The End of Your Life Book Club

People are willing to talk about death but very few about dying. Mom, on the other hand, made it clear to all who asked her that she knew she had an incurable disease that was eventually going to kill her. Any mention of something a year off–the wedding of the child of a friend, for example–brought the subject to the fore. Mom would usually say that she would love to attend, if she was still here and well enough. Sometimes she’d candidly say that she didn’t think it likely that she would be around.

Some people continued to ignore the way Mom talked about her cancer. “I’m sure you’ll get better,” they would say. Or “You’ll beat this.” Or they would volunteer the story of a friend or relative or entertainer who had a miraculous recovery from something everyone had deemed hopeless and fatal.

When we talked about it, Mom occasionally expressed frustration. People weren’t listening. She wasn’t going to get better. But sometimes I think she was genuinely comforted and did consider that there could be a miracle. There were days when she wanted to talk about her death, and days when she didn’t. It could even switch minute to minute. It felt like being in a car with a driver who abruptly changes lanes without ever signaling. One minute we’d be talking about aspects of her funeral, then suddenly she’d be onto the television film of Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, and then, barely pausing to take a breath, she’d be right back at the funeral–no flowers in the church; Doug was to be in charge of all aspects of the service (they’d had extensive discussions already about what prayers would be read and what hymns would be sung); it should definitely not go one minute over an hour.

. . . A friend of a friend of mine from London had once visited new York and gotten sick. She spent her whole time in New York City cooped up in our friend’s apartment. At the end of a week watching U.S. television day and night, she announced she had finally gotten Yanks all figured out. “The thing about Americans,” she said, “is that you’re very concerned about everything all the time.”

Mom wasn’t. Part of what made her effective was that she worried about things sequentially. She did what she could for everything that concerned her but devoted the bulk of her attention to one major project at a time. In her last years, the one thing was to be the Afghan library. So every day was filled with phone calls and meetings to advance this cause. Brochures had to be designed and distributed and people invited to benefits. There were proposals to look over, and architectural concepts for the library building to assess, and questions about governance and the logistics of the traveling libraries to consider. Safety was always a priority. Mom told me that she was especially concerned about her friend and fellow board member David Rohde, the new York Times writer, as he was reporting for his book from Kandahar and was not embedded with the U.S. troops. “Mom,” I said one day, when she seemed particularly tired. “Everyone said it’s fine if you want to relax and stay at home and listen to music.”

“I know that,” Mom said. “And I really am going to slow down–just as soon as everything is set on the library. I’m just going to do a little more work trying to raise money for it, and then I’ll hand it all over.”

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