I’m not sure where I first heard of Will Schwalbe’s book – it may have been the New York Times Book Review podcast – but I’m so glad I bought it. This is a memoir of a man whose mother is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He attends her chemo appointments with her and they turn those appointments into a book club.
Mr. Schwalbe was Vice-President and Editor in Chief of Hyperion Books. He grew up with parents who read. Especially his mother, Mary Ann(e). The memoir’s chapters are titled after various books. The discuss more books than those named as chapter titles and the book is about so much more than books, though I loved the conversations they had about books.
Mary Anne Schwalbe spent her professional life in education and in helping international refugees. At the end of her life, she was trying to get a library built in Afghanistan and she wanted to have mobile libraries that traveled around the country. She had been to both Afghanistan and Pakistan, along with Thailand, Bosnia, Cote d’Ivoire, Botswana, Liberia, Sierra Leone – just to name a few. They discuss those parts of the world and refugees in great detail. At the time Mary Anne is receiving her chemo, David Rhode, reporter for the New York Times was kidnapped in Afghanistan. She knew him as he was helping with the library. I found her perspective on the kidnapping interesting as I had read Rhode’s book about his ordeal – A Rope And A Prayer – probably a year ago. She had him on her prayer list at church and worried more about his safety than her illness.
Will Schwalbe talks a lot about his mother refusing to take pain medication, use a walker or a wheelchair. I found his perspective on her unwillingness to do those things interesting and I think it’s quite possibly where men do not understand women. She refused to discuss herself very much and wanted her kids to go on with their lives as much as possible. She didn’t want to be fussed over and always asked of others first. I think women are typically caregivers more than receivers and it’s just our nature to worry about others more than ourselves. She certainly exhibited this characteristic throughout the time she was fighting the cancer.
The other aspect of this book that I really, really loved was that they never discussed her impending death much. Pancreatic cancer most definitely kills if it has metastasized, which it did in her case. She did not want to focus on the end that she knew was coming, but rather on the things she could accomplish before it came. So she didn’t much discuss the end.
She also compartmentalized who did what for her. She made it easier on everyone by assigning them certain tasks. Will’s brother, David, was in charge of the funeral and memorial, her daughter, a nurse, dealt with medical issues, and Will was her chemo companion and book club partner.
It is through the books they read that they really talk about how they feel about each other, what her impending death will mean, and how life will go on. The sheer number and variety of books he talks about are amazing. And they read some I have read – A Long Way Gone; The Coldest Winter; The Year of Magical Thinking; In Other Rooms, Other Wonders; The Kite Runner; A Thousand Splendid Suns. They also read books I’ve never read and never heard of and are now on my list of books to read.
I don’t just love this book because it talks about books. I love this book because it talked about so many things. I loved the way that, even though you know Mary Anne’s fate, you have the same hope that Will and Mary Anne have that she’ll get more time or the tumors will shrink.
This book is about familial relationships. I guess I was drawn to that for two reasons. It reminded me in some ways of my mother and I. It also left me with some hope that maybe one day, Patrick and I will have that kind of relationship. I can only hope that we do.
My mother and I talk about books – she’s in my book club. we disagree and don’t always have the same reading tastes, but I know that if things are going wrong or there’s a monkey wrench thrown into our usually smooth relationship, we can come back to books to get us on track.
Finally, this book had some resonance with me as one of my friends’ husband was diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer not long ago. They are about my age and his diagnosis hit me particularly hard. Maybe in light of the fact that Michael and I are about to celebrate our first wedding anniversary and I can’t help but think “there but for the Grace of God”. This book was a perfect reminder that no matter how invincible we think we are, this ride comes to an end – even if we have more to do or aren’t give much time. It’s also a reminder to let people know how you feel. You may not get another opportunity to say so.