I did manage to talk with my brother and sister, their spouses, and Dad (now out of the hospital and fully recovered), and David. All of us were saying hopeful things to each other: there was cause for alarm but no reason to panic. And yet the calls were exponentialevery conversation was relayed to everyone else, leading to ever more calls, calls upon calls, calls about calls. We all spent time on the Web and read the same grim things about this particularly vicious cancer. But there were more tests to be done. It was still early. There was a lot to learn. No one should jump to any conclusions.
"Are you sure I shouldn't come home right away, Mom?" I asked each time when I spoke to her from the trip.
"Don't be silly," she said. "Enjoy yourself." In one conversation, she finally relayed exactly how she got the news - and talked about the first oncologist she'd visited, to whom she and my sister had taken an instant dislike when he'd asked Mom if she worked outside the home. Mom said to me, "Do you think a doctor would ever ask a man that?" She told me that Nina had been amazing - organizing, arranging, asking all the right questions. My sister had spent years working in Soviet Russia and had learned there how to push when necessary.
"The lesson of all of this ... " Mom began, and then paused. I waited. I couldn't imagine what the lesson was."The lesson is this," she continued."Relief organizations need to tell people who have gone on trips to places like Afghanistan not to assume that any sickness they get while there or after is related to the trip. It may just be a coincidence. We need to make sure people understand that."
This was the silver lining? A new protocol for humanitarian aid workers returning from overseas trips to exotic locales?
"Also, I have a favor to ask," Mom added. "Bring me back a wonderful book from the book fair. And your father could use a new book too."
I grabbed too many books to carry home and then tried to figure out which I would put in my luggage and which I would mail, but all I could think about was whether things could have been different if we'd made Mom see more doctors earlier, or whether, perhaps, she'd had an appointment in Samarra and nothing could have changed that.
Excerpted from The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe. Copyright © 2012 by Will Schwalbe. Excerpted by permission of Knopf. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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