Celebrating Full Lives

Two memoirs I’ve read recently provide inspiration for living con brioThe first is Until I Say Good-Bye: My Year of Living with Joy by Susan Spencer-Wendel and Bret Witter. Susan Spencer-Wendel has reported on Florida courts for the Palm Beach Post over the last 20 years. Now she has published a book about her diagnosis of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) and how she is using the limited time she has left. While still able, she investigated the lives of her birth parents and took special one-on-one trips with her husband, her three children, her sister and her best friend. Then with only one thumb still working, but all her reporting skills intact, she pecked out a remarkable memoir. This book could have been maudlin, but instead it reflects feisty intelligence and honest self-examination. She leaves a lasting legacy that inspires me to keep living life fully and to work harder on writing this blog with all ten fingers.

The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe celebrates the remarkable life of his mother, Mary Anne Schwalbe, who died on September 14, 2009, having lived fully for two years after a pancreatic cancer diagnosis.  Mary Anne graduated from Radcliffe in 1955 and  served as Director of Admissions for Harvard and Radcliffe in the 1970s. More recently she headed the Women’s Commission of the International Rescue Committee and initiated an effort to establish libraries in Afghanistan. Lifelong avid readers, Will and his mother used their time during chemo treatments at Sloan-Kettering to discuss their favorite books and read new ones together. The appendix lists no fewer than 150 titles they mentioned, though many just in passing. This book had me at the first chapter, entitled “Crossing to Safety,” in which they pondered my favorite novel by Wallace Stegner. Soon they were arguing about the central character in Herman Wouk’s early novel, Marjorie Morningstar, which I devoured in high school. I was thrilled to read that they liked Suite Francaise and The Elegance of the Hedgehog as much as I did, but chagrined at all the important books I’ve missed–The Year of Magical Thinking, Appointment in Samarra, and The Magic Mountain. Now I have a new list of intriguing titles.

When Will and his mother met with her oncologist, Will noted that they always skirted around “the big question.” The exact question they had is only implied, but it seems to be the hardest question of all: “when is enough treatment enough?” Will estimates that his mother’s last two years have cost thousands of dollars of her money, plus tens, if not hundreds of thousands of Medicare money. Mary Anne could afford such care and she stayed remarkably active until the final two months. At two events in her honor she was able to hear testimonials she clearly deserved. Looking ahead, if I am ever in a similar circumstance, I hope I will insist on opting for strictly palliative care sooner than she and her family did. I would love to live to see how my grandchildren develop, but I don’t want to use up all their inheritance or prolong everyone’s suffering. May Micah 6:8 be my guide:  “And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly (with regard to others in the same boat) and to love mercy (with regard to my family and friends) and to walk humbly with your God (why should my life be prolonged?).”

Schwalbe identifies great books and difficult questions. He also includes humor. Having helped organize my 50th high school reunion last summer, I especially appreciated this passage about a 55th high school reunion from John Updike’s My Father’s Tears: and Other Stories, a book Mary Anne and Will savored in her last weeks:

The list of our deceased classmates on the back of the program grows longer; the class beauties have gone to fat or bony-cronehood; the sports stars and non-athletes alike move about with the aid of pacemakers and plastic knees, retired and taking up space at an age when most of our fathers were considerably dead…..But we don’t see ourselves that way, as lame and old. We see kindergarten children–the same round fresh faces, the same cup ears and long-lashed eyes. We hear the gleeful shrieking during elementary-school recess and the seductive saxophones and muted trumpets of the locally bred swing bands that serenaded the blue-lit gymnasium during high-school dances.

Footnote: On July 12, I had lunch in Wellesley MA with my friend Ursula, who worked with Mary Anne Schwalbe on Harvard/Radcliffe admissions when Ursula co-chaired the Harvard Schools and Scholarships Committee in Houston. Ursula reports that the book is faithful to the person she knew years ago: “compassionate, lively, warm and committed.” Ursula is a friend I “inherited” from Suzanne Bush. Besides working with Harvard when she lived in Houston in the 70s, Ursula helped found the Rice Design Alliance, publishers of Citea quarterly about urban design that I love to read.

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