Friday, January 15, 2010

A Book Group Loss

I’ve spoken openly about the love I have for my book group.

In a time and place when I felt bleak, worthless, and despondent, my book group, on more than one occasion, saved me from the brink. Not to mention, fed my very limited intellectual soul.

These women, who I would want in my “Red Tent,” are priceless.

I lost one of my book group members last night. Peggy was a charter member of our book group. Seven years ago when we started our Band of Sisters, Peggy, Chris, Mary Ellen, Virginia and Jane all sat in my living room, among others who have fallen by the way. We were fledgling little chicks in the beginning, not knowing what books to read, where to meet, or most importantly, what refreshments we should bring! But we found our way.

We have read over 70 books in our 7 years – and none of our discussions would have been the same without Peggy. She had a sharp wit and a razor tongue -- like a good New Jesery girl, afterall. If she didn’t like a sentence, a theme, a book, she told you specifically. Similarly, when she loved a book, she didn’t save her feelings. Without her we wouldn’t have known about Helen Colijn (Song of Survival), who survived a Japanese prisoner of war camp with the help of her fellow sisters and a choir that brought joy during such bleakness. She loved Lisa See’s novels – her favorite being Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. Of it she said, “I am fascinated by the Chinese culture & was intrigued by the concept of a secret "women's writing" as a creative means of feminine creativity in a harsh, male dominated world.”

Peggy was diagnosed with stage 4 liver cancer in May. Her prognosis was terminal. She initially tried chemo to “buy her time.” But when chemo proved harsher for her than others, she stopped treatment and chose "quality over quantity." She lived the remaining months with her hair, but in much pain. Over those months, she only missed two book groups. Her bookish opinions were not dulled by the cancer ravaging her body. At a recent meeting, one of our members suggested reading The Shack. Peggy, having read the book before and in all her literary rage, replied, “I will not read that trash again!” Needless to say, it was voted down.

In the past week when we knew our time with her was coming to an end, one of Peggy’s last requests was that we book club members come read our book choice this month to her (People of the Book). It was not meant to be, as she was soon on morphine to keep the evil pain at bay. Yesterday I went to visit Peggy in her hospice room to tell her the book club was coming at 6pm to read to her. With my tongue firmly planted in my cheek (where Peggy’s often was), I told her, “Peggy, we are coming up here to read to you - - and we are reading The Shack, because we know it was your favorite book!” When we all arrived at 6:05pm, we were told Peggy had passed at 6pm. Leave it to Peggy to have the last word, and to prove to us how really terrible The Shack was as to choose death over us reading it to her.

I’m not sure book group will ever be the same without Peggy. But we will continue on, because Peggy would want us too. In April, I had her scheduled to pick a book (because I really thought that a book selection commitment would trump the cancer, silly me), so to honor her, we will read Lisa See’s latest novel, Shanghai Girls. In her last online review written in November, well into her illness, Peggy said, “Another Lisa See winner. Same cultural oppression, especially of women & working classes. I was not aware of the extent of the oppression the Chinese immigrants experienced from our government during the 1940's & 1950's; nor of the exploitation of their own people through the virtual bondage of the ‘paper sons’ practices. Interesting & enlightening.”

Peggy we hope to do the discussion justice without you – please help us out from your heavenly position, steer us in the right direction and guide us always. We will miss you.