In 1970 Mary Ann Schwalbe learned she had a fatal form of pancreatic cancer with only a few months left to live. She carried on her life for more two active years, as if nothing much had changed, years of chemotherapy and fully engaged on projects that often meant traveling abroad.
She was a person of remarkable courage, a life long reader, and an advocate of refugees in Asia and Africa. Her son, Will Schwalbe’s The End of Your Life Book Club, describes her final years, the books they read together, often while she was undergoing long hours of chemo, and the organizations she either founded or supported.
“That’s one of the things books do. They help us talk. But they also give us something we all can talk about when we don’t want to talk about ourselves.”
He recounts her early work as a casting agent, then director of admissions at both Radcliffe and Harvard and, after moving to New York, her role in directing the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children that took her to Afghanistan, Liberia and Sudan. And in her final months she devoted all her dwindling energy to raising money for a traveling library in Kabul.
“It’s been eighteen months of chemo: of mouth sores, swollen feet, nausea, headaches, weight loss, lack of energy, diarrhea, constipation, cramps, and fevers, and hours in doctors’ offices, emergency rooms, and hospitals. And it’s been thousands of dollars of her own money and tens of thousands of dollars of Medicare.”
Through it all they kept reading and discussing the issues the books raised—Marjorie Morning Star, The Lizard Cage, Suite Francaise, The Last Lecture, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, etc.
“The Elegance of the Hedgehog is, in many ways, a book about books (and films): what they can teach us, and how they can open up worlds. But it’s really, like most great books, about people—and the connections they make, how they save one another and themselves.”
As the book club draws to a close, Schwalbe writes, “Mom taught me not to look away from the worst but to believe that we can all do better. She never wavered in her conviction that books are the most powerful tool in the human arsenal, that reading all kinds of books, in whatever format you choose—electronic (even though it wasn’t for her) or print, or audio—is the grandest entertainment, and also is how you take part in the human conversation.”
Their times together and the books they discussed forged a new relationship between them. It was not unlike the relationship I had with my mother in her final years. While she wasn’t seriously ill, we also formed a book group of two then. Every Sunday we’d talk on the phone about the books we had been reading and what they meant to each of us.
The End of Your Life Book Club is written with heartache and affection. “Even though nearly two years have passed since her death, I’m occasionally struck by the desire to call Mom and tell her something—usually about a book I’m reading that I know she’d love.”