By:  Will Schwalbe

Published:  October 2, 2012


“What are you reading?”

That’s the question Will Schwalbe asks his mother, Mary Anne, as they sit in the waiting room of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. In 2007, Mary Anne returned from a humanitarian trip to Pakistan and Afghanistan suffering from what her doctors believed was a rare type of hepatitis. Months later she was diagnosed with a form of advanced pancreatic cancer, which is almost always fatal, often in six months or less. 

This is the inspiring true story of a son and his mother, who start a “book club” that brings them together as her life comes to a close. Over the next two years, Will and Mary Anne carry on conversations that are both wide-ranging and deeply personal, prompted by an eclectic array of books and a shared passion for reading. Their list jumps from classic to popular, from poetry to mysteries, from fantastic to spiritual. The issues they discuss include questions of faith and courage as well as everyday topics such as expressing gratitude and learning to listen. Throughout, they are constantly reminded of the power of books to comfort us, astonish us, teach us, and tell us what we need to do with our lives and in the world. Reading isn’t the opposite of doing; it’s the opposite of dying. 

Will and Mary Anne share their hopes and concerns with each other—and rediscover their lives—through their favorite books. When they read, they aren’t a sick person and a well person, but a mother and a son taking a journey together. The result is a profoundly moving tale of loss that is also a joyful, and often humorous, celebration of life: Will’s love letter to his mother, and theirs to the printed page. 

I was elated that this was our book club choice for the month of December.  I had been wanting to read it ever since it came out and wanting to discuss it with a friend whom had already read it.  It wasn’t a book that I found I could read right through.  Some of the discussions were “out of my element” and other times I felt like I wasn’t intelligent enough to read this book.  But, then I realized that Schwalbe was raised in a very different culture than I was out here in small town Iowa.  Schwalbe grew up exposed to professors at Harvard, people who traveled to other countries on a regular basis, those who lived in and worked in major cities, and those who often attended plays and other cultural events…many I had never heard of.  He was exposed to things that I or my children have never seen and so, of course, their experiences and books will be different that what I was used to.  At first I was frustrated with the assumption that “everyone” had heard of and read a certain book, to being intrigued by the books that were mentioned.  Of the numerous books mentioned, I added a few to my reading list and there were even a few that I had already read. 

I found it interesting that nearly each of the books that Schwalbe and his mom read had to do with death or loss of some kind and it seemed there was always a lesson behind it.  I was glad that not every book appealed to both of them.  I noticed that even when a book wasn’t liked, there was a new appreciation for it after the discussion…which often times happens in other book club discussions.

After going through numerous doctor appointments with my mom from April to August, I could identify with the discussions and apprehension that was felt by Schwalbe.  I know that I see my mom differently, as well as my dad, and find our conversations during those days of waiting rooms and hospital stays to be very special to me.  I can only imagine how thankful Schwalbe is of his time with his mom…something he probably wouldn’t have had if she hadn’t gotten sick.  

Mary Anne Schwalbe was an amazing woman.  I was often in awe of her humility, her concern for others, her kindness, and her generosity.  She truly embodied the meaning of a Good Samaritan and has influenced many others to do the same.  Our world is a better place because of her.

As the book was nearing the end, I noticed that I was reading it slower and slower.  I knew that Mary Anne was going to die, but I felt that by not finishing the book, I could hold on to her and the story and bit longer.  Schwalbe has written a lovely book that shows what a wonderful woman his mother was, it shows that books and their lessons can be good for the soul, and that any of us can and should make a difference in the world.

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