The End of Your Life Book Club

My reading list reminds me of the old fairy tale where the woodsman tried to chop down a mighty tree. Every time he hacked out a chunk, two more grew in its place. I have a tree of books waiting. At a recent meeting of our De Grummond Book Group that reads children’s books, a friend recommended a couple of books. I had read the book for the meeting (one chunk), now she added two more (two chunks).

One of the books was The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe, a memoir of the author’s walk with his mother Mary Ann Schwalbe through her diagnosis and treatment for pancreatic cancer. She always looks at the end of a book before she begins reading to know the end. In an similar manner, Mary Anne and her family know this disease will be fatal, and the reader knows up front how this book will end.

As Will accompanies his mother to appointments and lengthy treatments, they form a two-person book club, selecting books they want to read and discuss. He knows from habits begun in childhood, when she read aloud to him and they allowed Ferdinand to have more than one reason to be a different kind of bull, that the discussions will be lively.

I’d read many of the books they chose and found myself joining in their discussions as if they could hear me. Other books seemed interesting, and I started making a list to add to my tree of “books to read.” I abandoned that idea quickly, realizing that keeping notes was becoming burdensome and taking away from my interest in the book.

Mary Anne herself keeps the atmosphere upbeat, living at least a year longer than first projected, maintaining an active role in establishing a library in Afghanistan, and giving opinionated evaluation of the books they read. The book isn’t a downer even in the very honest picture of her slowly losing ground against the cancer. Will weaves the progress of the illness, his mother’s continued interest in people and projects, and the book club discussions together like a craftsman with a loom.

About the time adolescence set in, I gave up reading the end of a book first like Mary Anne does because it lowered my level of enjoyment. In this case, the knowledge that death will be the end makes everything fit.

As for my tree, I enjoyed hacking off this chunk. When I got to the back matter, I found the author’s list of the books he read with his mother. I refrained from counting how many new chunks it added to the list.