Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The End of Your Life Book Club: Book Review

Published October 2, 2012. 
As a retired English teacher, I enjoy fiction that focuses on books. I even have a virtual bookshelf on Goodreads that I call "books about books."

So it wasn't much of a stretch for me to be drawn to Schwalbe's memoir, The End of Your Life Book Club.

Will Schwalbe and his mother Mary Ann Schwalbe are avid readers and have been so for their entire lives. They had often recommend books to each other and talked to each other about them a little.

But when they started spending a lot of time together in waiting rooms, their casual comments developed into a more purposeful act. They formed a book club of two.

The catalyst? Mary Ann was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and given just six months to live. It was too difficult to talk about the end of her life. Instead, this mother-son pair found a way to talk about the most important matters about life.

They read dozens of books together over several months--many more months than her original prognosis. During those conversations, they were able to talk about important matters--their values, their experiences, their beliefs, their passions.

But this is not just a book about books. It's ultimately about life and about coping with illness.

Surrounding their discussion of books are other matters such as these: Will's account of how Mary Ann responded to her diagnosis, her treatments and the roller coaster ride of her health over two years.  The most salient theme for these final months of her life came from her mantra: "Make plans and cancel them."

Mary Ann continued to work as an advocate for refugees, she traveled to visit family, she hosted dinner parties, she organized activities for her grandchildren, she chose gifts for others and in other ways engaged with life.

Yes, Mary Ann sometimes had to cancel or leave early or detach even when present. Nevertheless, she kept pushing to engage in relationships and promote her values up until the last few days of her life.

One of the most remarkable passages takes place in the chapter "The Painted Veil," where Mary Ann argues with her son Will about what constitutes courage. She refuses to see herself as "courageous" for undergoing chemotherapy--a label many friends and family members tried to affix to her. Instead, she describes several refugees and their acts of courage performed in severely difficult situations.

I cried to see how passionate Mary Ann was for her work with refugees. She truly loved refugees and did much for them even when her energy was waning. I also cried out of sympathy and admiration for those lives she described.  Their struggles helped me recognize how many freedoms and opportunities I possess. I felt an invitation to alleviate others' suffering.

It might be easy for some readers to feel alienated by the Schwalbes' lifestyle. They are all well-educated, well-traveled, well-connected people with high-power jobs.  However, having cancer is a great leveler. Yes, they might have a life of privilege, but they still have to suffer the same trials and indignities that illness and death brings upon people.  And even then, Mary Ann repeatedly acknowledges that her health insurance affords her better treatment than what others have. I didn't judge the Schwalbes for their social position. I looked past that to see how they responded to Mary Ann's illness.  They made themselves very vulnerable by sharing their story, and I want to respect and protect their vulnerabilities. I feel honored to learn more about how to live while dying based.

As an avid reader myself, I thoroughly enjoyed the passages where they discussion books. I have read some of the same titles and was interested to read what they thought. And for those titles I have not read, I now have more books to add to my "to be read" pile. But more than that, I enjoyed how Will and Mary Ann's responses to the books were woven tightly and uniquely into their own lives, their relationship to each other, and to the context of Mary Ann's life as a cancer patient.

Like Will and Mary Ann themselves, The End of Your Life Book Club was a smart book with a big heart.


Movies about People Active in the Dying Process

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