Wednesday, April 10, 2013
The Least Depressing Book about Death I've Ever Read
What I got instead was a smart, thoughtful, thought-provoking look at the end of a remarkable life. Will Schwalbe's mother, Mary, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2007. She was a strong, confident, socially conscious woman who had worked for years supporting refugees in war-torn parts of the world. She had traveled to some of the most dangerous places in earth, and when she came back from a trip to Afghanistan feeling ill, at first no one thought too much of it. But what her doctors thought was a form of hepatitis was soon revealed to be tumors in her pancreas, which had already spread to her liver. And while treatment could extend her life, the illness was terminal. This left Mary with the task of living while dying, and her family the task of figuring out how to relate to their spouse and mother knowing her time was limited.
Will would often accompany his mother to her chemo treatments, and it was in the waiting and treatment rooms at Sloan-Kettering Hospital in New York that they started what was to become a two-person, mother-son book club. Both Mary and Will had always been avid readers, and the books they chose to read were either old favorites or new stories they discovered with and for each other. The chapter titles are the titles of the books they read together, and each book frames a different part of their experience. Some of the books had new meaning reading them while in the process of dying. Some of them reminded Mary or Will about the things that were important in life, and all of them were high-quality literature. My fears of a book full of trite, sentimental soundbites and self-help advice were unfounded. In fact, as I read I found myself drawn more into the books they were reading than the story of their relationship. I got a new reading list out of it, in fact.
That's not to say that the story was moving and emotional on a personal level. Will and his mother had the enormous privilege of having the means and opportunity to spend this time together. At several points in the book, Will or Mary points out how lucky they are to be in a position for her to get the best possible care, or for Will to quit his job and take on a new venture without worrying about losing his house or feeding himself. But ultimately, all of the money and education and connections in the world could not stop the inevitable progression of her disease. Rather than railing against his mother's fate, Will is grateful for the time they were able to have, memories that will now forever be associated with the many wonderful books they read and loved together.