How does one begin appreciating something that’s so profoundly beautiful?
You see, whenever I finish reading a great book, I have this usual loss for words. Because the experience was so moving and magical, I sense this obligation to tell the world about the book. Yet I know that my words would never completely convey the book’s essence.
This loss for the right words was what I had for Will Schwalbe’s memoir, The End of Your Life Book Club. I rarely read nonfiction yet I found myself racing through the book’s 300-plus pages.
In this memoir, Will Schwalbe chronicles the months when his mother, Mary Anne, was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer until her death less than 2 years later. Mary Anne was an extraordinary presence in Will’s life. Born in the 30’s, she was an active player in women’s movements towards empowerment. She went on to serve in universities and humanitarian missions where she particularly championed the cause of refugees. At the core of her extraordinary life were her faith, her ability to connect with people, and her deep love of books.
Looking for something valuable to do while going through with the chemo sessions, Will and Mary Anne began their two-member book club. The book they read and share became the centerpieces of conversations. The characters, events, and passages from the book they’ve just finished became anchors as they reflect on every person’s purpose for his community and for himself. They didn’t know how much time they’ve got. While the medicines had been remarkable in slowing down the disease, Mary Anne endured longer than most cancer patients because of her courage and will to continue making a difference. No disease could slow her down in building her library for Afghanistan among other advocacies, large and small.
The End of Your Life Book Club gives a good list of books across genres to discover and re-discover. These are testaments to the enduring power of books to expand our horizon, teach us kindness, and affirm our purpose in this life. One of the books quoted in this memoir is Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. Mary Anne quotes that each time when you encounter another person, when you have dealings with anyone at all, you must think: What is the Lord asking of me in this moment, in this situation?
Beyond the books, this memoir is also about a son’s relationship with his mother. Admittedly, the last hundred pages made me long for the presence of my mother who is miles away in Cebu. The memoir has a lonely quality to it, which all the more made me more grateful to my mother and to life so far. There is so much love between Will and Mary Anne, an emotion that grows more familiar and unbreakable to me.
There are books that I go back to at different stages of life. This is going to be one of those books. As I don’t have all the words to show my appreciation for this splendid piece of literature, perhaps I can encourage you, my friends, to read this, own this, and share this. There is so much beauty in this memoir.