The Japanese word, kokoro, means ‘heart’ … seeing the single word used as a chapter title in Will Schwalbe‘s The End of Your Life Book Club made mine go aflutter because this is a book about books, which meant the chapter must be a reference to the Japanese classic of the same name. And then the name “Edwin McClellan” appears – Schwalbe first read the “remarkable novel” Kokoro by Natsume Sōseki, in a college course taught by the book’s translator. And in the midst of what proves to be an extraordinary mother/son journey of fully, gratefully, mindfully living while dying, my heart bursts more than a little for the late Edwin McClellan, my beloved PhD advisor, who years later, I still mourn (and celebrate) in the most unexpected moments. For that memory and so much more, Book Club turns out to be a magnificent gift.
Schwalbe’s mother is dying of pancreatic cancer. Mary Anne has lived a remarkable life – more than half a century ago, she listened well to the words of her high school headmistress who “always said, ‘Girls, you can have a husband and a family and a career – you can do it all.”’ And when she went back years later to tell her headmistress she “‘had, indeed, managed to have it all … but that [she] was tired all the time,’” her headmistress replied with “‘Oh, dear – did I forget to mention that you can, indeed, have it all, but you need a lot of help!’” A story she told often, Mary Anne would always also add that “help could come in many forms” – family, spouse, friends, community.
Mary Anne’s ‘all’ included graduating from Radcliffe, where she eventually became the Director of Admissions at Harvard and Radcliffe, and the first woman president of the Harvard Faculty Club. She returned to New York where she became the founding director of the Women’s Refugee Commission and an advisor to the International Rescue Committee, traveling the world to difficult, decimated regions: “I couldn’t get Mom to admit that she’d ever been courageous,” her son writes, “The people she thought were brave were the people she sought to help and serve.” Throughout her illness, she never stopped helping and serving: her final project was to build a library in Afghanistan.
Books, Mary Anne knows, are integral to life: “‘When I think back on all the refugee camps I visited, all over the world, the people always asked for the same thing: books. Sometime even before medicine or shelter – they wanted books for their children.’” Books prove integral to her relationship with Schwalbe: ”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.” Their book club, which begins officially over mocha during one of Mary Anne’s chemo treatments at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, will sustain them both in the time that is left: “Reading is not the opposite of doing; it’s the opposite of dying.” In spite of the death you know from the title is inevitable, Book Club is perhaps one of most uplifting books you’ll ever read. It’s an open-hearted love letter from a child to his mother, a profound thank-you missive from an outstanding human being for a life exceptionally well-lived, an erudite appreciation for all kinds of literature, and perhaps a bit of unintended reminder of how to cherish and “practice gratitude” in our own daily lives.
“She never wavered in her conviction that books are the most powerful tool in the human arsenal, that reading all kinds of books, in whatever format you choose – electronic (even though that wasn’t for her) or printed, or audio – is the grandest entertainment, and also is how you take part in the human conversation. Mom taught me that you can make a difference in the world and that books really do matter: they’re how we know what we need to do in life, and how we tell others. Mom also showed me, over the course of two years, and dozens of books, and hundreds of hours in hospitals, that books can be how we get closer to each other, and stay close, even in the case of a mother and son who were very close to each other to begin with, and even after one of them has died.”
If books equal power, then books with kokoro will save the world. Something tells me that somehow, somewhere, Mary Anne and McClellan are working on that …
Tidbit: If you choose to stick Book in your ears, Jeff Harding makes for a heartfelt narrator overall, although some of his affected accents are … well, affected. Ironically, Schwalbe mentions that he “loathe[s]” most public readings because of “the phony, singsong reading voice that most writers adopt, a kind of spooky incantatory tone that implies they are reading a holy text in a language you don’t understand.” Well, Harding does a little of that – especially when quoting from Daily Strength for Daily Needs, which indeed includes holy text! – so be warned. If you choose on the page (as Mary Anne would have), the final pages list every book and author mentioned in the first 329 pages, in case you want to join the discussion. One tiny error that shook me a bit that no one else will probably even notice … Professor McClellan’s name, previously spelled correctly, is missing a letter on the penultimate page. He was not one to suffer mistakes (he threw me out of seminar once for starting to doze off), but he never held on to annoyance or anger for long (he filled me in when I slunk back into class, noted he had opened a window during my absence, and brusquely asked if I was okay, before continuing on). Another memorable lesson in kokoro …