Amanda Gates

The End of Your Life Book Club & Other Thoughts

I recently finished The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe. I read about it in Entertainment Weekly when it was released last year and the premise, a son and his mother have a private book club of sorts during her fight against pancreatic cancer, instantly struck a note with me. My mom always, always had a book to read, if not several at one time. Buying books was her major weakness; no matter how many were in line to be read, she couldn’t help herself but to buy more. She’s the one who instilled in me a love for reading and I remember many lazy Saturdays with her on the couch and me in a chair, just reading. As I got older and read books more her speed (so, not Babysitter’s Club or Sweet Valley Twins), we shared books. We shared books and recommendations up until she didn’t have the energy to read anymore. Then I just read alone by her bed, instead.

After I finished The End of Your Life Book Club, I had dog-eared many pages and passages, whether they were about cancer or dying or reading. So many things about this mother and this relationship and this cancer fight meant something to me. After I read the book, I felt a peace but also a slight jealousy. What a wonderful idea and sentiment, this book club they had. And by talking about books, this mom and her son actually uncovered and discussed many topics that may have been too hard to tackle, too complicated to bring up, during someone’s dying days.

Here are some of my favorite parts or thoughts or discoveries (no spoilers, I don’t think):

+ Will’s mother was an incredible woman. I mean, world-traveling, orphan-saving, millions of dollars-raising amazing. And while it’s very easy to romanticize someone after they’re gone, and to only remember how they were an angel on earth (and not how they could frustrate you, too!), I don’t think Will was exaggerating his mom’s awesomeness. She was wise and I learned from her.

+ She wanted Will to read The Etiquette of Illness. This is a book I’ll seek out. One piece of advice: Don’t ask a sick person, “How are you feeling?” but instead ask, “Do you want me to ask how you’re feeling?” Also, “You don’t have to talk all the time. Sometimes being there is enough.” Such great advice. People are really, really bad at this sort of thing, it should almost be required reading.

+ “We were going to have to learn to pace ourselves—which routines we could keep and which we had to jettison; what we could try to cram in and what we had to give up; which occasions we would be sure to celebrate no matter what and which we would ignore….and even when we would focus on her dying and when we would talk about anything but.”

+ He talks about how he and his siblings would have to say goodbye to their mom over and over with each milestone her grandchildren passed. I think about this exact thing nearly every day. She saw my child to age 1. She won’t meet the next one. With each little and big thing they do, I can’t help but think, “I wish she were here to see it.” He writes, “We would also have to say goodbye to the joy of watching this next generation soak up the massive quantities of love their grandmother would have given them.”

+ During a visit to his mom while she’s vacationing in Florida, Will writes about spending time with only her. He hit the nail on the head, especially during the final months when you know there’s not much time left. I found myself getting mad at other people who wanted a piece of her time. I’m glad to read someone else felt that way, too. He writes, “I didn’t want to talk to anyone other than mom. I wanted to talk about books, or just stare at the ocean…But all those strangers with their lives and stories made the landscape less beautiful for me, not more. As the clock ticked, I resented other people for interrupting the limited conversations we had left.”

+ He talks about the big conversation that many of us never actually have with the ones we love, either because they’re gone suddenly or when you’re actually faced with the opportunity, it turns out, you just know. Words aren’t needed. “I was still waiting to have the big talk, the one where I would tell mom how much I loved her and how proud I was of all she had accomplished, and how she had always been there for me—what a great mother she was. And she would tell me then how proud she was of me… There had been many days when we’d almost had the big talk, but didn’t.”

+ I loved his mom’s view on talent and the need to push yourself to be good at something. She kind of thought it was malarkey, and that’s refreshing. She said, “Everyone doesn’t have to do everything. People forget you can also express yourself by what you choose to admire and support. I’ve had so much pleasure from beautiful and challenging things created by other people, things I could never make or do. I wouldn’t trade that for anything.”

+ When my mom decided to let go, I put a note up on her Caring Bridge site about the decision and then asked that no one visit or call. It was amazing that people would call DAILY with nothing more to say then, “So?” and you knew they wanted to be the first to know what the latest was. So, I wanted to stop those phone calls. Will writes about a very similar sentiment that he put up on his mom’s site, “It’s very difficult for us, too, to answer the phone or reply to emails, so please do continue to check the blog for updates.” I strongly believe this was the right decision and anyone else in this situation shouldn’t be afraid to ask for what they need.

Will and his mom read many, many, many books over that period of time (he lists every book read or mentioned in the back—many I want to add to my own list) and I loved how the themes of the books wrapped around the themes of their time together. This was an excellent book; though I’m not sure if you’re not a book lover or haven’t lost a loved one if it would strike you quite as much as it struck me. I’d be interested it hear.


Sage advice

I want to read this book. It sounds incredibly moving and insightful and sad and heartfelt and relevant. Thank you for the recommendation.

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