gave us a way to discuss some of the things she was facing and some of the things I was facing.”
‘Do you think he’ll be all right,’ I would ask her, referring to Sid, who is very much alone at the end (of the book).’
‘Of course it’ll be tough on him, but I think he’ll be fine. I’m quite sure of it. Maybe not right away. But he’ll be fine,’ she would answer, also referring to Sid but perhaps to my father as well.
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 or anxious…our conversations bounced around between the characters’ lives and our own.”
Along the way, Schwalbe in his new role as caregiver, honestly shares his roller coaster of emotions – for example, not knowing what to say to a person with cancer, not knowing how to say it. And it’s no surprise that he locates helpful advice on how to be present with his ailing mother between the covers of a good book, specifically Susan Halpern’s The Etiquette of Illness.
On one level, The End of Your Life Book Club is a son’s love letter to his mother, expressing his admiration for her professional accomplishments, her outstanding parenting skills, how she faces terminal illness with dignity, how she focuses less on dying and more on living each day with grace. Another powerful strand of the book is the son’s growing acceptance of his mother’s mortality as she gradually moves out of her treatment phase towards palliative care.
There is a memorable scene at the end of the book, when Mrs. Schwalbe meets with her oncologist for the last time:
“At the end of the appointment, Mom had her usual questions for Dr. O’Reilly just as she had for her other favorites there. Mom wanted to know about their families, their vacations, what they were reading. But this time Dr. O’Reilly asked Mom something she’d never asked before.
‘Do you mind if I give you a hug?’ She asked Mom.
The two of them embraced gingerly, but for what seemed like an entire minute. They were both the same height. Dr. O’Reilly was in her white doctor’s coat. Her short blond bob grazed her collar. Mom’s hair had grown back a bit now that she’d been off chemo. She was wearing a coral-colored mandarin-collar shirt, made of silk. Dad and I sat awkwardly, not sure whether to look at them or away. It’s not a very hopeful sign when your oncologist gives you a goodbye hug – but that only went through my mind later. It was a hug of genuine sweetness and affection: two people comforting each other, like sisters parting before one left on a long trip to a distant land.”
Will Scwalbe’s The End of Your Life Book Club is a poignant, poetic and beautifully written memoir. Readers may be surprised that there’s no collection of family photographs included. My guess is that the author may have decided that if he did his job well, his 329 page portrait of his beloved mother would be sufficient -more vivid and evocative than any photograph could ever be.