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Reading books ‘the opposite of dying’ for ailing mother and son

  • Published Sunday, Feb. 17, 2013, at 12:25 a.m.

”The End of Your Life Book Club” by Will Schwalbe (Knopf, 336 pages; $25)

Twenty-one years in publishing and a lifetime spent lost in books made the question “What are you reading?” second nature to Will Schwalbe.

Then one day he asked it of his mother, Mary Anne, as they sat together in New York's Memorial Sloan-Kettering Hospital, waiting for her chemotherapy treatment to begin. So started a book club of two and an extraordinary journey.

Mary Anne Schwalbe was a college and high school administrator when her three children were growing up, then moved into international relief work, particularly focused on the needs of women and children in Afghanistan and Pakistan. By 2007, she was deeply involved in raising money to build libraries in Afghanistan.

And then a lingering illness she and her family had assumed was “just another bug” picked up from international travel turned out to be something else entirely – a form of advanced pancreatic cancer almost always fatal in six months or sooner.

But Mary Anne was never one to give in easily. She opted for “the lifesaving poison” of chemotherapy.

And though she did suffer much from its side effects, she also lived another two years (almost to the day Will asked that casual question), able to enjoy a meaningful and often productive quality of life until the end.

Will and Mary Anne, in his words, “read casually and promiscuously and whimsically.” The “Appendix” at the end of the book lists 143 authors of novels, stories, nonfiction, poems and plays referred to – from Louisa May Alcott to Khaled Hosseini, from Lewis Carroll to Anne Lamott, from William Shakespeare to Marilynne Robinson.

What started as a way to relieve the tedium of chemotherapy treatment quickly became something much more for these two passionate readers.

It became an opportunity for Will to reflect on his relationship with his mother as well as his father and siblings; a channel through which the agnostic Will discovered new appreciation for Mary Anne's strong Christian faith; a quiet and powerful way for Mary Anne and Will to express their love and say goodbye; and a chance for a son to tell his mother he is proud of her.

This is a book that will resonate deeply with any person who has made this journey of dying with a loved one. Perhaps more important, it is an affirmation of the profound importance of books in the life of any dedicated reader and of how books can comfort us, astonish us and help us remember.

As Will writes, in what will probably be the epigram that long outlives this book: Reading isn't the opposite of doing; it's the opposite of dying.

Melanie Zuercher is a writer and editor for Bethel College in North Newton.

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