Thursday, December 12, 2013

The End of Your Life Book Club - Will Schwalbe

The End of Your Life Book Club
This book has been On Reserve for a long time. If memory serves, I found it on a list of books for book lovers not long after starting the blog.  

I finally picked it up a few weeks ago. I needed something to read as my family sat vigil around my dying grandmother. It seemed both the best and worst time to venture into a book entitled The End of Your Life Book Club.

Will Schwalbe's memoir chronicles the last years of his mother's life. After a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer rocked their family, Will spent many hours accompanying his mother to doctor's appointments, chemotherapy sessions, etc. In those waiting rooms, the mother-son duo turned their shared love of books into the world's smallest book club. Together, they shared dozens of literary works before Mary Ann's eventual passing.

While at times the book slips into a list like rehashing of what they read, its driving force is the journey this family took alongside Mary Ann in her final years. It is more a story of family and faith and hope. In some ways, it's a story of survival.

Schwalbe writes through the lens of the books he read with his mother. Each chapter is titled after a book they read. He recounts the passage of time by recalling what they were reading then and how it affected their conversations and their outlook.

Schwalbe used books as a type of therapy, really, during this difficult time.  As someone who picked this book to read in the nursing home hallways, I certainly understand that coping mechanism. As Schwalbe puts it, "[Books] help us talk. But they also give us something we all can talk about when we don't want to talk about ourselves." Not only is this true, but books also help me to process emotions that I internalize, often without me even realizing their true effect.

I could spend several paragraphs discussing various points Schwalbe touched on regarding how helpful books are and the importance they have in our society. Instead, I'd like to simply list a few quotes from the book and allow them to sink in unfettered by my own opinions.
  • "Reading isn't the opposite of doing; it's the opposite of dying."
  • "[Gilead] helped you remember that people aren't here for you; everyone is here for one another."
  • "...every great religion shares a love of books, of reading, of knowledge."
  • "I was learning that when you're with someone who is dying, you may need to celebrate the past, live the present, and mourn the future all at the same time."
  • "...each book we read may well be the last, each conversation the final one."
  • And perhaps the best argument ever made for physical books over ereaders: "She was surrounded by books...They were Mom's companions and teachers. They had shown her the way. And she was able to look at them as she readied herself for the life everlasting she knew awaited her. What comfort could be gained from staring at my lifeless e-reader?"
Hopefully, these brief snippets of the book can give you enough of a glimpse of Schwalbe's writing to cause you to pick up the book yourself. 

Though Schwalbe himself claims no faith, his mother was a devout Christian. Throughout her battle with cancer, she continually returned to Mary Wilder Tileston's Daily Strength for Daily Needs. Schwalbe mentions it over and over again in his book. His mother carried it in her purse and he believes the last words she ever read came from its pages. This struck home for me as I am fairly certain my own mother has the same book.

This book may have seemed like an unconventional choice for this time in my life. I read nearly all of it in that small nursing home in small town Ohio, experiencing a scene similar to when Schwalbe's mother died. I finished it up just a few days after my grandmother's funeral. Getting so personal here is rare for me, but I feel as though knowing what the last few weeks have held for my family is important to understand why this book spoke to me so strongly. 

In many ways, it reminded me just how futile life is. Mary Ann Schwalbe lived an extraordinary life, helping and counseling countless people around the world. Schwalbe makes it clear that his mother impacted many. And, yet, she was never famous and I never would have known her name were it not for this book. Still, I have no doubt there are hundreds of people around the world who were positively affected by this woman's life. That is a legacy worth having, even if few people ever know your name. A strong reminded to live for the world to come and not the world we live in now if I ever heard one.

I highly recommend this book. Whether you are walking through a season of grief and can relate or whether you simply are looking for great literature. Schwalbe and his mother made their time count when it came to books; they were only picking up the best of the best. I added quite a few books to my list because of my list. Thankfully, Schwalbe is carefully not to give away too much about any of them. No spoiler alerts needed. Through those books, I look forward to continuing my journey with the Schwalbe family, thankful for the lessons they found between the pages of good fiction.

Pages: 336

Date Completed: December 8, 2013

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