Tammy, Books, Life and Death

by - October 10, 2012

I'm reading The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe. I'm not sure there's ever a good time to read this book, and now is certainly not a good time for me. My husband is a cancer survivor. I lived it—I don't need to read the book. My aunt has one of those types of cancer that, as Schwalbe's mother says, "is treatable but not curable." Auntie Lynne has done eight years of "treatable" and recently progressed to "not curable."

My best friend will kill me when she finds out I'm reading it. She—Tammy—is Auntie Lynne's daughter, my cousin. She will want to kill me again when I tell her she needs to read it, too. I know she will love it. But she won't. Read it, that is. At least not now.

That's because Tammy's a normal person who can only take so much sadness at once. I, on the other hand, am not a normal person at all. I am the kind of person who grabs Angela's Ashes off the nightstand to take to the hospital when her two year old is running 105.5 fever for five days without being able to detect the cause. Yes, I read it at Noelle's hospital bedside, as depressing as it is. I cried for poor little Frank McCourt, my sick Noelle, and the beauty of them both in their respective diminished states. They both would rise.

I've done this on many occasions, heaped sadness upon sadness, with books to my life. I read Walking Taylor Home, a father's account of losing his young son to bone cancer mere weeks after my husband's bone marrow transplant. I have never been good at looking away from pain. I cried mourning for Taylor's loss and cried relief for Mike's victory in the same tears, and they healed me.

It's funny how an honest story can do that.

Maybe that's why I do this to myself and read through grief and joy and pain and promise. Books dot my life: John Jakes on my honeymoon,  Billy Graham's autobiography Just As I Am while Mike's chemo dripped slowly, The Other Bolyn Girl jockeyed for position in King Henry VIII's court while my children found their own pecking order wrestling each other in the pool that hot summer. A skyped bible study over Beth Moore's To Live is Christ laid on top of Auntie Lynne's hospice care.

The End of Your Life Book Club is a son's story of his mother's cancer and the books that wove their lives together tightly through all the years and her last battle.

The son is a book publisher and knows good writing.

He describes a close family friend, thusly:
He [Bob] was the smartest and best-read person any of us had ever know, but he wore his learning so lightly and had the ability to make everyone around him feel smart and well-read.

Having lost my brother too soon, and now watching from afar Tammy let go of her mother, I embraced this passage wanting it to never to leave me:

No one in the family has ever really gotten over Bob's death. We talk of him daily, recounting stories and imagining what his reaction would be to new books and recent events. He remains for my family the perfect model of how you can be gone but ever present in the lives of people who loved you, in the same way that your favorite books stay with you for your entire life, no matter how long it's been since you turned the last page. When I talked with Mom about Bob, I wondered if I would be able to talk about her the same way when she was no longer here.

And this:

[Books] help us talk. But they also give us something we all can talk about when we don't want to talk about ourselves.

Books can make us brave enough to stare back at life. They complement our lives and interrupt them. They soften the blow and twist the knife. Both books and life are bitter and better when shared with someone you love.

Tammy and I have been reading books together and swapping reading recommendations since Nancy Drew on Girl Scout stationery, our whole lives just like this mother and son. We are the book club with the dying mother.

Schwalbe says:

Hospitals are interruption factories. ... Mom didn't like being interrupted. ... I don't like being interrupted either—but I interrupt other people. I often forget that other people's stories aren't simply introductions to my own more engaging, more dramatic, more relevant, or better-told tales, but rather ends in themselves, tales I can learn from or repeat or dissect or savor.

So, Tammy, if you're still reading (which I'm sure you're not—only I would do such a peculiar thing), I'm here for the interrupting. If you don't want to talk about life, we can talk about the books.  Both life and books, even when ridiculously in sync with one another, will bring us tales we will learn from, repeat, dissect and savor.

Life: Unmasked

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  1. I find that books help me process my grief often -- they get the sadness out when I cannot seem to let it naturally escape.

  2. I was always the kid who stayed up to the wee hours of the morning because I couldn't put the books down. The Hiding Place - I read and re-read asking God to grow that kind of faith in me. I dug into the pain and struggle of the people I read about - I lived their stories with them - thank you for sharing your story.

  3. Oh my, I love this story Dawn, you weaved it so beautifully. And I had an ah-ha moment when I read this bit of the quote: in the same way that your favorite books stay with you for your entire life, no matter how long it's been since you turned the last page. That is exactly why I want to be an author, an epiphany of sorts. So sorry for what your family is grieving in the waiting of loss. Thankful for the depth of relationship you have with your cousin. That is truly a gift.

  4. A massive tug on the heartstrings.

  5. A massive tug on the heartstrings.

  6. Somehow you always understand. You have always been able to paint the picture in words. I love you with all my heart and miss you. Thank you for walking this journey with me.

  7. In the West I don't think we know how to grieve unabashedly as many other cultures do, as people in the Bible grieved. Those books you read at grief times are a good way to open up the floodgates and let the grief out healthily. May God strengthen and comfort you through them.

  8. I believe there's a difference in grieving and mourning...I've given myself a year to grieve for Dave. That ends next month but the mourning will go on the rest of my life. A dark horse but not in front.

  9. You would be a great book club buddy, and your writing is beautiful. You have a way with words. Maybe that is why you enjoy reading so much. I admire your ability to jump in and read through the pain. This is a good lesson for me.

  10. this moved me so deeply. i love sad stories for the same reason. and angela's ashes is one of my staples. sadness somehow brings healing. thank you for this, for linking with imperfect prose. sharing.

  11. "It's funny how an honest story can do that."

    Yes, yes it is. You really hit this one of the park, friend.


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