In a state known for legal assisted suicide, one terminally ill young woman instead chose to live each God-given day to its fullest
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SALEM and AUMSVILLE, Ore.—Esther Ybarra’s “Celebration of Life” memorial service in September began in the same manner in which she lived, according to friends: in worship. Along with sounds of guitars and song, the Salem, Ore., chapel where 600 mourners gathered to commemorate the young woman rang with occasional laughter as friends and family shared memories of one whose life had impacted so many. There were also sniffles and tissues as people lamented her short life—just 21 years.
Esther died in Portland in July after a two-year battle with cancer. When she was diagnosed with stage 4 alveolar rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare soft tissue cancer, she was a 5-foot-10, 172-pound college freshman with a six pack and dreams to play Division I volleyball. When she died, she was about 100 pounds with a broken body—yet those who watched her die say she was the strongest woman they’d ever met.
Esther’s story has parallels with that of Brittany Maynard, who three years ago became the face of “right to die” advocacy when she died at age 29. Both were young, vivacious women facing terminal cancer during their prime years. But their legacies reveal starkly different views on life and death.
Maynard chose to end her life under Oregon’s assisted suicide law, viewing her decision as “death with dignity.” Esther chose to live her last days to the fullest “for the glory of God.” Maynard said she would avoid “fear, uncertainty, and pain” by dying “on my own terms.” Esther decided to “lay everything at the feet of Jesus”—including fear, uncertainty, and pain.
One said her suffering would be a “nightmare scenario” for family members. The other learned to comfort and exhort family and friends through her suffering.
At Esther’s memorial service, her father, Ron Suelzle, teared up seeing how many people showed up. “Hi, I’m Esther’s dad, and I’m proud to be Esther’s dad for 22 years,” he said, breaking down.
Later, Suelzle told me he regretted his introduction: “I should have said, ‘Hi, I’m a Christian, and God has given me the privilege of being Esther’s father.’”
That’s something Esther taught him: Even when people fussed over her in a hospital room, she always reminded them that Jesus should be their focus.
“Her legacy is not one of despair,” one friend told mourners at the memorial, encouraging them to “choose joy every day”—as Christ did.
Esther Ruth Suelzle Ybarra was born on Oct. 3, 1995, in a Portland suburb, the oldest of seven children of Ron and Teresa Suelzle, a high-school teacher and a homemaker. She was full of life even before she was born, seemingly dancing in her mother’s womb during worship time at church. As a child, she loved twirling around the living room, hands on hips, feet kicking high, never losing her smile even when she fell. At 2 years old she used cabinet drawers to climb up to the bathroom sink to brush her teeth, and told her surprised father, “I’m capable.”
That drive and independence grew in her teenage years as she began competitive sports. She taped lists of goals and motivational quotes to the ceiling above her upper-bunk bed: “Pain is weakness leaving the body.” “No excuses.” “If I want to WIN, I will work harder.” She went to her high-school gym almost every evening and was the only female who joined all the football drills. By her junior year, Esther could squat 225 pounds and bench-press over 155. Her one “cheat day” was Friday, when she indulged in a bowl of vanilla ice cream.
The hard work paid off, at least outwardly: Esther’s school district named her Female Athlete of the Year, and Corban University offered her scholarships to play collegiate volleyball. But at times, Esther felt her ambitions overriding her faith: She wondered if she had room for God, and once even asked Him to leave her heart.
Then one Saturday morning, barely two months into college, everything changed. Esther was at her college dorm when her back suddenly collapsed. She was so paralyzed with pain that it took an hour for the EMT to get her into an ambulance. The next three days were a whirlwind of bad news: Scan results showed a strangely fractured T12 vertebra. Biopsy tests came back malignant. Then a team of doctors walked in with worse news: stage 4 cancer.
Ron and Teresa Suelzle stood frozen by Esther’s bed, barely able to comprehend what was happening. Here they were, a nice churchgoing family leading “a fairy-tale life,” suddenly receiving the worst possible news about their 19-year-old firstborn. “My head was swimming,” Teresa Suelzle recalled. “At that point, we felt like we had hit bottom.”
Esther, meanwhile, sat on her bed in silence for a few seconds. She looked up, looked back at the doctors, then leaned forward to shake their hands. “I want to thank you for telling me,” she said. “That must have been difficult for you.”
She was not always so composed. When radiation treatments soon caused her thick, glossy chestnut-brown hair to fall out, she fretted like any woman would. When her then-suitor decided not to pursue a relationship with her, she wept: “Will I ever get married? Will a man ever love me?” When she had to stop working out or taking classes, she got anxious and restless. She asked, “Why is this happening? Why did God allow me to get cancer?”
But Esther trusted that God had also prepared good things. The day she first returned home from the hospital, a storm rolled in and killed the power in the house. That night, after a long drive through gushing rain and howling winds, Esther and her parents returned to discover that church friends had set up generators to light the house, warmed the place with fresh firewood, and cleaned Esther’s bedroom, freshening it with crisp linens.
Kindness poured in: To help pay for Esther’s medical bills, her high school raised about $3,500. The College of Idaho heard her story and raised over $4,000. Through GoFundMe, a crowdfunding platform, the Suelzles raised $20,000 in a week. When a friend heard that Esther wanted a German shepherd, he started a fundraiser to get her one. Esther named the puppy Keoni, which means “God is gracious.”
One night, Ron Suelzle asked his daughter how she was doing. “God took away everything that was important to me,” she replied. “He took away my ability to play volleyball, work out, go to school, and my hair. All I have left is God, my family, and my friends, and I’ve never been better.”
Esther made no plans for death. She was undergoing cancer treatment when she met Jacob Ybarra, a track-and-field athlete at Corban. On their first date at Red Lobster on Valentine’s Day, Esther was as bald as The Rock, and still finding her identity without sports and school. Jacob saw through her bravado: “She was a scared girl with a really, really strong shell. She acted like she was real tough and can do everything by herself, but she really needed help.”
Jacob liked Esther. Even though she had lost her muscle definition and hair, he liked being with her. A year into their relationship, he took her to a park decorated with her favorite yellow roses, got down on one knee, and asked her to marry him. She answered an enthusiastic yes.
At the time, her cancer had gone into remission. But soon after the engagement, doctors found new tumors in her lungs. She and Jacob married anyway in October 2016. They were good for each other: At times Jacob returned home to find Esther in tears because she couldn’t finish the housework, and he taught her it was OK to rest. Other times, he came home to find his wife deep in prayer, and he sought to enjoy such intimacy with God as well. “Esther’s greatest strength was her relationship with Jesus,” Jacob said. “He was the only reason she could still sing, still fight.”
Doctors three times told Esther she had zero chance of fertility. In April 2017, Esther began to feel strange—but not cancer strange. She took a pregnancy test, then another to make sure—both said positive. They named the growing baby Thaddeus.
By then, Esther had stopped cancer treatments since they didn’t seem to be helping. Her health worsened as the pregnancy progressed. Her weight dropped, and she had trouble breathing as fluid built up in her lungs and heart. Jacob helped drain the fluids at home until, one morning, she started hemorrhaging. The next night at the hospital, she lost Thaddeus. He was 13 weeks old, about 3 inches long, with intact organs and perfectly formed fingers and toes—a miracle boy through whom Esther experienced the heartbreak of motherhood at age 21.
She was still recuperating when she heard a crack in her femur. The tumor had spread.
Under Oregon law, with her terminal illness, Esther at this point could have requested a lethal dose of drugs and ended her life. Since the state’s “Death with Dignity Act” passed in 1997, more than 1,100 Oregonians have done so.
Instead, even in agonizing pain, Esther sang “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” and asked each doctor and nurse if he or she knew Jesus Christ.
“They were concerned about saving her life, but she was trying to save their souls,” Jacob recalled. Hospital visitors told me she was the most joyful person in the room, often wiping the tears of others and asking how she could pray for them. “She fully trusted what was supposed to happen, and that was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen,” said her cousin Kim Klaus.
Esther’s three sisters and three brothers said that before the cancer, they looked up to a sister strong in body and mind, always busy meeting her goals. But after she got sick, Esther spent more quality time with her siblings. “She learned how to be instead of always doing,” said her 20-year-old sister, Elizabeth. Thirteen-year-old Marilyn said, “Just by the way she lived, giving up everything for Christ, she really inspired me.” Before Esther died, she called her siblings to her side and urged each one to pursue Jesus.
On July 24, 2017, three weeks after Thaddeus died, Esther drew her last breath in the presence of her family. When she opened her eyes for the last time, her father exclaimed, “She’s waking up!” Esther looked at him, and he realized she was saying goodbye. He whispered, “Esther, don’t die!” She made several gasps for air, closed her eyes, and never woke up.
When I visited Esther’s family at their farmhouse in Aumsville, Ore., grief was still fresh and pungent. They knew God had a good purpose and knew Esther was in a better place. They knew she had left behind something life-changing. So how to continue life—the mundane activities of breakfast, work, and chores—without the one who touched the most tender part of their souls?
I spent over seven hours with the family members as they relived memories—some fun, some hilarious, all bittersweet. They showed me pictures of Esther in diapers and prom dresses, played videos of birthdays and sickness. “She was my crown jewel, my star child, my sidekick,” Ron Suelzle said, recalling all the hours he spent tossing balls with her.
He also recognized that mixed with his love for her were pride and idolatry: “I’ve identified myself for so much of my life as Esther’s dad.” Now he’s struggling with the same question God asked Abraham: “Will you give your most precious gift to God?” At one point in my visit, he said he couldn’t wait to go to heaven to see Esther again, then corrected himself: “No, I can’t wait to go to heaven to see God.”
Jacob Ybarra is also processing his grief. He no longer sleeps in the bedroom he shared with Esther, but in the living room on a mattress, close to her dog Keoni. Once Esther’s faithful companion, Keoni is now the reason Jacob gets up early in the morning.
At age 24, Ybarra grieves as a widower and bereaved father, but says he’s not mad or disappointed: “Esther did get healed—she got healed better. I saw a lot of miracles and crazy things happen.” He didn’t own Esther: “I just got to spend time with her for a little while.” He then smiled. “She was amazing. I mean, I lived with her, and I’m still trying to figure out what happened. Do you see?”
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