Before my mom got sick and moved in with me, she used to send me packages of books she had read. Paperbacks, hardbacks, nonfiction and fiction, bestsellers, mysteries, thrillers, historical fiction — the books arrived on my doorstep, sporting colorful jackets and tantalizing titles. The packages usually arrived just in time to save me from that most terrible of fates — running out of things to read. I would feel a surge of relief and gratitude, a certain knowing passing between us.
After she moved in with me, our book dynamic changed. In addition to becoming her caregiver, I became her book supplier. When I finished a book, I would pass it along to her. As she became weaker and less mobile, reading became her main pastime, besides watching TV. While there were many topics we could not discuss — her continued denial of her impending demise, her complicated feelings of fury and terror, her disdain of the need for home care — books remained a source of comfortable conversation for us.
The books came from many sources — friends who are authors; recommendations from family and friends; my book group in Davis, California and the ones in Gainesville, Florida and Fayetteville, Arkansas; the Book of the Month Club, which my daughter-in-love signed me up for. I read 67 books in 2022, the year my mom died. As I look over the list, I can see how my life influenced my reading and vice versa. Here are a few of the booklist highlights from this year:
- When caregiving, it can be helpful to read books of poems, stories, essays or small chapters. For me, these included books like:
- Keep Moving, by Maggie Smith
- Wow, No Thank you by Samantha Irby
- Clarity and Connection by Yung Pueblo
- Some books create worlds that stick with you long after you have finished reading them. I am grateful to my book clubs for introducing me to many of these books. This year they included:
- Cloud Cuckoo Land, by Anthony Doerr
- The Last Gift, by Abdulrazak Gurnah
- The Song of Achilles by Madeleine Miller
- Still other books helped me understand the world in a different way:
- Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man, by Emannuel Acho
- Bittersweet, by Susan Cain
- How to Be an Antiracist by Ibrahim X Kendi
- After the Rain by Alex Elle
Two books stand out to me from during the time when my mom was dying. I had read a book by UC Davis graduate student Tom Lin called “The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu.” The characters and scenery leapt off the page and painted a picture in my mind. I gave it to my mom, hoping to discuss it after she finished it. She signed up for a class to discuss it with others. She didn’t make it to the class.
The last book my mom laid eyes on was called “The Maid,” by Nita Prose. Again, it was a book I had loved, with a protagonist with a different perspective and a mystery at the heart of the story.
When my mom’s brain deteriorated to the point where she could no longer read the words, I took the book and read it aloud to her. One day, when I had finished reading and put the book aside, our eyes met, and she held my gaze.
“Tell me how it ends,” she said.
I couldn’t breathe. It was the first time she had acknowledged that soon, she wouldn’t be alive anymore, that she wasn’t going to make it to the end of the book.
I swallowed the lump in my throat. I looked down, then met her eyes again, and began to tell her.
Two days later, she died.
In the aftermath of the death of a loved one, the world continues its demands, even though you just want everything to stop for a minute, for god’s sake. During that time, I turned to children’s books to get me through. I re-read all of the Harry Potter books, from the Sorcerer’s Stone to the Deathly Hallows. I lost myself in the magic of the first few books, and the darkness and loss of the final few provided a small comfort to me as I faced all of the complexity and grief of my own losses.
After that, I picked up A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, in which a young girl goes in search of her missing father. Her longing and striving to understand what was happening comforted me as I tried to piece together the fragments of my own grief.
Poetry also helped me along the way. A dear friend and founding member of my first book group sent me a book of poetry with her letter of condolence. How to Love the World: Poems, edited by James Crews, made me laugh and cry and come around to recognize myself once more.
It feels strange to continue reading new books, knowing that my mother will never again be able to turn the pages, to know what the next chapter will bring. But I still feel her presence and her legacy every time I pick up a book.
One thought on “Life, Death and Books in 2022”
Thank you, Melissa, for sharing this lovely memory of your final days with your mother and the books that were so important to your relationship. How fortunate you are to have had this time with her. Barbara