15 April 2015

When Your Genre Kryptonite Has Its Own Kryptonite

One of my “genre kryptonites” – i.e. the genre of book guaranteed to part me from my money – are books about books, specifically of the memoir variety.

Read a book a day for a year (Nina Sankovitch’s Tolstoy and the Purple Chair)? Sure.

Your dad reads to you every night from grade school until college (Alice Ozma’s The Reading Promise)? Yep.

Examine all your childhood heroines and how they are helpful or problematic (Rebecca Ellis’s How to Be a Heroine)? Yes!

Decide to “better” yourself by reading 50 specific books (Andy Miller’s The Year of Reading Dangerously)? Yes, HarperPerennial, you know me well.

Examine how your relationship to a specific work of literature has changed as you age (Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch)? Yep, yep, yep.

And (my personal, current favorite), read one book from EVERY country in the world in ONE YEAR (Ann Morgan’s The World Between Two Covers (US)/Reading the World (UK))? HELLZ YES.

Gimmie. I will take them all. Hand them over.

Until I can barely force myself to read the blurb of a particular book.

On the first Sunday of December 2011, I was working at the bookstore. It was the holidays, there were more customers than would seem to fit into the aisles, then my brother called. He told me to get off the sales floor and go to the back – he wouldn’t tell me why. When I did, he told me he was at the emergency room, with my parents, and my mother had been diagnosed with a brain tumor.

My manager told me to go to the ER to be with my family. Immediately. Once there, I convinced the doctor to show me the CT scan. The tumor looked like a small golf ball lodged in the back of her right ventricle. Over the next week Mom underwent brain surgery, rehab to make sure she was regaining her balance and strength, and the critical meeting with her oncologist and radiation specialists.

My mother was diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme, grade IV. A tumor that is perhaps two percent of brain cancers which are only two percent of all cancers diagnosed in one year. Aggressive, very aggressive. Insidious, hard to get “margin” surgically. The best clinical trial evidence said that half of all patients are still alive eighteen months after diagnosis. We were lucky in that my parents live near one of the best teaching hospitals in the country and that my day job is there as well, working in research for the hospital epidemiologist. I knew Mom’s surgeon was the best we could hope for, my boss is neighbors with her oncologist. She was in good hands. We counted off the days of radiation treatments, watched her white cell counts, bought her books (and a Nook – Mom had a noticeable decrease in her field of vision so it was easier for a while to read “one page” at a time with larger print on a tablet than navigate the pages of a paper book), counted out chemotherapy pills, and we waited to see what would happen.

That fall, a book was published that should have been in my wheelhouse, The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe. When his mother was diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer, they began to read and discuss the same books. All sorts of books, up until her death two years later.

When I had to stock the store display with shiny new hardcovers of The End of Your Life Book Club I could barely open the packing case. Ordinarily, I’d have been all over a book like this, happily reading a personal account of books read. I would likely cry over what would probably be a beautiful rendering of a mother-son relationship. Instead, reading the first paragraph of the blurb made me feel nauseated. I couldn't read a memoir about a mom-who-liked-to-read dying of cancer. I couldn't – in a rational world, I could, but my irrational mind was worried that it might jinx my own mother’s treatment.

My genre kryptonite had developed its own kryptonite: my mother.

Three years later, Mom is doing better than anyone could have predicted. She wasn't able to go back to work as a parish administrator, but she has started playing the organ for church again (on occasion, it’s still too much to prepare for two services every week). She helps my nieces practice their piano lessons. Her balance isn't, and will never be, back to normal but as long as we make sure the kids don’t leave toys in her path it’s fine. She’s still my mom. All these extra months and years are a gift.

The End of Your Life Book Club is now out in paperback, it’s been included in promotional sales, and a few copies of the hardcover have popped up in the bargain bin. And I still won’t read it. Not even the first paragraph. I wish Schwalbe all the best, but I will probably never read his book.

There will be other books about books to make me weak-at-the-knees. And that is just fine.

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