Extreme vulnerability and spoilers ahead.
Saturday night I finished reading the book Me Before You. It’s not the typical kind of book I read, I guess, because most people consider it a romance, though I found the romance to only be a subplot which enhanced the greater theme, which was to “live boldly.”
Because of my current circumstances, and today being Memorial Day, and events from my life that the month of May always brings freshly to my mind, this book couldn’t have been better timed. And I want to talk about it. If you don’t want to know any spoilers, stop reading now.
Me Before You is about a 26-27-year-old woman who gets a job as a caretaker for a 35-year-old man who two years earlier had an accident that left him a quadriplegic. Before the accident, the man was outrageously successful and adventurous, so you can imagine that losing basically all mobility and ability to take care of himself was pretty devastating. For that reason, he’s extremely depressed and bitter. Thus the caretaker. Keep in mind this takes place in Britain so a caretaker isn’t a nurse, it’s a hired companion. Louisa (companion) discovers that Will (quad) is planning on ending his life through assisted suicide after a six month trial period (for which she’s been hired) arrangement he’s made with his mother. Louisa then attempts to do everything she can to convince him he has a reason to live, which results in her stretching her own personal boundaries and living more fully herself.
I have to explain basically the whole thing to you so you understand why this story made a difference in my life. This story touched several facets of my current life, and actually gave me solace and new perspective on some things that I desperately needed. So here it is:
- To be brutally honest, the past year and a half of my life have been hardly better than miserable. There have been delightful sparkling moments and people. But it was more of a blow than I ever expected to have to leave Scotland and come back to Utah. For most of this time, I’ve been barely keeping my head out of the Sea of Depression, which keeps whispering to me about how lovely it would be to drown. Some days, I definitely didn’t keep my head above water. It’s the most devastating thing in the world to live in a beautiful place surrounded by interesting people, find a man you love, be working on a degree in a field you love, and 100% believe that this is going to be the rest of your life: traipsing around Europe and everywhere else in the world, being intelligent and artsy and married and a mother, and then have it swiftly ripped from your grasp by someone else’s poor use of agency. In my narration of my life to myself that is ever ongoing in my head, the words that have heavily classified the past year and a half have been “paralyzed” and “crippled.” So this character, Will Traynor, and his absolute devastation at losing the life he loved and lived so well, spoke to me in a way I thought I’d never hear. He became a physical quadriplegic, I had become an emotional one. And I totally understood his wish to end his life, because although I didn’t get that far (I can’t, as will be explained in the next point), almost daily I have thought about deleting all my social media, disabling my phone, and ending everything that made me go out and be around people. Every time someone wanted to make plans, an ever-growing piece of me screamed internally as I accepted, especially plans with men. Most days the smile on my face was there out of habit and not from any pleasant thing I was actually thinking – if it was there at all. I held on by sheer willpower, and because I have a deeply rooted relationship with the God that I believe in, and I knew that He would help me figure out how to turn this all around and be happy again. This past month has been particularly difficult, and the novel I’ve been working on became my sole purpose for existence. I knew what I needed – a way to see beauty in every day, even though I’m now driving down the same streets I’ve driven since I got my driver’s license instead of taking buses past castles and monuments older than this country. Then I finished this book late Saturday night, and it said things to me, things I needed to hear, like: Yesterday, in an act of extreme mercy from God, a missionary from Scotland spoke in my church. Just hearing his beautiful Glaswegian accent empowered me to live again, reminding me of all the wonderful things I’ve experienced and accomplished, and most especially reminding me it’s not over. It’s funny how tunnel-visioned we get after a heartbreak, but I pretty much had to be defibrillated.
- Eleven years ago yesterday, my cousin took her life at age 19. At that time in my life, I was just six months away from 19 myself, and I was the most confused a teenager can be about life, love, and purpose. It was another time in my life that I was absolutely miserable but faking my way through every single day. I remember when I got the news about my cousin, it was like all sound shut out and was replaced by TV static. I couldn’t believe it. My cousin was one of the most vivacious, beautiful people to ever walk the planet, and I knew she had her share of struggles, but really? How could she have felt so low and alone that she thought ending her life was the answer? The truth is, I don’t know exactly what she was feeling in those final days and moments. I did know that suicide did not seem like an atrocious, far-fetched idea at the time. Until she died. Then it was absolutely the most pain I have ever seen a family go through. That’s when I forbade suicide from ever becoming an option. In the months that followed her death, I often talked to God about her, or to her through Him. We hadn’t been particularly close growing up, but she was an idol of mine in so many ways, and it was hard for me to deal with the idea that she’d gotten to that point. Finally I came to a place where I realized that what she valued and wanted most in this world was love and forgiveness and adventure, and from that moment forward, I knew I had to do my absolute best to make those things intrinsic to my own life, because I had to live the rest of life that she had missed. I had to make my life what she would’ve wanted hers to be. I felt compelled to, and innumerable decisions since then have been based on “what would Melea tell me to do right now?” What would’ve helped her be happy? What would’ve made her feel of worth? How would she have treated this person? And I act accordingly. Let me tell you, my life has become so much more extraordinary and my outlook so much kinder since I have adopted this paradigm. So when, in Me Before You, Louisa is forced to assess what she’s learned from Will, her paralyzed liberator, and she begins to see the courage and hope that she’s gleaned from his presence, that also spoke to me in ways I never thought I’d hear. Because I feel like Melea left a little bit of her life behind with me, giving me the courage to live more boldly than I ever thought I would. Her short life was absolutely full of experience and kindness and love, and I’m taking that piece of her with me to fill my life with the same. Do I wish that I could’ve learned to live boldly in some way that didn’t require her death? Of course. But I am also eternally grateful for what I learned from her.
- Now this book, for obvious reasons, has been subject to a lot of scrutiny. “It portrays handicapped people in a negative light.” Actually, it portrays a very bitter, sarcastic character who happens to be handicapped. Moving on. “It makes assisted suicide seem okay when it’s not.” Actually, that’s a very personal moral decision, and even if you disagree with it and don’t want it to happen, all suicides are the choice of the person who commits it. It is pleasant? Never. Is it even okay? I don’t think so. But there are a lot of things that fit in those categories that people do. This is part of having the ability to choose, which I believe is the most essential part of humanity. So I’m sorry if it bothers you; it’s life. What I felt was the most central, driving theme of this book was: choose your life, and make it the best you possibly can. Personally, I think everyone could hear that a little more often. I know I did right in this moment. Today is Memorial Day where, in America, we celebrate the lives of those we love who have passed on, with particular emphasis on soldiers who died in combat, but including everyone. I think there is nothing better than remembering those souls by living better than they had the chance to. So choose it. Choose to live boldly.