February 4, 2013
"No matter how tired I am, I can always read," says Mary Anne Schwalbe to her son while waiting for an appointment with her oncologist in The End of Your Life Book Club. "But maybe that's because of raising three children while working full-time. I think I got used to being tired all the time. If I'd waited until I was well-rested to read. I never would have read anything."
"The Club" of two life-long readers--mother Mary Anne and son Will Schwalbe--meets in the waiting room at Memorial Sloan-Kettering's outpatient care centre. In the two years of life remaining to Mary Anne (after her persistent jaundice, weight loss and fatigue were finally diagnosed as symptoms of pancreatic cancer) she and her son, a professional editor and author, discover new writers and rediscover favourite stories, reading "promiscuously" books both great and small.
It would be enough if The End were a personal, and finely honed list of must-reads. It is this, but it is more. Schwalbe knows readers, their habits and idiosyncracies. After all, he's one of us. The serendipities and "stumbled upons" that happen in bookstores, the art of dodging from admitting we haven't read the book on everyone else's rave list, the books we read when we cannot sleep, the books we carry with us everywhere, the guilt and anxiety we feel for possibly suggesting the wrong book at the wrong time.
The End is a book of many meanings. As a mother's story, it can't help but contain great wisdom--the simple and profound kind that can only be accumulated by seven-plus decades of life, many of them as a wife, mother, advocate of education and champion of refugee causes. Even though she is well into her seventies and terminally ill, Mary Anne Schwalbe sustains these activities until near the end of her life. But it is only books and family that she is surrounded by at the very end.
"Reading isn't the opposite of doing," writes her son, who has only ever known is mother as a do-er of extraordinary proportions. "It is the opposite of dying."