Will Schwalbe’s mother, Mary Anne, came home from a humanitarian trip to Pakistan and Afghanistan with what seemed to be a rare form of hepatitis. Both Will and Mary Anne had always been avid readers and had always shared their thoughts about books with one another. Nonny would be very proud of you to know all of the things you are doing and hear how she is still in your heart. Thank you for this post, Heather, for the honesty and for letting me know now what I should do in handling my father’s illness.
It’s so wonderful that this book helped you to connect with your mom about your Nonny. Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email. The End of Your Life Book Club is a moving testament to the power of books and the written word to heal and teach, even in the most difficult times, a topic Schwalbe poignantly describes in part 1 of our interview. But the book is also a memoir of illness and the challenges and often confusing changes that accompany the daily lives of those facing a life-threatening diagnosis, as well as the friends and loved ones that surround them. Will’s mother, Mary Anne Schwalbe was the Founding Director of the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children, and as part of her work with refugees she traveled to 27 countries, often during wartime.

When she still wasn’t feeling better a few months later, more testing revealed that she actually had Stage IV pancreatic cancer, which usually ends in death within six months. At the first chemo session that Will took his mother to, they decided to start a more formal book club, just for the two of them.
After Nonny was diagnosed with Stage IV ovarian cancer, she lived for about a year and a half until she died at the age of 74 (Mary Anne was 75). I am already exhausted physically and mentally from the long journeys and for dealing with the emotional hurts of my half siblings whose attitudes are luke-warm.
I’ve seen a lot of people reviewing this recently and honestly had no idea what it was about. During her illness, she and Will, both lifelong readers, started reading books together and only later realized that they had created a very special book club of two. She spoke at conferences all over the world and received several major humanitarian honors.
The story of Mary Anne’s illness and how she and her family handled everything really hit home for me, though, and I ended up being more interested in her story than I was about their book club. Yesterday, I refused to call to find out how he was doing because I felt I needed a break And then this morning, the calls came for more money to take care of his basic needs and drugs at the hospital.

I doubt I’ll read it because I get too emotional with books like this, but maybe some day. They allowed him to spend time with his mother, discussing the things that matter, telling stories, and sharing experiences that went beyond the next drip or catheter, dose of morphine or disheartening scan.
When I talked to Nonny over the phone (or face-to-face when I went home), I mostly avoided talking about the cancer because I felt like she wouldn’t want that to be the only thing we talked about, either.
To be honest, after she died, I just let it all go; there was really no sense in dwelling on any of it and making myself feel even more crummy.
After reading The End of Your Life Book Club, though, I realized that there were so many other (better) ways I could have handled all of it.
I was left with both good and bad feelings about that time; reading this book was very bittersweet for me. I immediately called my mother and we had a long talk about a lot of things that happened back then, and I think we still have more to talk about.

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