A Man, His Dying Mother, and the Power of Books: Will Schwalbe’s The End of Your Life Book Club
And so begins The End of Your Life Book Club, with a simple question lobbed by Will Schwalbe into the uncomfortable silence of Memorial Sloan-Kettering’s outpatient care center. “What are you reading?” he asks his mother, the spirited and remarkable Mary Anne, who has been ambushed midway in her project to build a library in Afghanistan by a rare form of advanced pancreatic cancer. As extraordinary as this mother is, her son’s anguish threatens at times to render him speechless. Hence, the idea discovered almost by accident, of their own private book club in which, despite their different journeys, “we could still share books, and while reading those books, we wouldn’t be the sick person and the well person; we would simply be a mother and a son entering new worlds together.”
Mothers and sons, let me count the ways. From Barack Obama to James McBride, Philip Roth to David Rieff, sons have plumbed the many facets of this often fraught, often tender, always complex nuclear relationship. The uniqueness of Schwalbe’s tribute to his mother, and to their mutual love, lies in this shared reading experience, which allows them to dispense with the usual bedside platitudes, the premature eulogies, the awkward and endless variations on the theme of “how are you doing,” and to talk about what is really going on, to have, many times over, that final conversation so often dreaded by patient and survivor, parent and child.
As a friend of mine once wrote, dying is a social act, a truth fully understood and embraced by both this mother and son. During the countless hours spent waiting – in hospitals, doctors’ offices, chemo rooms and medical labs – they read and talk, with honesty and humor. Fiction and poetry, history and the spiritual, mystery and fantasy: Crossing to Safety, On Chesil Beach, Appointment in Samarra, Marjorie Morningstar, The Hobbit, A Thousand Splendid Suns, Full Catastrophe Living, Olive Kitteridge, Suite Francaise, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the wide-ranging list of books the remarkable Schwalbes leave us is a testimony to the power of books to instruct, inspire, and amuse, “to give us something we all can talk about when we don’t want to talk about ourselves.”
They are, of course, talking about themselves, creating as they do so a powerful bond not only between each other, but between them and us, their fortunate readers. As Mary Anne’s disease progresses, their book club inspires them to share a treasure of wonderful family stories, thus becoming a celebration not of death so much as life. “Reading isn’t the opposite of doing,” Will writes, “it’s the opposite of dying.” This unique and endearing memoir is at once a courageous personal exploration of love and loss as well as a tribute to the solace and power of the written word. As Mary Anne insists, “Books are the most powerful tool in the human arsenal [and] reading all kinds of books … is how you take part in the human conversation.”
We were nuts about the mocha in the waiting room at Memorial Sloan-Kettering’s outpatient care center. The coffee isn’t so good, and the hot chocolate is worse. But if, as Mom and I discovered, you push the “mocha” button, you see how two not-very-good things can come together to make something quite delicious. The graham crackers aren’t bad either.
The outpatient care center is housed on the very pleasant fourth floor of a handsome black steel and glass office building in Manhattan on the corner of 53rd Street and Third Avenue. Its visitors are fortunate that it’s so pleasant, because they spend many hours there. This is where people with cancer wait to see their doctors and to be hooked up to a drip for doses of the life-prolonging poison that is one of the wonders of the modern medical world. By the late autumn of 2007, my mother and I began meeting there regularly.
Our book club got its formal start with the mocha and one of the most casual questions two people can ask each other: “What are you reading?” It’s something of a quaint question these days. More often in lulls of conversation people ask, “What movies have you seen?” or “Where are you going on vacation?” You can no longer assume, the way you could when I was growing up, that anyone is reading anything. But it’s a question my mother and I asked each other for as long as I can remember. So one November day, while passing the time between when they took Mom’s blood and when she saw the doctor (which preceded the chemo), I threw out that question. Mom answered that she was reading an extraordinary book, Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner.
Crossing to Safety, which was first published in 1987, is one of those books I’d always so intended to read that I spent years pretending not only that I’d actually read it but also that I knew more about its author than that he’d been born in the early years of the twentieth century and wrote mostly about the American West. I worked in book publishing for twenty-one years and, in various conversation lulls, got into the habit of asking people, especially booksellers, the name of their favorite book and why they loved it so much. One of the most frequently named books was and is always Crossing to Safety.
Raving about books I hadn’t read yet was part of my job. But there’s a difference between casually fibbing to a bookseller and lying to your seventy-three-year-old mother when you are accompanying her for treatments to slow the growth of a cancer that had already spread from her pancreas to her liver by the time it was diagnosed.
I confessed that I had not, in fact, read this book.
“I’ll give you my copy when I’m finished,” said my mother, who was always much thriftier than I am.
“That’s okay, I have a copy,” I told her, which was, in fact, true. There are certain books that I mean to read and keep stacked by my bedside. I even take them on trips. Some of my books should be awarded their own frequent-flier miles, they’ve traveled so much. I take these volumes on flight after flight with the best of intentions and then wind up reading anything and everything else (SkyMall! Golf Digest!). I’d brought Crossing to Safety on so many trips and returned it to my bedside unread so many times that it could have earned at least one first-class ticket to Tokyo on Japan Airlines.
But this time it would be different. That weekend I started it, and then, at about page twenty or so, the magical thing occurred that happens only with the very best books: I became absorbed and obsessed and entered the “Can’t you see I’m reading?” mode. For those of you who haven’t read Crossing to Safety (or are still pretending to have read it), it’s a story about the lifelong friendship of two couples: Sid and Charity, and Larry and Sally. At the start of the novel, Charity is dying of cancer. So once I read it, it was natural that I would want to talk about it with Mom. The novel gave us a way to discuss some of the things she was facing and some of the things I was facing.
“Do you think he’ll be all right?” I would ask her, referring to Sid, who is very much alone at the end.
“Of course it’ll be tough on him, but I think he’ll be fine. I’m quite sure of it. Maybe not right away. But he’ll be fine,” she would answer, also referring to Sid but perhaps to my father as well.
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 always given us something to talk about when we were stressed or anxious. In the months since her diagnosis, we’d started talking more and more about books. But it was with Crossing to Safety that we both began to realize that our discussions were more than casual—that we had created, without knowing it, a very unusual book club, one with only two members. As in many book clubs, our conversations bounced around between the characters’ lives and our own. Sometimes we discussed a book in depth; other times we found ourselves in a conversation that had little to do with the book or the author who had sparked it.
I wanted to learn more about my mother’s life and the choices she’d made, so I often steered the conversation there. She had an agenda of her own, as she almost always did. It took me some time, and some help, to figure it out.
Over the course of Mom’s illness, before and after Crossing to Safety, Mom and I read dozens of books of all different kinds. We didn’t read only “great books,” we read casually and promiscuously and whimsically. (As I said, my mother was thrifty; if you gave her a book, she would read it.) We didn’t always read the same books at the same time; nor did we meet over meals, nor on specific days, nor a set number of times per month. But we were forced to keep coming back to that waiting room as Mom’s health got worse and worse. And we talked about books just as often as we talked about anything.
My mother was a fast reader. Oh, and one other thing I should mention. She always read the end of a book first because she couldn’t wait to find out how things would turn out. I realized, when I started writing this book, that, in a way, she’d already read the end of it—when you have pancreatic cancer that’s diagnosed after it’s spread, there isn’t likely to be a surprise ending. You can be fairly certain of what fate has in store.
You could say that the book club became our life, but it would be more accurate to say that our life became a book club. Maybe it had always been one—and it took Mom’s illness to make us realize that. We didn’t talk much about the club. We talked about the books, and we talked about our lives.
We all have a lot more to read than we can read and a lot more to do than we can do. Still, one of the things I learned from Mom is this: Reading isn’t the opposite of doing; it’s the opposite of dying. I will never be able to read my mother’s favorite books without thinking of her—and when I pass them on and recommend them, I’ll know that some of what made her goes with them; that some of my mother will live on in those readers, readers who may be inspired to love the way she loved and do their own version of what she did in the world.
But I’ve gotten ahead of myself. Let me go back to the beginning, or rather the beginning of the end, to before Mom’s diagnosis, when she started to get sick and we didn’t know why.
Appointment in Samarra
Mom and I loved opening lines of novels. “The small boys came early to the hanging” was one of our favorites, from Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth. How could you not go on reading? And the first sentence of John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany: “I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.” And E. M. Forster’s first line in Howard’s End: “One may as well begin with Helen’s letters to her sister.” It’s the “may as well” that draws you in—casual, chatty even, yet it gives the reader a strong sense that there’s a lot of story to come.
Some novelists start with opening lines that foretell the major action of the book; some begin with hints; others with words that simply set a scene or describe a character, showing the reader a world before a deluge—with no hint as to what is to come. What never needs to be written is: “Little did she know her life was about to change forever.” Many authors adopt something like this when they want to create suspense. The truth is that people never realize their lives are about to change in unforeseen ways—that’s just the nature of unforeseen ways.
We were no different.
The year 2007 had begun with Mom and Dad spending some weeks in Vero Beach, Florida, a place Mom discovered late in life and loved. I remember now with some guilt repeating to her a line I’d heard a comedian say about Florida: “It’s where old people go to die and then don’t.”
All of us were scheduled to visit at one point or another, and everyone in the family was, at the time, happily busy. My brother, Doug, had just produced a new film version of Lassie, Come Home. My sister, Nina, was working for the TB Alliance, fighting the spread of tuberculosis around the world. I was getting David Halberstam’s book on the Korean War ready for publication and was also promoting a book about email that I’d written with a friend. Dad was busy with his business representing concert artists: conductors, singers, and musicians. We obsessed about the anxieties and minor tiffs and tiny ailments (toothaches, headaches, insomnia) that all people have. And then there were birthdays to remember and events to be planned and travel arrangements to be made and schedules to be shared. With my family, there was a ceaseless flow of requests, made of one another on behalf of our friends and causes: Could we come to a fund-raiser? Could we make an introduction? Could we recall the name of the woman at the concert who was wearing the red dress? We also bombarded one another with recommendations, often phrased as commandments: You must see . . . You must read . . . You must watch . . . The bulk of these came from Mom.
If our family was an airline, Mom was the hub and we were the spokes. You rarely went anywhere nonstop; you went via Mom, who directed the traffic flow and determined the priorities: which family member was cleared for takeoff or landing. Even my father was not immune to Mom’s scheduling, though he was given more leeway than the rest of us. The frustration among us offspring had to do with how carefully everything needed to be planned. Just as one late plane can throw off the whole operation of an airport, resulting in backed-up flights and people sleeping in corridors, so, Mom felt, any change could throw our lives into chaos. My brother, sister, and I were, as a result, mildly terrified of making even the smallest alterations to plans once they had been discussed with Mom.
When I called Mom in Florida that February to let her know I’d decided to take an afternoon flight from New York instead of a morning one as we’d previously discussed, she first just said, “Oh,” but I could hear a massive hint of exasperation in her voice. Then she added: “I was thinking that if you got in that morning, we could go see the couple next door for lunch; they leave that evening, so if you’re on the later flight, then you won’t be able to see them at all. I suppose we could ask them over for coffee in the afternoon, but that would mean that we couldn’t go to Hertz to add you to the registration on the car, and then I would need to drive to Orlando to pick up your sister. But it’s okay. I’m sure we can figure out how to make it all work.”
Mom didn’t confine herself to coordinating our lives. She was also helping to coordinate, almost always at their request, the lives of hundreds of others: at her church, at the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children (she’d been the founding director), at the International Rescue Committee (she’d been board-staff liaison and founded the IRC’s UK branch), and at all the other myriad organizations where she’d worked or served on boards. She’d been director of admissions at Harvard when I was growing up—and then a college counselor at one New York school and head of the high school at another—and she remained in contact with hundreds of former students and colleagues. There were also the refugees she’d met in her travels all over the world, and with whom she kept in touch. And there were all her other friends, too—who ranged from childhood intimates to people who’d happened to sit next to her on a plane or cross town bus. My mother was always introducing, scheduling, weighing in, guiding, advising, consoling. Sometimes she said it exhausted her—but it was pretty obvious that mostly she loved it.
One of the organizations Mom was busiest with was a foundation to help establish libraries in Afghanistan. She fell in love with that country and its people the first time she went there, in 1995, going across the Khyber Pass from Pakistan to report on the conditions of refugees. She went back to Afghanistan nine times, always for the Women’s Commission or the International Rescue Committee (which is the Women’s Commission’s parent organization), to learn ever more about the changing plight of refugees there; then she would come back to the United States and advocate for policies that would help them, especially policies attuned to the lives and needs of women and children. Her trips on behalf of refugees took her not just to Kabul, and not just all over Afghanistan—including to Khost, where she spent the night in a run-down guesthouse, the only woman among twenty-three mujahideen warriors—but all over the world, including to most of the countries in Southeast Asia and West Africa.
This year, while in Florida, she was in constant contact with a man named John Dixon, an old Afghan hand who knew as much about the country as almost anyone and was helping achieve the vision of a person who knew even more than he did: a seventy-nine-year-old woman named Nancy Hatch Dupree, who for decades had divided her time between Kabul and Peshawar. Mom and John, both of whom had met with Nancy many times in Pakistan and Afghanistan, were working together to form a U.S. foundation to help Nancy raise money for a national cultural center and library—something Afghanistan didn’t have—to be built at Kabul University, and for mobile libraries for villages all over the country, bringing books in Dari and Pashto to people who’d rarely or never seen a book in their own language if they’d seen a book at all. Nancy and her husband, who’d died in 1988, had amassed a collection without rival of 38,000 volumes and documents on the crucial last thirty years of Afghan history. So she had the books; what was missing was money and support.
In the spring of 2007, Mom was given the opportunity to join an International Rescue Committee delegation to Pakistan and Afghanistan, and everything seemed to be coming together nicely: in Peshawar and Kabul, she’d be able to spend a lot more time with Nancy to firm up a plan for raising money for the libraries. While in many families it would be big news if one member was to up and visit one of the most dangerous places on earth—a place where Mom had previously been shot at (though she always said they were shooting at the tires, not at her), where she had met with the military leader Ahmed Shah Massoud (who was later assassinated by two suicide bombers), where the Taliban still controlled much of the country, and where more than two hundred members of the U.S. and Coalition forces would die before the year was out—for our family it was business as usual. I can’t recall if I even remembered Mom was going there, she traveled so much.
So we didn’t expect anything would be different this time she went traveling; nor did we suspect anything would be different when she returned sick. She was no sicker than she usually was after a visit to a war-torn land. She came back from most of her work trips—Liberia, Sudan, East Timor, Gaza, Côte d’Ivoire, Laos, to name a few—with some kind of ailment: a cough, exhaustion, headaches, a fever. But she would simply soldier on with her busy life until her various ailments faded away.
There had certainly been occasions when Mom came back from a trip sick and stayed sick for a long while. There was a cough she acquired in Bosnia that lasted about two years, becoming so much a part of her that we noticed it only when it suddenly disappeared. And there were various skin ailments: spots, bumps, and rashes. But in all those cases, she didn’t get sicker. She came home sick and stayed sick until she got well or until everyone, including her, forgot that she’d ever been better.
We always insisted that Mom see doctors—and she did: her GP, and various tropical disease experts, and occasionally other specialists. But except for a frightening bout with breast cancer that was detected early enough that surgery sufficed and no chemotherapy was required, and a gallbladder that needed to be removed, she’d never had anything else seriously wrong with her. The assumption was always that there was nothing the matter with Mom that couldn’t be cured if only she would slow down.
Which she wouldn’t.
We all also believed that if Mom would just once take a full course of antibiotics, she would rid herself forever of all her travel-related ailments. I don’t know if it was thrift or stubbornness or distrust of medicines, but after consuming half the prescription, she would save the rest for later, which was maddening. Even reminding her that she might be creating a superbug didn’t have much effect.
The summer of 2007, however, Mom stayed sick. Fairly quickly, every doctor and specialist confirmed what she had: hepatitis. She was turning yellow; the whites of her eyes were the color of organic egg yolks—not the pale yellow of supermarket eggs, but blood-tinged gold. She was losing weight and had no appetite. And it was fairly obvious where she’d contracted the hepatitis, since she’d just come back from Afghanistan. Something she ate, perhaps. Or some shower water getting in her mouth. But the doctors at first couldn’t figure out what type of hepatitis it was. Not A, not B, not C—not even D. They thought that it might, perhaps, be the very rare hepatitis E. Still, even the fact that no one was completely sure what strain Mom had wasn’t much of a worry. If we couldn’t understand Afghanistan’s complicated political and religious situation, did we really expect to have identified every weird virus and disease you could pick up there?
Her doctors were not incautious—early on, they did tests to rule out other things and felt pretty confident that they had ruled them out. They provided some recommendations: she would need to rest and also not drink any alcohol (for her not a big deal, although she did like a glass of wine with dinner, and champagne at celebrations). That was all.
The summer progressed, however, with Mom getting progressively sicker. She was tired. And she was aggravated to be tired, and to have hepatitis, and not to be feeling herself. She didn’t complain, but to those closest to her, she occasionally noted it. Now that I think back, every mention she made of her hepatitis sounds ominous. She would occasionally say to my father or to one of us something like “I don’t know why they can’t figure out what’s wrong with me.” Or “I rest and rest and never feel rested.” Nevertheless, she pushed herself to do just about everything she wanted to do.
Did she ever really rest? It was difficult to say. For her, a “lazy” day was one devoted to catching up on email or “attacking” her desk (always the word she used, as though it were a paper-spewing monster that needed to be fought lest it take over and destroy everything in its path). Only when she was reading was she truly still.
Watching Mom struggle to keep up with the demands of her life caused tension to build in the rest of the family. We couldn’t get mad at her for not feeling well and for refusing to relax, so we got far more annoyed at one another than we usually did for all sorts of little crimes: being early, being late, forgetting a birthday, making a sarcastic comment, buying the wrong flavor of ice cream. We tried to keep Mom from overhearing these squabbles but didn’t always succeed. She was usually able to solve them, dismiss them, or referee them—which made the combatants feel guilty for having quarreled at all.
This summer was a busy one, and neither Mom nor I was able to read the way we liked to during summers— that is, most of the day, day after day, indoors and outside, at home or at the vacation houses of friends—so we tended toward short books. I read On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan, which even a slow reader can start and finish in an afternoon. Mom had it on her list of books to read and asked me what I thought.
We’d both read several novels by Ian McEwan over the years. McEwan’s earlier works feature a catalog of cruelties, including sadism and torture. Mom had spent so much time in war zones, she said, that she was drawn to books that dealt with dark themes, as they helped her understand the world as it is, not as we wish it would be. I’m drawn to books with dark themes mostly because I always feel better about my life in comparison. In his more recent novels, however, McEwan had become less extreme, if not exactly cheery. On Chesil Beach was his latest and had just been published.
In some ways, On Chesil Beach is an odd book to discuss with your seventy-three-year-old mother—given that it involves a just-married couple in 1962 about to have sex for the first time, and describes their disastrously clumsy and messy attempt in vivid detail. That, I didn’t mention to her. Instead I talked about the book’s fascinating and melancholy coda, which explains what will happen to each of the two main characters. On Chesil Beach had moved me so much that I didn’t want to pick up a new book for a while.
“I wonder if things could have turned out differently,” I added, after I told her about the couple’s fate. The great thing about knowing that my mother always read the ends of books first was that I never had to worry about spoiling them.
“I don’t know,” Mom answered. “Maybe not. But maybe the characters think that things could have turned out differently. Maybe that’s why you found it so sad.”
We continued talking about the book for a little while, with me still neglecting to mention the pivotal sex scene—not because Mom was prudish but because I have the classic child’s horror of having such subjects discussed in the presence of my parents. (I remember vividly the trauma of seeing Peter Shaffer’s play Equus with Mom and Dad when I was thirteen. At the point when the boy and girl take off all their clothes and attempt to have sex, I’d wanted to become a pattern on the seat’s upholstery.)
Eventually our discussion on that July day returned from my thoughts on the McEwan book to family logistics—who would be where when. Then, at some point, as in most conversations that summer, Mom said that she still couldn’t get rid of the hepatitis, that she still wasn’t herself, that she didn’t have much of an appetite, and that she felt not great. But she was sure, sure, that she would soon feel better, regain her appetite, get stronger. It was only a matter of time. Meanwhile, there was just too much to do—for family, friends, and the libraries to be built in Afghanistan. All needed her attention, and she loved giving it. If only she felt a bit better.
That August the whole family (my brother and his wife; my sister and her partner; me and mine; all five grandchildren) and several friends traveled to Maine to celebrate Dad’s eightieth birthday. Mom had organized just about everything and was at almost every event: group breakfasts, a boat trip, and a visit to the Rockefeller Garden in Seal Harbor.
Dad was then, and still is, hardy. He has a full head of hair. Once portly, he’s now slimmer than many of his friends. He may puff a little when climbing stairs, and he’s by no means what people call a sportsman, but he likes to garden and go on long walks and be outside. He’s not fussy—he prefers quirky old restaurants that have seen better days to fancy ones—but he does like a level of comfort. He also likes baroque music and action movies, roadside diners, and having time and leisure to read books on the British Raj. He’s completely uninterested in schools and real estate, which were two of Mom’s favorite topics, and while he’s capable of chatting with great charm about topics that amuse him, he also loves to challenge others when he’s decided they’re spouting nonsense. He’s happiest when it’s a little chilly and a bit misty. And he also likes lobsters and a good clambake, as do we all. So Maine was the perfect place to celebrate his birthday.
But in the midst of all the shore dinners and boat rides and enjoying Maine sunsets with a drink firmly in hand, all the adults, especially Dad, noticed how much Mom was struggling, a fact she was determined no one should acknowledge until the weekend was over.
She looked increasingly drawn and weary. Her skin wasn’t more yellow, but she was thinner and her face was more creased; her cheeks sagged, making her perpetual smile seem slightly pensive. Still, all the lines seemed to disappear when the grandchildren marched in front of her on one mission or another. During that trip, Mom turned to me one evening and said that it was hard to imagine herself or ourselves any luckier.
What had gone so terribly awry for the people in McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, one character thought, was that they’d never had love and patience at the same time. We had both.
The last morning of our stay, which was in a sprawling, shingle-style, classic Maine hotel, I came down to find Mom on the porch with the four younger grandchildren around her. She was reading them a story. It was a crisp Maine summer morning. I pulled out my iPhone and hastily snapped a few pictures. I remember realizing that Nico, the oldest grandchild, wasn’t in the picture. I mean, why would he be? At sixteen, he wouldn’t have been listening to his grandmother reading a picture book.
I ran to his room and told him I needed him—so he unplugged himself, put down his own book, and followed.
We walked together to the porch, and then Nico joined the crew so I could get a picture of Mom with all five of her grandchildren. I’m not sure why I felt compelled at that moment to do it. I never take photographs. Maybe I sensed that something was about to happen beyond the control of love, patience, or any of us, and this was my last chance to fix time.
The final weekend of the summer, mid-September, my partner, David, and I spent with a friend who always rented a particular house on the beach in Quogue, about two hours from Manhattan, on Long Island.
Mom loved when I told her about visiting this friend, because the house belonged to John O’Hara’s daughter, Wylie, and to O’Hara himself before that. O’Hara was one of Mom’s favorite authors. The house was a ramshackle Cape on a rapidly crumbling bluff overlooking the beach and ocean, and it had the perfect porch for lying around and reading. Not surprisingly, the bookshelves were fi lled with John O’Hara books. On this visit, I’d decided to cheat on the book I’d brought and read O’Hara instead.
First, though, I’d figured I better find out a bit about O’Hara. I learned from books in the house that O’Hara was born in 1905 in Pottsville, Pennsylvania. His father was a distinguished Irish doctor, and the family was able to send him to Yale. But his father died when he was at college, and his mother couldn’t afford to continue to pay his tuition, so that was the end of Yale for him. The experience of having to drop out gave O’Hara a lifelong obsession with money, class, and social exclusion. He first drew notice in 1928, during Mom’s parents’ era, writing stories on these themes for The New Yorker, and then, in 1934, at age twenty-nine, he wrote Appointment in Samarra, which made him famous. Mom said that O’Hara was, at first, someone she was told she should read and then soon became someone whose books she eagerly awaited.
When I got back to the city after my Quogue weekend, my father was in the hospital with septic bursitis in his elbow, having let it swell to the size of a small grapefruit before Mom made him seek emergency-room treatment. I called Mom to get the update. He hated being in the hospital, but he was doing well.
“So I finally read Appointment in Samarra,” I told her. “I’d always thought that book had something to do with Iraq.”
Appointment in Samarra is not set in Samarra or anywhere else in the Middle East but in the fictional town of Gibbsville, Pennsylvania, in the 1930s. The novel tells the story of a young married car dealer named Julian English, who thinks he has all the right breeding and connections and who impulsively throws a drink in the face of a wealthier and more powerful man whom he loathes for no good reason. Three days later, and after two additional impulsive acts—including making a pass at the girlfriend of a gangster—Julian has lost literally everything.
“I can’t believe you hadn’t read it. And it does apply to Iraq, even if that’s not at all what it’s about. It’s a book about setting things in motion and then being too proud and stubborn to apologize and to change course. It’s about thinking that being raised a certain way gives you the right to behave badly. It seems Bush was fated to get us into a war there no matter what.” Mom was not a fan of our then-president, and she was horrified that he’d used al Qaeda and 9/11 as a pretext for invading Baghdad. Dad sometimes played devil’s advocate to Mom’s most liberal views, but on this subject he felt similarly, and they’d both taken recently to sharing books dissecting American foreign policy.
As we talked more about Appointment in Samarra, we soon found ourselves discussing the book’s epigraph, which is, in fact, a speech from a play by W. Somerset Maugham, a writer on whose stories we would both later jointly binge. Maugham’s parable is a retelling of a classic Iraqi tale. The speaker is Death:
There was a merchant in Baghdad who sent his servant to
market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant
came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now
when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in
the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled
me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture;
now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city
and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death
will not find me. The merchant lent him his horse, and the
servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as
fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant
went down to the market-place and he saw me standing
in the crowd and he came to me and said, Why did you
make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw
him this morning? That was not a threatening gesture, I
said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see
him in Baghdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight
Later, we would have more time and cause to talk about fate and the role it did or didn’t play in the events of our lives—particularly in the events that lay ahead. But during that phone call in September, my mother and I soon moved on to other topics. When it sounded like the conversation was drawing to a close, Mom had one more thing she wanted to mention.
“I just wanted to let you know that your sister is insisting I see another doctor and go in for more tests.” The new doctor was going to do another scan and try to determine why she couldn’t get rid of the hepatitis.
“That sounds like a good idea, Mom.”
Then we were back to me. “And are you going to get some rest?” she asked.
“There’s so much to do before I leave,” I hedged. “I don’t know how I’m going to get it all done.” At the time, I was editor in chief of a book publishing house, and was headed, as I was every year, to Germany for the Frankfurt Book Fair, which is held the first week in October.
“You can only do what you can, and what doesn’t get done, just doesn’t get done.” Mom was forever giving me advice that she would never herself take.
“Mom, I promise to take it easier if you do—we’ll make a deal. But it sounds like no matter what, it’s going to be a very challenging couple of days for you, especially when you’re still not feeling well.”
Every day, Mom was at the hospital for a few hours with Dad. Friends she adored were in town from London, so she was spending time with them. She was also planning to drive hours out of town with them to visit another friend, who had a brain tumor and had just been told he had anywhere from three months to two years to live. Then, at the end of the week, she had her appointment with the new doctor.
I realize now that all of us had reached a mad, feverish pitch of activity in the days leading up to Mom’s diagnosis. Dinners, drinks, visits, benefits, meetings, scheduling, picking up, dropping off, buying tickets, yoga, going to work, cardio at the gym. We were terrified to stop, stop anything, and admit that something was wrong. Activity, frenzied activity, seemed to be the thing we all felt we needed. Only Dad slowed down, and that wasn’t until he was trapped in a hospital getting intravenous antibiotics. Everything would be all right, everything would be possible, anything could be salvaged or averted, as long as we all kept running around.
While I was at the Frankfurt Book Fair a week later, just before heading off to co-host a table full of publishing pals for dinner, my mother called to tell me that she almost certainly had cancer. The hepatitis wasn’t viral; it was related to a tumor in her bile duct. It would be good news if the cancer was only there, but it was far more likely that it had started in the pancreas and spread to the bile duct, which would not be good news at all. There were also spots on her liver. But I was not to worry, she said, and I was certainly not to cut my trip short and come home.
I can’t remember much of what I said, or what she replied. But she soon changed the subject—she wanted to talk to me about my job. I’d recently told her that I’d become weary of my work, for all the same boring reasons privileged people get sick of their white-collar jobs: too many meetings, too much email, and too much paperwork. Mom told me to quit. “Just give two weeks’ notice, walk out the door, and figure out later what to do. If you’re lucky enough to be able to quit, then you should. Most people aren’t that fortunate.” This wasn’t a new perspective that came from the cancer—it was vintage Mom. As much as she was devoted to intricate planning in daily life, she understood the importance of occasionally following an impulse when it came to big decisions. (But she also recognized that not everyone was dealt the same cards. It’s much easier to follow your bliss when you have enough money to pay the rent.)
After we hung up, I didn’t know if I would be able to make it through the dinner. The restaurant was about a mile from my hotel. I walked to clear my head, but my head didn’t clear. I confi ded the news about Mom’s cancer to my co- host, a good friend, but to no one else. I had a feeling of dizziness, almost giddiness. Who was this person drinking beers and eating schnitzel and laughing? I didn’t allow myself to think about Mom—what she was feeling; whether she was scared, sad, angry. I remember her telling me on that call that she was a fighter and that she was going to fight the cancer. And I remember telling her I knew that. I don’t think I told her I loved her then. I think I thought it would sound too dramatic—as though I were saying goodbye.
When I got back to my hotel after dinner, I looked around the room and then out the window. The river Main was barely visible under the city streetlights; it was a rainy night, so the roadway glistened in such a way that the lines between the river, the sidewalk, and the street were obscured. The hotel housekeeping staff had folded my big, fluffy white duvet into a neat rectangle. Beside my bed was a stack of books and some hotel magazines. But this was one of the nights when the printed word failed me. I was too drunk, too confused, too disoriented—by the hour of night, and also by the knowledge that my family’s life was changing now, forever—to read. So I did the hotel room thing. I turned on the TV and channel-surfed: from the glossy hotel channel to the bill channel (had my minibar item from the night before really cost that much?) to Eurosport and various German channels, before settling on CNN and the familiar faces and voices of Christiane Amanpour and Larry King.
When Mom and I later talked about that night, she was surprised at one part of my story: that I had watched TV instead of reading. Throughout her life, whenever Mom was sad or confused or disoriented, she could never concentrate on television, she said, but always sought refuge in a book. Books focused her mind, calmed her, took her outside of herself; television jangled her nerves.
There’s a W. H. Auden poem called “Musée des Beaux Arts,” written in December 1938, just after Kristallnacht. In it is a description of a painting by Brueghel, in which the old master depicts Icarus falling from the sky while everyone else, involved in other things or simply not wanting to know, “turns away / quite leisurely from the disaster” and goes about daily tasks. I thought about that poem a lot over the next few days of the fair as I chatted about books, kept my appointments, and ate frankfurters off cardboard-thin crackers. The poem begins, “About suffering they were never wrong, / The Old Masters: how well they understood / Its human position; how it takes place / While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.” While at the fair, I felt the “someone else” was me. Mom was suffering; I was going on with my life.
I did manage to talk with my brother and sister, their spouses, and Dad (now out of the hospital and fully recovered), and David. All of us were saying hopeful things to each other: there was cause for alarm but no reason to panic. And yet the calls were exponential—every conversation was relayed to everyone else, leading to ever more calls, calls upon calls, calls about calls. We all spent time on the Web and read the same grim things about this particularly vicious cancer. But there were more tests to be done. It was still early. There was a lot to learn. No one should jump to any conclusions.
“Are you sure I shouldn’t come home right away, Mom?” I asked each time when I spoke to her from the trip.
“Don’t be silly,” she said. “Enjoy yourself.” In one conversation, she finally relayed exactly how she got the news—and talked about the first oncologist she’d visited, to whom she and my sister had taken an instant dislike when he’d asked Mom if she worked outside the home. Mom said to me, “Do you think a doctor would ever ask a man that?” She told me that Nina had been amazing—organizing, arranging, asking all the right questions. My sister had spent years working in Soviet Russia and had learned there how to push when necessary.
“The lesson of all of this . . . ” Mom began, and then paused. I waited. I couldn’t imagine what the lesson was. “The lesson is this,” she continued. “Relief organizations need to tell people who have gone on trips to places like Afghanistan not to assume that any sickness they get while there or after is related to the trip. It may just be a coincidence. We need to make sure people understand that.”
This was the silver lining? A new protocol for humanitarian aid workers returning from overseas trips to exotic locales?
“Also, I have a favor to ask,” Mom added. “Bring me back a wonderful book from the book fair. And your father could use a new book too.”
I grabbed too many books to carry home and then tried to figure out which I would put in my luggage and which I would mail, but all I could think about was whether things could have been different if we’d made Mom see more doctors earlier, or whether, perhaps, she’d had an appointment in Samarra and nothing could have changed that.