From the book
Crossing to SafetyWe were nuts about the mocha in the waiting room at Memorial Sloan-Kettering's outpatient care center. The coffee isn't so good, and the hot chocolate is worse. But if, as Mom and I discovered, you push the "mocha" button, you see how two not-very-good things can come together to make something quite delicious. The graham crackers aren't bad either.
The outpatient care center is housed on the very pleasant fourth floor of a handsome black steel and glass office building in Manhattan on the corner of 53rd Street and Third Avenue. Its visitors are fortunate that it's so pleasant, because they spend many hours there. This is where people with cancer wait to see their doctors and to be hooked up to a drip for doses of the life-prolonging poison that is one of the wonders of the modern medical world. By the late autumn of 2007, my mother and I began meeting there regularly.
Our book club got its formal start with the mocha and one of the most casual questions two people can ask each other: "What are you reading?" It's something of a quaint question these days. More often in lulls of conversation people ask, "What movies have you seen?" or "Where are you going on vacation?" You can no longer assume, the way you could when I was growing up, that anyone is reading anything. But it's a question my mother and I asked each other for as long as I can remember. So one November day, while passing the time between when they took Mom's blood and when she saw the doctor (which preceded the chemo), I threw out that question. Mom answered that she was reading an extraordinary book, Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner.
Crossing to Safety, which was first published in 1987, is one of those books I'd always so intended to read that I spent years pretending not only that I'd actually read it but also that I knew more about its author than that he'd been born in the early years of the twentieth century and wrote mostly about the American West. I worked in book publishing for twenty-one years and, in various conversation lulls, got into the habit of asking people, especially booksellers, the name of their favorite book and why they loved it so much. One of the most frequently named books was and is always Crossing to Safety.
Raving about books I hadn't read yet was part of my job. But there's a difference between casually fibbing to a bookseller and lying to your seventy-three-year-old mother when you are accompanying her for treatments to slow the growth of a cancer that had already spread from her pancreas to her liver by the time it was diagnosed.
I confessed that I had not, in fact, read this book.
"I'll give you my copy when I'm finished," said my mother, who was always much thriftier than I am.
"That's okay, I have a copy," I told her, which was, in fact, true. There are certain books that I mean to read and keep stacked by my bedside. I even take them on trips. Some of my books should be awarded their own frequent-flier miles, they've traveled so much. I take these volumes on flight after flight with the best of intentions and then wind up reading anything and everything else (SkyMall! Golf Digest!). I'd brought Crossing to Safety on so many trips and returned it to my bedside unread so many times that it could have earned at least one first-class ticket to Tokyo on Japan Airlines.
But this time it would...
Author: Will Schwalbe
Will Schwalbe has worked in publishing (most recently as senior vice president and editor in chief of Hyperion Books); digital media, as the founder and CEO of Cookstr.com; and as a journalist, writing for various publications including The New York Times and the South China Morning Post. He is on the boards of Yale University Press and the Kingsborough Community College Foundation. He is the coauthor, with David Shipley, of Send: Why People Email So Badly and How to Do It Better.
"A wonderful book about wonderful books and mothers and sons and the enduring braid between them. Like the printed volumes it celebrates, this story will stay with you long after the last page." - Mitch Albom, author of Tuesdays with Morrie and The Time Keeper
"Will Schwalbe's lyrical tribute to a life well-lived and a death graced with love and literature is a precious gift bestowed on all of us. What a unique and beautiful book this is, and how privileged we are to have it." - Sherwin B. Nuland, author of The Art of Aging and How We Die
"With a refreshing forthrightness, and an excellent list of books included, this is an astonishing, pertinent, and wonderfully welcome work." - Publishers Weekly (starred)
"Will Schwalbe's brave and soulful elegy to his remarkable mother, his recollection of their sparklingly literate conversations, is a timely reminder that one exceptional person, or one exceptional book, can be a torch in the darkness. You'll turn the last page wishing you'd met Mary Anne Schwalbe, vowing to be worthy of her incandescent example--and promising yourself to read more." - J.R. Moehringer, author of The Tender Bar
"Will Schwalbe gives us two love stories in one: that of his relationship with his dynamo of a mother as her horizons shrink, and that of their mutual devotion to the printed word, infinitely and insistently engaging. Tender and touching and beautifully done." - Stacy Schiff, author of Cleopatra
"This touching and insightful memoir [will] appeal to readers of Tuesdays with Morrie and The Last Lecture, but also to people who love delving into books and book discussions . . . While it is a story about death, it is mostly a celebration of life and of the way books can enrich it." - Booklist (starred)
"I was so moved by this marvelous book. Schwalbe has done something extraordinary: made a personal journey public in the most engaging, funny and revealing way possible. It is a true meditation on what books can do." - Edmund de Waal, author of The Hare with the Amber Eyes
"In a heartfelt tribute to his mother, Schwalbe illustrates the power of the written word to expand our knowledge of ourselves and others." - Kirkus Reviews
"At last a book that celebrates the role books play within our own story. Will Schwalbe has created a tender, moving and honest portrayal of the precious relationship between a mother and son--an ode to that beautiful thing called love." - Cecelia Ahern, author of PS, I Love You
"This book is a passionate, purposeful and elegant guide to human existence. Living life, learning life and loving life. And ultimately, accepting life's end. Mary Anne and Will have given us an exquisite gift. For a better life, better family and better world, read this moving elegy from a gifted and loving son to an extraordinary mother" - David Rohde, co-author of A Rope and a Prayer
"An extraordinarily wise, witty, and quietly wrenching book about parental love, filial love, profound grief, and literature's great consolations. How wonderful to encounter a writer who combines erudition with great emotional honesty, and who isn't afraid of addressinglife's most profound and baffling questions." - Douglas Kenn