Saturday, 15 September 2012
We all have a lot more to read than we can read and a lot more to do than we can do. Still, one of the things I learned from Mom is this: Reading isn't the opposite of doing; it's the opposite of dying. I will never be able to read my mother's favourite books without thinking of her and when I pass them on and recommend them, I'll know that some of what made her goes with them.
Mary Anne Schwalbe was a remarkable, lively, inspiring woman who died three years ago this week, someone you read about and wish you'd had the chance to meet.
After she was diagnosed with terminal cancer, her son Will kept her company through endless chemo treatments and, as mother and son chatted about the books they were reading, very soon they found that they had formed a special book club of two ...
The End of Your Life Book Club.
As soon as I read Cornflower's review a few days ago, I was hooked. And like her, I've devoured this book in a couple of days.
Because on one of those first hospital visits, in November 2007, when Will asked his mother what she was reading, her book turned out to be Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner.
Now if I had to choose one book for the end of my own life book club, it would be this one. If you have never read it, it is a book about what it means to be human.
When one of their next reads turned out to be Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, that was it ... I might just as well have pulled my chair up beside Mary Anne's bed and started eating the grapes. I can't think of any character in literature who would be more sustaining to have beside you at the end of your life. (I find cheerful people very draining ... Olive Kitteridge is a wonderful, resilient grouch.)
The End of Your Life Book Club is a long, wonderful conversation about books in very good company. There's a great book list, several of which I'd read and loved: William Trevor's disturbing Felicia's Journey and Alan Bennett's Uncommon Reader; and I've made a note that I really must read Appointment in Samarra (John O'Hara) and Marjorie Morningstar (Herman Wouk).
But really it is about how a mother and son, who were already close, use books as a way of creeping up sideways on the big questions they don't always want to tackle head on.
It is also a lovely, affectionate memoir of a woman who knew how to live well even when she was dying.
We could still share books, and while reading those books, we wouldn't be the sick person and the well person; we would simply be a mother and son entering new worlds together.
We're all in the end-of-our-life book clubs, whether we acknowledge it or not; each book we read may well be our last, each conversation the final one.
Links here and here to more about the book.