Crossing to Safety 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
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
“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
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
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
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
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
“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
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
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
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
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
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 in
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
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
“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
“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
“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
Excerpted from "The End of Your Life Book Club" by Will Schwalbe. Copyright © 0 by Will Schwalbe. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.