As the former editor-in-chief of New York-based publisher Hyperion Books, reading has always played a huge role in Will Schwalbe’s life. And, as Schwalbe came to discover, it also acted as a connector between himself and his mother at their most trying time.
Following his mother’s diagnosis of advanced pancreatic cancer, Schwalbe and his mother began a book club of sorts to help pass the time during chemo treatments. They read books, then discussed, and ultimately, bonded over them before her passing.
Now, three years after her death, Schwalbe has written about their book club in the aptly titled The End of Your Life Book Club. Here he shares more about the project that gave him, and his mother, so much joy at a time of such sadness:
Q: What did you and your mom get out of reading these books with you?
A: It gave us a lot of wonderful things. It opened up the possibility for a lot of conversations. Books provide so many themes and topics and there are so many ways into things that you want to talk about with books. Especially with a parent, they might not be things you’d want to attack head on.
Books also really normalized our relationship in the last couple of years because so often when you’re with someone who isn’t well, they’re the sick person and you’re the well person and your conversation is about illness and medicines and care. But when we were reading we were a mother and a son on a journey.
Q: Is it possible to find happiness in a person’s life when grief is so prominent?
A: Absolutely. We had a lot of wonderful times and happiness in her last two years, which for me was very unexpected. When a diagnosis like that comes down — your mother has the most lethal kind of cancer there is — it’s hard at that moment to believe that she or you will ever be happy again. In that moment, your world changes.
She then set about finding ways to live while dying. If she had a limited amount of time left, she wanted to do as much in that time as she possibly could and books were wonderful ways to learn to engage and to be delighted while she was dying. My mother knew she had only a couple of years to live, tops. She really reminded me to make every book and every conversation count.
Q: You bring up the concept that death is mourning the future. Can you elaborate?
A: As we read books and told stories of her past, I realized that I had that past. Those memories I’d always have. The mom that had been would always be with me. What I had to let go of was the mom that hadn’t been yet, the mom of the future. All the events of the future were really what we were mourning. Being with someone dying is this weird situation of celebrating the past, living the present and mourning the future all at the same time.
Q: Any thoughts to share with readers who might be going through something similar?
A: Everybody experiences loss and grief differently. But if you want to talk about someone you’ve lost, find people who are willing to listen. A lot of people want to remember and tell stories about people they’ve lost and our society isn’t always forgiving of that. If you are the kind of person who wants to talk about someone who isn’t here, find a group of people who want to listen and maybe share their stories too.
The End of Your Life Book Club, by Will Schwalbe, is available now.
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