Monday, May 23, 2016


I liked being a person.
I wanted to keep at it.

John Green, The Fault in Our Stars

Catchy title, no?

A few weeks ago I wrote about indifference. Early this past Saturday morning, I found myself wishing I could muster just an ounce of indifference regarding a book whose conclusion I read circa three am. My reaction to this book has been perhaps the most virulent response I have had to anything I have ever read. 

I'm cutting it close with this blog, by the way, because I've been hopeful inspiration would strike & some topic other than this novel would present itself, but alas, as I type it is late Sunday afternoon & Jojo Moyes Me Before You continues to dominate my thoughts, so here we go.

I knew, too. I found myself scribbling what was essentially the outline of a blog on the back of a visitor's card in church Sunday morning; that was a pretty sure sign there was purging still to be done, & the chances of my blogging about anything else grew from slim to none. Honestly I can't recall ever before making longhand notes about a blog. 

Last week began with much promise. Early in the week I finished reading The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton, which is the May book club book. We're meeting next week to discuss it, & this may not be the last time I mention it, but I guess you already knew that. We're meeting on Memorial Day to discuss The Forgotten Garden. Does anyone . . . does anyone else think that is awesome?

Tuesday morning the kids & I were up & dressed in time to go sit & eat breakfast at Chick-fil-A, after which they played on the indoor playground & I sat & drank coffee & read (this arrangement is why I was able to finish The Forgotten Garden, & likely why I might pass the graduate course I'll be taking during the month of June).

I can't move on without encouraging you, if you have not, to eat a chicken breakfast burrito from Chick-fil-A. With the salsa. <insert small but audible moan>

I don't remember when I started reading Me Before You. Maybe Tuesday night. Maybe Wednesday. I'd been planning to read it & with the early June movie release looming, it was time. Goodness, I am breathing hard. I'm going to try & be as straightforward & brief as I can (hence, the fancy visitor card outline).

Have you seen Silver Linings Playbook? You need to watch this film if you've not. If you've seen it, you know what I'm about to say. Pat, played by Bradley Cooper, is reading every book on the syllabus his estranged wife uses in her high school English classes in an attempt to woo her. He makes his way through A Farewell to Arms, & then he closes the book & has a meltdown. Pat is living with his parents after his recent release from the nut house; he's not the most emotionally stable person, & he loses it in grand fashion. He can't come to terms with the novel's conclusion. I love this scene a lot. 

When I closed Me Before You, one of my first thoughts was of Pat, & you know, I wish I had finished A Farewell to Arms, or Where the Red Fern Grows, or some other tearjerker. I wish sorrow had been my dominant emotion. 

If you're planning to read Me Before You (or see the film) & don't want any spoilers, I'll catch you next week . . . but not before adding that this is a book I do not recommend. I do not recommend you read this book, ever, at all. To borrow George Strait's sentiment, I'd like to have that one back

The book is about a twenty-something young woman named Louisa Clark. She lives in a small town in England &, after the cafe in which she's worked for years closes, she takes a job as a caregiver. In her new role, she meets Will Traynor, a man in his thirties who was, two years prior to meeting Louisa, injured & is subsequently now a quadriplegic. 

Louisa signs a six-month contract. Several weeks into her new job, she overhears a conversation between Will's mother & sister that alerts her to the fact that Will attempted suicide prior to her employment. Furthermore, she was essentially hired to supervise Will almost constantly until six months have lapsed, after which time Will's parents have agreed to accompany him to a facility where assisted suicides are carried out. 

Hang on. Stay with me. Ms. Moyes does some things well. In fact, most of the novel is worth reading. She does an excellent job of depicting the daily, the hourly, struggles of a man in Will's physical condition. She also develops Will & Louisa's relationship well. Initially dominated by Will's bitterness, Louisa's detached quirkiness, & their mutual bent toward sarcasm, they both grow exponentially in the time they're together; they change each other in beautiful ways. Louisa knows Will's plans, his intentions, & her budding determination to change his mind is the central plot of the novel. It is all insightful, thought-provoking, & even, at times, delightful to read.

Goodness, I am shaking as I type. I wasn't expecting a happy ending. I've read too much modern fiction & had heard too much about the novel to expect anything other than the death of one or both of the protagonists. I was completely prepared. I decided to stay up & push through the novel into the early morning hours on Saturday because I wanted to finish it, weep while the house was dark & quiet, & move along. Ha. Ha. Ha.

What is worse than death, you might wonder? Let me tell you. As the six month mark draws near, Louisa, after considerable research & planning, accompanies Will & Nathan, Will's nurse, to a tropical paradise. The resort is well suited to Will's needs, he is able to spend time on the beach, &, perhaps most importantly (to him & sentimental, weepy female readers), he's able to spend time with Louisa away from the confines of the home in England that he no doubt feels has become his prison.

Per the reader's expectations, on their final night in paradise, Louisa bears her soul to him. She tells him she loves him, & she says a lot of other things I am not going to quote directly because I refuse to open the book again, but she is all in, basically. She loves him, exactly as he is.

At this point I was still reading (& crying), & then Will opens his mouth. I don't remember exactly what he says. Essentially he says he still intends to end his life, & a few pages later, this is how the book concludes. He chooses death.

At first I thought I was just sad. I cried. As Saturday wore on, I realized I was kind of furious.

Ms. Moyes has stated in interviews that her desire was to write a book that depicts the daily struggles of the physically disabled. She did that. Check! She did it well, in fact. She also wrote a book that is laden with commentary on assisted suicide, a debate that rages as I type. She attempted to tackle a difficult subject, & I think she failed spectacularly. I think her message is irresponsible.

Hers is a dangerous message not because I don't personally agree with Will's choice, not because I don't think governments ought to assemble panels of people who then decide who among those wishing to die is a "good" candidate, but because her message is one of utter hopelessness to many people who might have, for a variety of reasons, considered taking their own life in one way or another. After what was a helpful & cathartic discussion of the book on Facebook, a few things clicked for me, thanks in large part to this comment a friend made:

I don't have super strong feelings about assisted suicide, I just hated the fact that he felt that his life couldn't "matter" if he was paralyzed. There are multiple ways of having a big life!

I was standing in my kitchen & I read her comment on my phone & I teared up.

Then I think I said, "Yes!"

Then I responded:

And the worst of it all, I think, is that he has someone who loves him - just as he is - & he's like, "Meh." Some people live their whole life & no one loves them that way . . . the dangerous message here is that, if this guy sees no other way, that's a super hopeless message to others.

And people say Facebook is only for sharing memes & recipes.

I understand the desire within a writer to comment on social issues in their writing. Believe me, I do. In my opinion, when you go down this road, the load of responsibility becomes considerably heavier. I think she dropped the ball.

It's not his death that bothers me; I was 100% certain he would not be alive by novel's end (I mean, the sequel is titled After You). It's the choice to die that has so thoroughly unnerved me, especially when he makes this choice as a woman, a wonderful, wonderful woman, pleads with him to stay with her.

It didn't have to be this way. There was a way to (1) depict the day-to-day life of a quadriplegic, (2) include thoughtful discussion of assisted suicide, & (3) guarantee that readers squall at the end. Will could tell Louisa he loves her, too. Will could change his mind & decide to live. Then, & here's where the squalling part happens, Will could die anyway. I'd have cried as hard, but would not now be dealing with rage over what I believe is an incredibly irresponsible message, & you'd likely be reading a different blog about, I don't know, last week's many failed attempts to find the kid's favorite, low-carb, elusive chocolate milk in various grocery stores around town.

When I finished the book I thought of so many death, or near death, scenes I've read. Their common thread is the desire of the dying to live. Catherine's death, as well as the death of her infant, is tragic & sends Pat into a fit of rage when he reaches the end of A Farewell to Arms. Finnick's death in Mockingjay is gut-wrenching; it's one of the toughest fictional deaths for me (though I admit a few deaths in Harry Potter's saga rank right up there with Finnick's).

My thoughts are Finnick-heavy right now because here's Finnick:

And here's Will Traynor:

I think both are excellent casting decisions, though obviously no one in casting cares about my heart.

The reason I can cry & move on when I read (& reread) Catherine's death & Finnick's death is that they want to live; they want to be with Frederic & Annie, respectively, but they are denied that. Louisa is right in front of Will, she loves him, likely more than anyone in his life has loved him before, & still he turns away & embraces death.

<insert scream here>

I don't pretend to know much or understand much about the physical struggles Will faces, & the resulting mental & emotional issues that ensue. I suppose one positive I take away from the book is a renewed sense of gratefulness for my physical health. I do know what it is like to open the refrigerator carefully because inside are breakable vials of insulin that are literally life-sustaining for Reagan. I do know diabetics (& their caregivers) sometimes suffer depression, & some likely contemplate quality of life issues at one point or another. I do know what I think & feel when someone says, "I don't know how you do this, how you live like this." You just do it. You focus on the ways you are blessed. You're thankful that you can access & afford what you need. You're thankful it is the year 2016, because a hundred years ago, this diagnosis meant death. You're thankful that life remains a possibility.

I do know the dark alleys of what if down which the mind can wander. I do know something of the daily grind of keeping someone alive whose body has betrayed them. I do know the fear of the future, the fear that Will expresses, that time is not on his side.

I hesitate to even say the things I just said as I do not want to suggest there is any comparison. There obviously is none, none at all. That's sort of the point, though. Who determines the criteria? Men sitting on a panel, reviewing the medical history of people who wish to die, & drawing a line somewhere? A two-second review of human history will tell you how quickly that line will begin to fade, until it disappears completely. It will become discriminatory to deny anyone the right to die when & how they choose, regardless of their stated reasons. The Feds will subsidize death for those who cannot afford the fees themselves. Lobbyists & nonprofits will demand action be taken to remove the stigma of suicide. State lawmakers will bicker over the passage of laws regarding on-site counselors, mandatory waiting periods, etc. Hide & watch, as my mother used to say when I scoffed at her threats. Hide & watch.

I know many people contemplate suicide at various times & for various reasons, some physical, some mental. I believe that sanctioning suicide for those whose physical condition is such that they no longer wish to live is a dangerous message to send to those whose mental state is such that they too believe death to be the answer. You know where I stand on life issues. I am a fan of life; it's not a commodity whose stock rises & falls, a commodity to be traded. I could write a paragraph or ten about the scarlet A that hangs like an albatross around our collective neck, but I won't. We're just inventing ways to devalue life, & yet are curious as to why a great many young people have no respect for anyone. Life is either precious & worth protecting, or it is not; I don't see gradations.

Regardless of what is legal or illegal, I want my kids to always, always cling to life, to celebrate it, to fight for it, to do whatever it takes to keep themselves healthy & drawing breath, to never fall for the illusion, as Will does, that by choosing death, they are somehow asserting themselves, wresting control away from fate. The fact that we cannot resurrect the dead, cannot breathe life where it has been extinguished, is a pretty clear picture, at least in my mind, of how precious life is, of how tightly we should cling to it, how fiercely we should protect it.

I'll close with the poem that has been at the forefront of my mind since I began reading Me Before You.

Dylan Thomas 


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