I think we’d best start here––– with a warning that these words I’m about to write will most likely anger or even outrage you. While it’s never my intention, you may be left feeling indignant and filled with “righteous anger.” But maybe when it’s all said and done, we can still be friends and maybe, just maybe you and your spouse or your girlfriend will have a real conversation on the matter. For this, I am willing to take the heat.
When I was nineteen and newly married, my young husband worked nights at a local manufacturing plant. Too afraid to sleep by myself at night, I fired up my AOL dial-up and spent the hours engaged in lively debates within online chat groups. (No, not the naughty kind.) I’ll never forget one night, having made the poor decision to get myself entangled in a discussion on all things Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. Clearly being nineteen and married not even a full year, I had much wisdom to share with the group on the matter, and I knew it. It was this know-it-all sentiment of mine which set another chatter into a well-deserved fury, “All I know is I would NEVER behave that way. I would NEVER dishonor my marriage or the office of the presidency that way.” I typed into the tiny box. “Oh how, pious! How naïve!” snapped back the chatter. I brushed these comments off and went on preaching.
Naturally, as I grew into myself and into marriage, I learned marriage could be a bit more challenging than my nineteen-year-old self had realized. And I knew, we couldn’t really say what we would or wouldn’t do in any given circumstance with absolute certainty. Maybe the most we could say is that we’d hope to be guided and governed by certain principles.
I had precisely this same feeling after putting Jojo Moyes’ book-turned-movie Me Before You down. How pious and naïve I had been. The words I said prior to reading it echoed in my head, “I will always decide life is worth living.” This declaration was coming from the woman who can still roll herself over and scratch her own nose.
I should also warn you that from this point forward you can anticipate one spoiler after another, a real spoiler party if you will. If you’ve yet to read the book or watch the movie then here’s a short recap. (But I must recommend reading the book for yourself, to fully understand all of the various dynamics and to enjoy the beauty of the story itself.) The main character Will is an attractive, successful, rich, sought after and adventurous man until he is involved in an accident, which leaves him paralyzed. Lou, the unlikely caretaker, is chosen because of her lively, joyful nature. Though she thought she was hired to prepare meals, she was actually, unwittingly on suicide watch. Will has attempted suicide in the past. As the story progresses we find out that Will desires to end his life via a facility aiding in assisted suicide. Will has asked his mother to help him with this. At first, she refuses, but after his suicide attempt, she sees she has no choice, that Will will not be stopped. They reach an agreement. Will will grant his mother six months to attempt to change his mind. If after that time, he still desires to move forward with his end of life plan, his Mother will help him. And so, in the process, Lou becomes aware of these plans, does everything she can to stop them and falls in love with Will. Yes, Will loves her too. Yes, he ultimately chooses death.
Maybe you are thinking this sounds like a horrible story. How could he choose death when everyone around him is trying to stop him?
Here’s what I feel Moyes’ does so well: She let’s us into the day-to-day life of the disabled. What is it like to lack the ability take yourself to the restroom or pick up your hand to feed yourself? We see and feel these things through Will’s eyes and experiences. We have a sudden urge to go outside and ensure our parked cars aren’t blocking any of the handicapped entrances. We are forced to stop and think about the way we look at, interact with; and talk about the disabled we come in contact with on a day-to-day basis. Are we giving them the curious side-eyed stare? Does our countenance ooze pity?
Moyes’ also invites us into a conversation many don’t want to have, and many more have already made their minds up about. How do we feel about Will’s ultimate decision? What would we do if it were us? How do we feel about those that make similar choices?
(Prepare to get angry.)
My older brother Matt died of cancer when I was seventeen, and he was nineteen. It was horrific. After rounds of chemotherapy and steroids, after the celebratory news that I was a bone marrow match, we were told he was covered in stage four cancer and had approximately two weeks to live. They could have done some crazy experimental thing with almost no chance of survival, which Matt opted out of. Instead, he signed his own DNR and planned his funeral. My mother was absolutely heartbroken about the signing of the DNR, the refusal to carry on with chemotherapy to “keep him comfortable.” But Matt felt like he knew where he was going and he wasn’t afraid to go. Towards the end, he began to have hallucinations, screaming out in the night for us to stop the scientists from performing experiments on him, rebuking my Mom for allowing Tom Hanks and two strippers inside the house. His body shook with pain. He was no longer able to regulate body temperature or bowels. If he had asked my mom to give enough Hydra morphine to bring it to an early end, would I have called her a murderer? Absolutely not. I would have seen it as an act of mercy.
Many of us see no issue with scheduling our induction dates for childbirth, thereby choosing the day our children will come into this world. And yet, we often villainize those who choose to privately end their suffering and therefore lives, early. Both the birth of a baby and the death of the one suffering are imminent, so is it different? I’m not sure.
When men fought on bloody battlefields and fell on their swords or shot their injured comrades instead of allowing them to lie on a battlefield, bleeding out or be captured, were they euthanizing them? Was it morally wrong? I’m not sure.
My life is currently boxed in on every side by chronic illness. I know pain and spasms, repeated infections, isolation, discouragement. And yet, I can’t imagine looking at my children, my husband, and my parents and telling them they aren’t enough. This life I have with them is reason enough to continue enduring the pain. Their love carries me through the seemingly impossible days. I do not consider my life my own. And yet, I have never known the pain Will knew.
Let me be clear: I wish Will had made another decision. I believe he could have found a life he loved, in spite of the pain. I believe he could have become a professor and explored new places through the eyes of students hungry for knowledge. I believe he could have become a parent and known love, unlike anything he knew existed. But I refuse to fault him for the choice he made. Because I’ve never been there.
Suffering is suffering. I wouldn’t wish it upon anyone. But maybe, having the feeling we know where we’re going when our lives come to an end makes it easier for us to let go, for others to let us go. I’m not scared to go; I’m rather looking forward to it.
And so, at the end of the day, what I can say is, while I don’t support Will’s decision, I understand it. And I think this is where Moyes’ wanted us to end up. Even if we couldn’t support Will’s decision, we could understand it. I know, it’s so easy to presume we know what’s best for others and say what others should and shouldn’t be doing in these situations, what we would or wouldn’t do. But is better understanding the “Will’s” in our lives such a bad thing? I’m not sure.