By Jojo Moyes
In 2009, Louisa, after losing her job as a waitress in an English village, gets a job as a caregiver to Will, a young, wealthy former business executive and daredevil who became almost totally paralyzed as a result of a motorcycle accident two years earlier. At first, Will is hard to get along with, but he eventually opens up to Louisa, and they develop a special bond. She soon discovers that in six months, he will go to a clinic in Switzerland where he will end his life.
After that, Louisa tries unsuccessfully to convince Will that life is worth living. She takes him out to a horse race, concerts, and even to the wedding of his former girlfriend. After he suffers a bout with pneumonia, she spirits him to a faraway tropical island where they spend ten glorious days. She realizes she has feelings for him which complicate her life since she already has a boyfriend, Patrick, a marathon runner. Louisa breaks up with Patrick and reluctantly accepts Will’s decision.
Having been a caregiver, I could identify with Louisa’s feelings of insecurity when she first starts the job and her sense of accomplishment when she gains more confidence in her abilities to perform many of Will’s personal care tasks. My favorite scene takes place close to the beginning of the book after Will suffers from a fever not related to the pneumonia he catches later. She snuggles in bed with him and sings him a silly song, and he tells her in no uncertain terms that she’s not the best of singers. It reminded me of times when I cuddled with and sang to my late husband Bill. Of course he loved my singing. As a matter of fact, he fell in love with my voice, thank goodness.
This book gives readers a negative impression of people with disabilities. Having a terminal illness and wanting to end your life before it gets too painful is one thing, but Will had at least ten good years ahead of him. Being wealthy, he could have been a philanthropist, funding research on spinal cord injuries or the development of adaptive equipment, perhaps opening a recreation or rehabilitation center for people with disabilities.
When I was single and employed and lived in an apartment building, one of my neighbors, Pat, was a quadriplegic like Will. She depended on others for help doing almost everything, but she never let that get her down. Before the accident that left her almost totally paralyzed, she was a motorcycle cop. Naturally, she couldn’t do that anymore, but she was able to use her computer to become involved in advocacy for the disabled and edit the apartment complex’s monthly newsletter. Like Will, she had her bad days, but she always worked through them. When my work hours were cut back as a result of my own disability, she was there for me, faxing documents to my attorney and other locations and providing encouragement and support.
When I got married and moved out of the building, we lost touch. I often wonder what happened to Pat. If she has left this world, I would like to think that unlike Will, she lived the last years of her life to their fullest.
My late husband Bill is another example of courage in the face of adversity. In 2006, three months after we were married, he suffered the first of two strokes that left him partially paralyzed. Like Will and Pat, he needed help doing almost everything, and he suffered from occasional depression, but I don’t think it ever occurred to him to end his own life, even if it was possible. For six years while I cared for him, he enjoyed listening to recorded books and ball games and used his computer to do email, surf the Internet, and even bet in a football pool. He also enjoyed talking on the phone daily to friends and relatives. Thank goodness for unlimited long distance. He was happy until 2012 when his body decided it was time to go. All this is detailed in my new memoir, My Ideal Partner: How I Met, Married, and Cared for the Man I Loved Despite Debilitating Odds.
As for Me Before You, I would like to have seen a more positive ending. After Louisa finds out that Will plans to take his own life, she visits the local library where she learns to use a computer. She does research and networks with quadriplegics and their caregivers.
I would like to have seen Louisa encourage Will to do the same. Perhaps Will could have met someone like Pat and realized that becoming almost totally paralyzed isn’t a death sentence. If you read this book, please take the author’s negative portrayal of a quadriplegic with a grain of salt.