I have just finished reading an excellent novel by Jojo Moyes called Me Before You. Since the story involves a caregiver and the man she cares for, it’s easy to assume that the title is about which of them would or should die first. The tease in the title is that the reader does not know who is “Me” and who is “You,” and indeed each could be either of the main characters in the story.
The more I thought about this, though, it occurred to me that this could be more than a double entendre. It could also mean that the story is about the narrator (the caregiver) prior to knowing the subject (the patient). In that context, the title refers to the change in character that takes place. It could also be about the subject before knowing the narrator. Is there such a thing as a quadruple entendre?
No, wait a minute. I just thought of something else. Perhaps the title refers to positioning. As I stand in front of you, I am before you and you can observe me. You can see me, perceive me, perhaps even judge me. By placing myself before you, I thus make myself vulnerable and give you the permission, or opportunity, or potentially the power to assess and analyze me. Those things happen in the book, too.
As I read the book I analyzed myself when I was in the role of caregiver. Many of the fictional events and details triggered memories, so that sometimes I had to put the book down. They are painful memories. I remembered struggling to push my husband in a wheelchair through difficult terrain; in the book it was a muddy field, but for me it was snow and uneven sidewalks. Just like the caregiver in the book, I found that a cup of tea solved a lot of problems. Just as in the story, there were mutual resentments, grief over lost abilities, and the indignities of the day-to-day activities that accompany dying.
I, too, struggled with the guilt that you feel when you are healthy while your partner is not; the failure to express frustrations and feelings effectively; the inability to accept offers of help; the difficulty of responding to bad but well-meaning advice; wanting to go to work to get away from the hell at home; resenting the expectations of others; the infuriating bureaucracy of the health care system. The list goes on.
So many times I heard people say “A child shouldn’t go before the parent” or “He’s too young” or “He doesn’t deserve this,” and they just made it worse. I had seen lots of movies that show people dying with carefully coiffed hair, and caregivers who are tireless in their selfless devotion to brow-mopping. But, it just isn’t like that.
As I read Me Before You, many times I found myself thinking, “Yes, she gets it.” The author must have lived this to be able to write about it in so much detail with so much insight and empathy. I wanted to tell her, “I have been there, too. Me before you.”