by Will Schwalbe; Knopf, 2012; 337 pages; $25
In his biographical play “Shadowlands,” William Nicholson writes about C. S. Lewis and his relationship with American poet Joy Davidman. Nicholson’s “Lewis” states that “we read to know that we are not alone.” It is as if Will Schwalbe heard the same words as he composed this moving account of the time he cherished with his mother Mary Anne in the two years she was fighting pancreatic cancer.
The question that informed his and his mother’s lives during those two years is “What are you reading?” That was what he asked Mary Anne the first time they sat together at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. Books, Will argues, would provide “much-needed ballast — something we both craved, amid the chaos and upheaval of Mom’s illness.” Mary Anne had always suggested books to her son, expressing her disappointment that he hadn’t started them — impetus enough for him to recommend books as well.
“Mom started the book club unwittingly and I joined it grudgingly,” Schwalbe reminds us early in the book. What begins, however, as a way to fill the silences that come with cancer waiting rooms becomes a primer on reading and on how to deal with terminal illness, a sort of booklover’s “Tuesdays with Morrie.”
The conversations that mother and son have over nearly two years are part literary and part personal. Schwalbe works in publishing. Mary Anne has been an actress, an educator and has travelled the world for refugee causes. Her newest charitable project is building a library in Afghanistan. Both are avid readers, Mary Anne always reading endings before beginning a book. Both adhere to the belief that most great books are “about people — and the connections they make, how they save one another and themselves.”
Their list of book is eclectic, to say the least, popular to classic, self-help to poetry, novel to short story. Books are discussed briefly. How each book has an impact on their lives, more so. Most importantly, and movingly, Schwalbe reminds us that “the greatest gift of our book club was that it gave me time and opportunity to ask her things, not tell her things.”
Late in her illness, Mary Anne Schwalbe impresses upon her son: “We’re all in the end-of-our-life book club, whether we acknowledge it or not; each book we read may well be the last, each conversation the final one.” Such compassion is at the heart of this small, lovely book and makes us Will Schwalbe’s readers and makes us very much aware that “The End of Your Life Book Club” means he will never really be alone.
Steven Whitton is a professor of English at Jacksonville State University.