PBC: “The End of Your Life Book Club”

Progressive Book ClubWe will all be members of The End of Your Life Book Club at some point in our lives.

Perhaps we will be Will, a devoted son who spends that all-important quality time with his dying mother, or perhaps we will be Mary Anne, a strong, vibrant woman coming to terms with her own mortality, but either way, the book club has an empty chair waiting for all of us.

This, I know. I belong to that club.

At the time of the Progressive Book Club’s inception, I had a shelf-load of books on writing and a few memoirs that I wanted to get through. Reading two craft books and a memoir every quarter with a group of fellow writers seemed like a great way to do it.

But this book, The End of Your Life Book Club, was not on that list. I had never even heard of it.

One day, while fooling around with my new Kindle, the book simply fell into my lap, so to speak, as if it were meant for me to read. I was learning the ropes of my e-reader and came upon the e-loan program sponsored by my local library, and there it was, available and waiting to be my first download. Needless to say, the subject matter interested me and I checked it out.

The loan period was for two weeks, which is normally plenty of time for me to wolf down a 300-page book, but during that time things were hectic, and I was only able to read through the first quarter of it. I loved it, and ordered my own copy through Amazon. It was my story, or at least a reasonable facsimile, being told by someone else.

I am Will. Will I am. It’s uncanny.

Of course, being the opening-line freak that I am, when I began to read, I couldn’t help but take note of that first sentence. Although I was planning to peruse this in more of an “enjoyment” rather than “study” mode, the first sentence has always been something that will make or break a book for me—and I was nuts about it.

“We were nuts about the mocha in the waiting room at Memorial Sloan-Kettering’s outpatient care center.”

It was so simple, yet so revealing. That one line told me of the personality of the narrator (we were “nuts” indicated a relaxed playfulness, as opposed to “we liked”), it told me of the setting (a hospital), the severity of the situation (cancer, from the knowledge of Sloan-Kettering), and the frequency of visits (enough to know what the best coffee is). Somebody in the family was facing terminal cancer.

That’s what makes a good first sentence, in case you wondered.

And then a funny thing happened at the beginning of chapter two—an audible laugh escaped my lips—and that doesn’t happen too often.

“Mom and I loved opening lines of novels.”

I am Will. Will I am. And my mom is Mary Anne.

Mom and I have always been voracious readers, devouring books like children scarfing back candy, but over the past few years, that appetite has waned immensely. With her diagnosis of Alzheimer’s six years ago, Mom’s ability to follow or understand a book has diminished, and now the best that she can do is muster through the weekly newspaper.

To her, it’s a daily paper—the news is always…new. She’ll point out an event, a story about the Sopchoppy Worm Gruntin’ Festival, and say, “We should go to that this year,” then flip through the pages, read aloud the Sheriff’s Report, and make a remark about the woman who walked out of WalMart with a 52″ flatscreen (“Can you believe that?”).

A few minutes later, she’ll glance at the article about the Sopchoppy Worm Gruntin’ Festival again. “We should go to that this year.”

“Perhaps…if the weather’s good,” I answer back, as if it were the first time she had said it.

Needless to say, we don’t read as much anymore. Instead, we watch movies. They take less time, and Mom seems to keep up a little better, even though I have to explain the plot or re-introduce the characters every now and then.

Our list of movies is as prolific as Will and Mary Anne’s selection of books. As I laughed over their discussion on the silliness of Brat Farrar, with Mary Anne calling the “surprise” ending predictable—even if she hadn’t read the ending first—I empathized with Will, who “just liked it.” Mom and I have those disagreements about our film choices all the time.

I’m never really sure what Mom will be in the mood for, but she’s usually not too big on comedies, which I am. “This is stupid,” she huffs.

“Give it time, it’ll get better.” I attempt to coax her through the complaints before reluctantly giving up and scanning the guide for another movie. Ironically, she likes deep and thought-provoking films, but needs me to be there to answer questions. As I explain, we end up heading down a different road altogether by discussing things that are on her mind or bugging her—a cousin’s passing, or how we need to find her wedding ring.

It isn’t about the movies at all, but the time spent together. And it wasn’t about the books for Will and Mary Anne, either.

Mom was recently in the hospital for five days—an exhausting five days for the both of us. One Thursday afternoon, she went into respiratory distress due to the heavy pollen this year and was taken by ambulance to the hospital, with my sister riding along to keep her company. I followed in the car close behind, but by the time I arrived, she was in tears wondering where I was.

My heart broke in that moment and I didn’t leave her side for the rest of her stay.

The forced oxygen of the CPAP mask that Mom wore was loud, not to mention the alarm that went off every time she tried to adjust it. On top of that, the recliner in which I slept was as hard as cement and kept dropping down from full to half-recline. KLUNK! I didn’t experience an REM for five days, although at one point, I did doze for a few winks in her bed while she read the paper in the chair.

So by the time I reached the final chapter, Too Much Happiness, where Mary Anne was in the hospital breathing her last, I had somewhat just been there. Of course, our outcome was different for the moment, but my heart knew the feelings. I had much difficulty getting through that chapter.

And then, after the epilogue, I closed the book and heaved a tearful sigh, preparing for the journey ahead.

I realize that this isn’t your typical book review. As a matter of fact, it’s not a review at all—but then again, book clubs, like Will and Mary Anne’s, are not about reviewing books. They’re about having meaningful discussions on how each book made you feel…what you walked away with after being in someone else’s skin. They’re about spending time together and reacquainting yourselves at a deeper level.

Will wrote about that magical point that happens with only the very best books, when one becomes absorbed and obsessed and enters the “Can’t you see I’m in reading mode?” For me, it occurred with that very first, wonderfully expressive line. I told you it would make or break a book.

I can’t wait for the movie.


ML Swift

PBC (2) 150x225This post is part of the Progressive Book Club, which is held on the third Wednesday of each month. Join us as we study books on the craft of writing, with the occasional memoir or fictional novel added every third month.

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33 thoughts on “PBC: “The End of Your Life Book Club”

  1. Very poignant and touching, Mike. I had a feeling, as I was reading it, you would find it very personally relevent. It was a great selection. I too already had it on my to-read list and was glad to see it for a club selection. I loved the statement it made about the power of books–but I’ll leave that for my post.

    1. Thanks, Julie, and yes, it was an intentional choice on my part to help in my journey with Mom.

      A delightful read throughout (I think I wrote down all the books they read, and plan on many of them—I’ve already ordered two). Funny…painful…heartwarming.

      This is definitely one for a re-read.

  2. I read this back in January following spotting the book in the window of a bookstore in Geelong Australia. As soon as I could I ordered it and devoured it in about 3 sittings.

    Certainly not one of the books that I shall part with when we move house as it is a re-read. Like you I loved the start, that first sentence that drew me in. Written in such a gentle and honest way.

    A FAB choice!

    (What is the next PBC book?)

    1. VERY fab, as was your interpretation!

      The next book is going to be “How to Write Good,” by John Vorhaus. It is $5.99 through Amazon ($4.99 Kindle edition) and will be discussed on May 15th.

      Next…exciting news! There will be a giveaway for June’s PBC! An excellent book choice, I will announce it tomorrow on my blog, as well as the prizes.

      I’m also going to revamp a little and have a sign-up list made for EACH month. I found that many were unable to participate with the daily posting of The A-Z Challenge, but only a few let me know to take them off the list this month.

      Thanks as always for your steadfast dedication!

      1. Thanks for the next book title. A sign up for each month is good – I just need to be able to remember!

        I did wonder if the A-Z would have an impact on people taking part. I wrote my post several weeks ago, as I often do! I will stop by tomorrow to read all about June!

      2. Great! Also, if you want to follow my writer’s page on FB, I post all updates and announcements there.

        I’ll be using Rafflecopter, which runs on Javascript, but WordPress does not allow Javascript, so I’ll have the entry form posted on my writer’s page on FB. Just click the Facebook icon above to get to the page, then “Like.” 🙂

  3. Great review. I did think of you as I was reading, as well as myself. My review is coming tomorrow (P for Progressive Book Club, right?).

    1. I’m looking forward to it, Rebecca! I knew you told me you had it and was going to do one, so I figured it was something like that when I stopped by.

      Yep…P, Progressive, P, P, Progressive! (Like a cheer!)

  4. I’ve read such kind of books. Not this one. But I know the feeling. Books that really shake every single fiber of your being, from flesh to soul. Books that change you somehow and you never forget. They are always a great experience. 🙂

  5. Darn! it ate my comment.
    It’s a great experience to read books that reach so deep and touch so many fibers of our beings. I have not read this book but know the feeling. It’s unforgettable.

  6. Hi M.L 🙂 I haven’t posted about this book yet, I’m struggling a bit. Not because of the book but because of why I didn’t read it. I will post before tonight or perhaps tomorrow for P day (cop out…).

    I love your review or rather your feelings and connection to the story, it’s beautiful. It’s heart warming and heart breaking too. I don’t envy the journey you are on but it’s these journeys that are the pivotal to our connection and understanding of life and ourselves. I do look forward to reading this book when the time is right. 🙂

    Beautiful post 🙂

  7. Thanks, Lexie. I figured that many of you are very involved in A-Z this month, and I know how things are when several things hit at once. Yeah…P day sounds like a good PBC posting day! And don’t worry about missing. I’m going to have a separate link list for each month, which I think will be easier. Sign up on months you can do it, don’t for months you can’t.

    I’ll check with you tomorrow. 🙂

    1. ML- now I can’t find a list of people who are in the club to visit their blog and read their reviews. I’ve found a few that I visit fairly regularly but I know there are some I don’t know. I’d love to read their reviews! 🙂

      1. Oh, sorry! I just took that link list off a little bit ago! They are:


        and I think that’s all that did it this month.

      2. I see I haven’t hit them all. I’ll get there over the next couple of days.

    1. Lynda…thanks so much for your kind (and welcome) words. I try to approach the PBC as more of a book discussion group, inserting parts of the selection and how they affected me as a reader. I do like to write them in a different style, that’s for sure, and not your run-of-the-mill review. Thanks again!

      1. I’ve been trying to do that–make these real book club discussions, not actual reviews. I list them among reviews on my blog, but I clearly note “book club discussion”. Just in case anyone looks 😉

      2. Yeah, I have mine categorized under both “Book Reviews” and “Progressive Book Club.” Close enough. Yours are wonderful, might I add! 😀

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