I wish I had known Mary Anne Schwalbe. Former director of admissions at Harvard, head of a prestigious New York prep school, tireless activist for refugees across the globe, devout Christian, feminist, wife, mother, and book lover, this small speck of a woman loomed large in countless ways. But now, thanks to her son, Will, in a way I do know her.
“The End of Your Life Book Club” is his account of their two years together as she struggled with the pancreatic cancer that killed her at age 75. It is not only a son’s heartfelt tribute to her courage and grace but vivid testimony to the enduring power of books to create meaning out of chaos, illuminate values, and connect us with each other. As mother and son rediscovered, “[r]eading isn’t the opposite of doing; it’s the opposite of dying.”
That’s not surprising, given that books had long been daily bread in the Schwalbe family, essential to dinner-table discussions and bedtime rituals. Mary Anne and her husband, Douglas, an agent for classical musicians, read voraciously. Young Will followed suit, devouring books about Paul Revere and Alistair MacLean thrillers, and eventually rising to the chair of editor-in-chief at Hyperion.
In the summer of 2007, Mary Anne returned home to New York from yet another trip abroad — she was a frequent visitor to refugee camps in Asia and Africa — to find herself weakened by hepatitis. Then the trap door opened — a terminal diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, with a life expectancy of three to five months. The “book club” evolved as Mary Anne and Will sat in the waiting room before treatments at Sloan-Kettering Memorial Cancer Center and discussed books they agreed to read.
Talking about novels proved a springboard to talking about everything. “Gilead” prompted questions about God, “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” about trust, “Continental Drift” about fate, “Olive Kitteridge” about kindness.
Mary Anne elevated kindness and gratitude to cardinal virtues. She believed in warm smiles, prompt thank-you notes, easy conversation with strangers. She felt blessed that she could afford first-rate cancer care and worried about sick people without health insurance. After reading “The Last Lecture,” she mused that she was so much luckier than its author, Randy Pausch, whose early death prevented him from seeing his children grow up.
Memoirs about the dying can be maudlin, but this book, though hardly upbeat, shines with the light of a great soul. While dying, Mary Anne retains the grit and don’t-worry-about-me resilience that made her life touch so many. Instead, she prays for journalist David Rohde, captured by the Taliban in Afghanistan, and devotes her declining energies to raising money for a library in Kabul. And she hangs on for two years following her diagnosis.
Meantime, mother and son plunge into some of life’s thorniest questions. “Marjorie Morningstar”: religious prejudice. “The Lizard Cage”: Burmese political imprisonment. “Suite Française”: the Holocaust.
In part, this venture is a Great Books course, or at least a Great Topics course. It’s also a way for these two to avoid talking about themselves. “People shared too much, she said, not too little,” Will writes, while noting that he, too, keeps putting off telling how much her love has transformed his life. This is a mother, after all, who long ago accepted with aplomb the news of his homosexuality.
Underneath all of Mary Anne’s abundant goodness, Will’s narrative implies, runs a subtle controlling impulse. Her son describes her as the family manager and quarterback, arranging this event and that. We know how easily “management” can slide into manipulation. Clearly, her unnerving equilibrium could sometimes feel like a reproach to the less capable around her.
Will, continually scolding himself for not being braver, nonetheless, offers himself this consolation: “[Y]ou may need to celebrate the past, live the present, and mourn the future all at the same time.” His book does all that.
Dan Cryer is author of “Being Alive and Having to Die: The Spiritual Odyssey of Forrest Church.” He can be reached at www.dancryer.org.