I finally read The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe. I’d heard good things about it. I’d also heard it was about his mother’s death from pancreatic cancer. My mother-in-law’s death from that same horrible disease was too fresh in my memory when the book first appeared on my radar for me to even consider reading it.
Even after hearing the delightful Mr. Schwalbe speak at an event that I attended and being sufficiently convinced that the book was not so much about his mother’s death, as it was a celebration of her life, I still “back-burnered” it — figuring that I’d get to it sooner or later, more than likely later.
The universe it seemed and, as you shall see, aptly demonstrated that it had other plans. Funny things began to happen.
The book kept cropping up — like the proverbial “bad penny”, but not in a bad way. It showed up on my Amazon recommendations. It was mentioned on someone’s blog or their Facebook page — I can’t recall which. I even overheard a table I was serving discussing it, which was very shocking. Most of my customers can’t navigate a menu — the fact that a couple of them had not only managed to READ a book, but also appeared to be CRITIQUING it? I was Gobsmacked! The book seemed to be “dogging” me — a snippet here, a reference there. What was going on? Was the universe daring me to read it?
I’m not one for subtle signs and so the universe, knowing me as it does, literally dropped the book into my shopping cart — in, of all places, the supermarket. I managed to dislodge it from the middle of a stack of magazines. As I reached for the latest issue of “Baseball Weekly”, it fell, struck the edge of my carriage, and landed — front cover up — atop the artisan coffee cake that I had picked up for Father’s Day brunch. The universe could not have made its intentions any clearer if it had arranged for the book to, in “Little Rabbit Foo-Foo” fashion, bop me on the head.
Dear Readers, I bought the damn book!
In an unexpected twist of fate, the author discusses the various methods that he uses to choose books when he’s shopping at bookstores. He calls books that he knocks off the shelf, “accidental” selections. He takes a book falling off of a shelf as a sure sign that he should own it. That was a strange passage to read, considering how his own book did everything save jump into my hands.
There’s no mystery as to how the book will end — which, in an odd way, would have pleased his mother — a woman who always read endings first. What grabbed me, though, was the beginning.
If I was still unsure whether the universe wanted me to read this book — and absent the universe yelling, “YOU SHOULD READ THIS BOOK!” — I don’t know how I could have been, but just in case I needed one more push in this direction, very early on the author discusses the importance of first lines. To demonstrate this, he uses the first line from A Prayer for Owen Meany, which GAVE ME THE SHIVERS!
I have always been particularly keen on the first sentence of John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany. Actually, “particularly keen” is an understatement — it is, in fact, my favorite opening line of any book I’ve ever read. I know it, like I know my Social Security number — by heart.
I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice — not because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.
How could anyone read that sentence and not want — make that need — to know more about the boy AND the narrator?
What the author’s use of this particular sentence conveyed to me was that, apart from losing a loved one to pancreatic cancer, he and I also shared a literary sensibility. Score one more for the universe.
I feel the need, prior to launching into my book review (of sorts), to begin with something like a prayer. I no longer know many prayers nor am I any kind of regular church-goer, but I’ve always loved the part of The Catholic Mass when, just prior to receiving Communion, the congregants are prompted to say, “Lord, I am not worthy to receive You, but only say the word and I shall be healed.”
I’ve never had any idea what that “word” is — perhaps it’s different for everyone? — nor has the Lord ever said it (or anything else) to me, but I like the idea of being granted absolution instantly and, well, just because I asked nicely.
And so, I’m asking nicely. For your absolution, your indulgence. I am neither qualified nor do I feel worthy to write anything resembling a book review — of this or any other book. Unlike the ladies overheard at my table, I’m no book critic. I got the sense that, while they certainly seemed to have enjoyed the book, they wished that The End of Your Life Book Club contained more detailed information on the books that Mr. Schwalbe and his mother had read. I think they missed the point. (Some people are so literal!)
There is enough information about the various books and authors that this very small book club chose to pique the interest of any reader — I made my own short list while I was enjoying what the book was really about. No doubt I will be far richer for having read John O’Hara’s Meeting in Sammara or Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. And I’ve been meaning to get around to Russell Banks’ Continental Drift — I just hope it’s more compelling than Cloudsplitter — more like The Sweet Hereafter. On some level, though, while the books were important, they were not, in and of themselves, the point.
They were the secondary characters — the ones that moved the plot along — the books that Mr. Schwalbe and his mother read — some chosen by him, others by her — following her diagnosis of Stage IV pancreatic cancer. They were the vehicles that conveyed the stories that provided the pair an opportunity to discuss such things as death, love, despair, hope and faith — always they seemed to get to the prickly subject of faith.
Outside of the obvious deep and abiding love and respect that mother and son so clearly had for each other, the theme that was central to their relationship was their approach to faith — she had an abundance of it; he had very little. She was comforted by her faith and, by extension, her religion; he tolerated the former and questioned the latter.
She, who had witnessed unspeakable horrors in her lifelong quest to bring relief to refugees the world over — dodging land mines in Bosnia, being shot at in Afghanistan — still managed to hold onto what I would describe as an unshakable faith, both in God and in good. Though he knew it saddened her, he was unable to fully commit to a relationship with the Almighty.
Their adult relationship was, therefore, forged through a love of reading. She had other children who shared her faith and her religion. With this one, she’d have to settle for something more earthly. While she often recommended — throughout his life —reading material that delved into questions of faith, she respected his right to be a non-believer.
Nearing the end of the book, I feared that Mr. Schwalbe would admit that he had, indeed, found God and taken comfort in some organized religion or another. I feared this, not because I don’t believe that people, particularly in times of great personal upheaval, can and often do abandon secularism in favor of something more esoteric, but because I don’t think it would have been honest. Ending a tribute to her life with anything that smacked of dishonesty would have been not just disappointing, but downright criminal.
More than anything outside of her faith, Mary Anne Schwalbe was a forthright person. At the heart of their relationship, what the author so nimbly and effectively conveyed to the reader, was that his mother valued honesty — and living a life of purpose. If I had to sum up who she was, based on the information shared by her son, I would, without a doubt, say that these were the lessons that she left the world having imparted — not just to her children, but to all the people that she touched throughout her life.
She was an eternal educator and humanitarian. As such, her life impacted many. I’m grateful to be one of them.
I can often tell how much I’ve taken from, learned from, a book by the number of “dog-ears” I’ve left at the bottom of the pages. (Or the notes/bookmarks on the virtual pages of an e-Book.) When I’ve finished, I often go back and re-read these pages. For a fairly small volume, this one had a good number of dog-ears.
During my re-read, what struck me most was a passage where Mary Anne Schwalbe addresses working mothers (she was one long before it was commonplace) vs. stay-at-home mothers. She supported the choices, the sacrifices that were required on both ends of this spectrum. There was, however, a caveat:
“[But] I don’t entirely approve of people who get advanced degrees and then decide to stay at home. I think if society gives you the gift of one of these educations and you take a spot in a very competitive institution, then you should do something with that education to help others.”
While I only achieved a Bachelor’s degree and have never held a job in my field — though I often feel that working in a restaurant qualifies as having some “institutional” experience, though certainly in a different sense than how she meant it — I felt an immediate and visceral connection to these words. My interpretation of her admonishment and how it applies to me — and plenty of others — is that we shouldn’t waste our lives and our talents or fill the time we are given with work that leaves us unfulfilled. It is a theme that I have been examining in my own life of late.
I can’t help but think that the universe, through the words of this wise and lovely woman, may indeed be trying to tell me something.
photo credit: The End of Your Life Book Club