I read books cover to cover. I read the recommendations in the beginning, the forewards, the epilogues, the acknowledgments, the author’s biography. I treasure books — every word of them — perhaps why I continue buying the hard copies most of the time. Perhaps why I dream of writing my own acknowledgments someday — overwhelming gratitude to this person and that. I dream of having an author’s biography page, my little photo represented the pages of written word I might someday write (or perhaps have already written?)
Well, I just finished a book lover’s dream book. “The End of Your Life Book Club” by Will Schwalbe is set on a foundation of books but comes to life with the main character of his true story — his mother, Mary Anne Schwalbe.
The book’s title gives it away but Mary Anne is dying — of pancreatic cancer at the age of 75. But she isn’t dying like most people. I nearly wrote “dying after a long life of XXX” but that’s clearly not the case here. Mary Anne was dying but truly living every second she could until she took her last breath.
She’s the epitome of a book lover and shares this passion with her son, Will. It’s how they bond in these last years of her life. As they await chemotherapy treatments and doctors appointments, Will and his Mom discuss the books they’ve read together. They chose book after book after book, not focusing on the dying but on the deeper truths within the books and what they mean about life.
Reading can be freedom in so many ways — not just an avenue of brief escape — but an education to bring you wisdom, truth and the keys to building the life you’d like to have. This is especially true in places where education is hard to come by for women, like Afghanistan — where Mary Anne actually spent a bulk of her life working to build a library.
1. Being Well-Read
In one passage of the book, Will describes a friend of the family, which I loved:
“He was the smartest and best read person any of us had ever known, but he wore his learning so lightly and had such curiosity about other people that he had the ability make everyone around him feel smart and well-read.”
Man, would I love to be able to do the same. It feels good to make others feel good, you know?
What I loved most about this book, though, was the person of Mary Anne. She is an amazing woman — someone I would like to emulate for the rest of my life, in fact. She had a beautiful spirit, a kind heart, a selfless approach to anything and everyone in life.
2. The Good & Interesting People
At one part in the book, Will writes of a bit of wisdom she conveyed to him:
“Secrets, she felt, rarely explained or excused anything in real life, or were even all that interesting. People shared too much, she said, not too little. She thought you should be able to keep your private life private for any or for no reason. She felt that way about politicians — so long as they weren’t hypocrites — and worried that we’d never find enough good and interesting people to run for office if we pried into every corner of their past.”
I loved that because it’s so true. This day and age, you will find out every thing that anyone’s ever done, said or donated to. But is that going to keep us from the good and interesting people that could lead us well? Everyone makes mistakes and I think it’s a travesty that some might never get to where they might have been thanks to the Internet.
3. Never Make Assumptions About People
Another thing about Mary Anne — she was always raising money for one of the many causes she supported. Fundraising is often a thankless and difficult job but she was wise about this as well:
“This was another lesson I learned from Mom over the course of our book club: Never make assumptions about people. You never know who can and will want to help you until you ask. So you should never assume someone can’t or won’t because of their age or job or other interests, or financial situation.”
This is so true. In my own life when I’ve done fundraising, it’s amazing how those you least expect will often give the biggest gift. We should never underestimate the possibility in everyone.
4. You Can’t Ignore Cruelty
Still, another bit of wisdom I was moved by…when Mary Anne tells Will that it is important to read about the cruel and evil things in the world. He asks her why and here is her wonderful response:
“Because when you read about it, it’s easier to recognize. That was always the hardest thing in the refugee camps — to hear the stories of the people who had been raped or mutilated or forced to watch a parent or a sister or a child be raped or killed. Its very hard to come face-to-face with such cruelty. But people can be cruel in lots of ways, some very subtle. I think that’s why we all need to read about it. …You need to learn to recognize these things right from the start. Evil almost always starts with small cruelties.”
That’s one thing I’ve think I’ve always believed without knowing it. I read about the bad things in the world because you can’t just ignore it and hope it will go away. It must be recognized or how can it ever be stopped?
5. You Can’t Know If You Want To Meet Someone Until You’ve Met Them
Another point in the book, Will asks his Mom about why she always wants to meet people and make friends with strangers. She has a brilliant answer that I totally love:
“You can’t know if you want to meet someone until you’ve met them, until you’ve started to talk and most important, ask them questions. I’ve met the most wonderful people that way. And I don’t see other people as interruptions — they give us more to talk about.”
6. You Can Always Do More, But The Important Thing Is To Do What You Can Now
I’ve always been struck by the helpless feeling of not doing enough. I can give money and volunteer but it’s never enough. You can never help all the people that need helping. Mary Anne had a beautiful answer to that dilemma:
“Of course you could do more — you can always do more, and you should do more — but still, the important thing is to do what you can, whenever you can. You just do your best, and that’s all you can do. Too many people use the excuse that they don’t think they can do enough, so they decide they don’t have to do anything. There’s never a good excuse for not doing anything.”
It was amazing how people and goodness energized Mary Anne. Things could be going badly with her health but a bouquet of flowers from some old students, funding for one of her humanitarian projects coming in or meeting a new and interesting person could bring her the life and energy she needed to carry on. She was so extremely humble and always always always concerned with everyone else. It was never about her.
I must share with you a small bit that Will writes in his book, in the epilogue:
“Mom taught me not to look away from the worse but to believe that we can all do better. She ever wavered in her conviction that books are the most powerful tool in the human aresnal, that reading all kinds of books in whatever for…is the grandest entertainment and also is how you take part in the human conversation.”
It was a privilege to read this book and I suggest you go grab a copy and do the same.