Will Schwalbe (2012) The End of Your Life Book Club.

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This is an exclusive book club. There are only two people in it, Will and his mother Mary Anne, and one of them dies. Mary Anne always read the last few pages of a book before starting the beginning. She liked to know what happened. I guess we all do. Death is the great taboo. One of the guy’s I went to school with brother was in the pub after their mum died. I told him I was sorry. Recently I asked an acquaintance I’d known about twenty years, why she wanted me to cut back a tree when Tam her husband was always pottering in the garden and doing jobs like that. Tam and me usually spent a few minutes discussing what we were reading. She told me he’d died during the winter and she’d given him mouth to mouth and tried to revive him, but then she heard the death rattle and that’s about it. Death has come to visit. We’ve all got these stories.

There’s my own mum, Jean. I sat by her bed all night and in the morning death worked its way up her legs and stopped her heart. I wasn’t sad, but delighted. Dementia had taken her to a faraway place and death was a friend. I can reconcile the child I was in pyjamas and before bed, sleepy head, really thinking I’ll fly and be a man of steel. You will. You will. You will, runs through my head, because my mum’s great love made anything possible. For Mary Anne Schwalbe books were her ‘companions and teachers, they had shown her the way’.  I guess we can’t ask more than that.

Books are holy things. Will and Mary Anne Schwalbe turned to them when she developed the pancreatic cancer that would kill her. Mary Anne weighed less than one-hundred pounds had stopped eating and was aged seventy-five when she died. Patrick Swazi that old Dirty Dancer announced he had pancreatic cancer around the same time as Mary Anne, but he was playing Ghost and it wasn’t with Demi Moore and was dead within six months. Mary Anne, with treatment, got an extra two years of life. Here’s the bit I didn’t like and Mary Anne didn’t like either. That in America healthcare was a lottery and she could afford treatment, even experimental treatment that others couldn’t. That was why she hoped Obama would get elected. That as President he’d do something about Healthcare provision for the poor. But Mary Anne was also a do-er. One of the women she met in hospital was crying because of what is termed the doughnut.  That’s when the healthcare provision she had paid for runs out so she couldn’t pay for the drugs she needed until she paid a sum she couldn’t afford, but then six months later or when she was richer or sufficiently poor she’d be come out the other end and be able to access medical help and her drugs would be paid for via insurance. Mary Anne gave this woman the money to pay for her care. Mary Anne was a giver. She kept giving her whole life. At one point she went to live in Burma for six months and help children with learning disabilities. She was a great fund raiser,  raising millions of dollars for a library in Kabul, for example. Books were life givers. ‘All readers have reading in common’. Amen to that.

One thing I understood and this is covered in The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist is the hypocrisy of a so-called Christian nation that proclaims piety but eats its poor and spits out the husks of their lives. As Will writes: ‘Most books surprises aren’t surprises at all, but follow a formula, like the dead body that’s certain to lurch out of a wreck being explored by deep-sea divers…’ Mary Anne loved her fellow man and in particular that dirty word, the refugee, because that’s you and me.

Will Schwalbe has added more books to my reading list, but that is never a bad thing, where there’s life there’s hope and where there’s books there’s hope. Amen to that.

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