What would you ask your mother while you are keeping her company in a hospital waiting room, and knowing that she has only a few months left to live? Like any other normal son who loves his mother deeply but doesn’t know how to express it much, Will Schwalbe asks an apparently awkward and one of the most casual questions that anyone can ask, “What are you reading?” Thus starts a journey that the mother and son embarks on for the newt two years.
Mary Anne Schwalbe, the founding director of Women’s Refugee Commission and a former admissions director at Harvard and Radcliffe among other positions that she has held, is diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer at seventy three. Her son Will Schwalbe, the author, accompanies her on the numerous visits to the oncologists and chemotherapy sessions at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. What started as a nervous question from him, soon turns into a series of conversations about books that they have read and have wanted to read, and develops into what the mother and son call their two member book club.
The author tells us early on that…
“Books had always been a way for my mother and me to introduce and explore topics that concerned us but made us uneasy, and they had also given us something to talk about when we were stressed or anxious.”
…..and it’s no surprise that their book reviews turn into conversations about life , God, work, family and all that one would normally think of.
As expected, there are references to innumerous books which has left an impact on both of them and it makes you feel like grabbing them right away and just sit in your favorite corner and read and read till you have finished them all. Any reference to good books makes my heart go fast, but I have to admit that it was not the books that left a catch in my heart in this book about books. The underlying observations about the life of this mother and son, their families, what they live by, what is important to them as human beings, a parent, a child, a professional, about anything and everything that they believed in, is something that affected me more than what they had to say about the books per se.
One chapter that I particularly liked was the one they talk about the author’s childhood. I kept nodding my heard throughout. Here, we think we are so busy and tired, balancing everything and bringing up our children and there she is travelling across the world to the remotest of places, being away for long periods and still managing to have a very close knit family. There is one bond that is nurtured and strengthened throughout – a common love for the written word. And as any ardent reader would know , here’s the secret to kids who love reading..
“My earliest memories involve Mom reading to us – we had a story every night before bed………Almost all the earliest conversations I remember with my parents were about books “
Today’s parents, especially mothers who are working, constantly worry about whether they are doing it right, even though we know deep down that our kids will turn out alright.Maybe there is more than a thing or two we need to learn from these parents of the sixties..
“Dad worked. Mom worked. Several decades before today’s crop of wildly scheduled children, we were left pretty much to our own devices….We did have piano lessons and soccer practice and theater. But we also had bicycles. It was our responsibility to be where we were supposed to be when we were supposed to be there”
Through these shared memories, we get to know about this fiery lady, her immense faith in God and the basic goodness of people and how being positive brings about a real change in you as a person and to the world around you. You can actually feel the awkwardness of a grown up son discussing things close to him openly with an aging mother. He mentions how even society looks down upon an emotionally and openly close mother-son relationship as being somewhat ‘girlish’
From the beginning you know the book is going to end in her death. In how she prepares for it has some valuable lessons for us, especially about gratitude and happiness. Talking about the ‘The Lizard Cage‘ by Karen Connelly, there is this conversation
“But how can you protect your own happiness when you can’t control the beatings?,I asked.
“That’s the point, Will. You can’t control the beatings. But maybe you can have some control over your happiness. As long as he can, well then, he still has something worth living for.And when he’s no longer able, he knows he has done all he can”
The underlying thread of the book , in my opinion is how what we talk ‘about’ communicates more than the what we might actually say, how seeds of closeness are sown way back in childhood and how it will pull you together in times of sorrow. It is one of the most poignant tales of a mother’s last days through a son’s heart that pours out as words.I am sure this is one book that will talk to each reader a little differently , because you just cannot go through this book without relating incidents and thoughts to something or the other in your own life.
And here is what I hope my children would remember me by, I am fine without the painting and the fireplace though 🙂
“But mostly, when I look back, what I remember is not Mom rushing about; it’s Mom sitting quietly in the center of the house, in the living room, under the swirling colors of a Paul Jenkins painting; there would be a fire in the fire place and a throw over her lap, her hands sticking out to hold a book. And we all wanted to be there with her and Dad, reading quietly too.”
Will Schwalbe has given me a ready made reading list running into six pages.
He has also left me with a dull ache that refuses to let go, longing for some more time with my mother. If only…..
Verdict – A must read. Take this up when you have time to go slowly, savoring each word and reminiscing in between, with a smile now and a tear then.