Since ancient times, there has been a lot of thought about what happens when we die — if we are drawn to a bright light, reborn as a stinkbug or sacred cow, or ascend to some version of heaven. If I Stay, by Gayle Forman, explores not just what happens after we die, but what goes on as we are dying and imagines we have a choice on whether to hang on or let go.
Mia is a 17-year-old musical prodigy who enjoys a pretty happy life with her hipster parents, 8-year-old brother and budding rock star boyfriend. All of that changes on a snowy day when a family road trip ends in a terrible car accident. Thrown from the car, she is plunged into a coma, which allows her spirit to escape from her body and witness the scene unfold. With her parents dead and her brother critically injured, she watches as doctors work on her battered body and as her family and friends gather at the hospital. She becomes aware of the choice she has to make: fight her extreme injuries and the grief of losing her parents to survive, or give into the sadness and let go. When she seems ready to give up, her body experiences complications and she is rushed back into surgery. When she is hopeful, her body seems to grow stronger. Taking such an emotional journey with Mia was heart-wrenching, and I agonized with her as she waffled between wanting to live and giving in to death. It reminded me of the whispered conversations I had with my own mom in the last hours of her life: stay because I want you here, but if you’re too tired to fight anymore, it’s okay if you go.
The book takes place in the span of one very long day, with flashbacks interspersed to tell us more about Mia’s family, boyfriend and future hopes and dreams. The flashbacks made her feel like a real person, one whose decision I really cared about. I never saw the recent movie made from the book, so I can’t compare the two. But the book was an engaging, fast read that I had a hard time putting down.