The fault in our stars (Chapter 7)
I screamed to wake up my parents, and they burst into the room, but there was nothing they could do to dim the supernovae exploding inside my brain, an endless chain of intracranial firecrackers that made me think that I was once and for all going, and I told myself—as I’ve told myself before—that the body shuts down when the pain gets too bad, that consciousness is temporary, that this will pass. But just like always, I didn’t slip away. I was left on the shore with the waves washing over me, unable to drown.
Dad drove, talking on the phone with the hospital, while I lay in the back with my head in Mom’s lap. There was nothing to do: Screaming made it worse. All stimuli made it worse, actually.
The only solution was to try to unmake the world, to make it black and silent and uninhabited again, to return to the moment before the Big Bang, in the beginning when there was the Word, and to live in that vacuous uncreated space alone with the Word.
People talk about the courage of cancer patients, and I do not deny that courage. I had been poked and stabbed and poisoned for years, and still I trod on. But make no mistake: In that moment, I would have been very, very happy to die.
I woke up in the ICU. I could tell I was in the ICU because I didn’t have my own room, and because there was so much beeping, and because I was alone: They don’t let your family stay with you 24/7 in the ICU at Children’s because it’s an infection risk. There was wailing down the hall. Somebody’s kid had died. I was alone. I hit the red call button.
A nurse came in seconds later. “Hi,” I said.
“Hello, Hazel. I’m Alison, your nurse,” she said.
“Hi, Alison My Nurse,” I said.
Whereupon I started to feel pretty tired again. But I woke up a bit when my parents came in, crying and kissing my face repeatedly, and I reached up for them and tried to squeeze, but my everything hurt when I squeezed, and Mom and Dad told me that I did not have a brain tumor, but that my headache was caused by poor oxygenation, which was caused by my lungs swimming in fluid, a liter and a half (!!!!) of which had been successfully drained from my chest, which was why I might feel a slight discomfort in my side, where there was, hey look at that, a tube that went from my chest into a plastic bladder half full of liquid that for all the world resembled my dad’s favorite amber ale. Mom told me I was going to go home, that I really was, that I would just have to get this drained every now and again and get back on the BiPAP, this nighttime machine that forces air in and out of my crap lungs. But I’d had a total body PET scan on the first night in the hospital, they told me, and the news was good: no tumor growth. No new tumors. My shoulder pain had been lack-of-oxygen pain. Heart-working-too-hard pain.
“Dr. Maria said this morning that she remains optimistic,” Dad said. I liked Dr. Maria, and she didn’t bullshit you, so that felt good to hear.
“This is just a thing, Hazel,” my mom said. “It’s a thing we can live with.”
I nodded, and then Alison My Nurse kind of politely made them leave. She asked me if I wanted some ice chips, and I nodded, and then she sat at the bed with me and spooned them into my mouth.
“So you’ve been gone a couple days,” Alison said. “Hmm, what’d you miss… A celebrity did drugs. Politicians disagreed. A different celebrity wore a bikini that revealed a bodily imperfection. A team won a sporting event, but another team lost.” I smiled. “You can’t go disappearing on everybody like this, Hazel. You miss too much.”
“More?” I asked, nodding toward the white Styrofoam cup in her hand.
“I shouldn’t,” she said, “but I’m a rebel.” She gave me another plastic spoonful of crushed ice. I mumbled a thank-you. Praise God for good nurses. “Getting tired?” she asked. I nodded. “Sleep for a while,” she said. “I’ll try to run interference and give you a couple hours before somebody comes in to check vitals and the like.” I said Thanks again. You say thanks a lot in a hospital. I tried to settle into the bed. “You’re not gonna ask about your boyfriend?” she asked.
“Don’t have one,” I told her.
“Well, there’s a kid who has hardly left the waiting room since you got here,” she said.
“He hasn’t seen me like this, has he?”
“No. Family only.”
I nodded and sank into an aqueous sleep.
It would take me six days to get home, six undays of staring at acoustic ceiling tile and watching television and sleeping and pain and wishing for time to pass. I did not see Augustus or anyone other than my parents. My hair looked like a bird’s nest; my shuffling gait like a dementia patient’s. I felt a little better each day, though: Each sleep ended to reveal a person who seemed a bit more like me. Sleep fights cancer, Regular Dr. Jim said for the thousandth time as he hovered over me one morning surrounded by a coterie of medical students.
“Then I am a cancer-fighting machine,” I told him.
“That you are, Hazel. Keep resting, and hopefully we’ll get you home soon.”
On Tuesday, they told me I’d go home on Wednesday. On Wednesday, two minimally supervised medical students removed my chest tube, which felt like getting stabbed in reverse and generally didn’t go very well, so they decided I’d have to stay until Thursday. I was beginning to think that I was the subject of some existentialist experiment in permanently delayed gratification when Dr. Maria showed up on Friday morning, sniffed around me for a minute, and told me I was good to go.
So Mom opened her oversize purse to reveal that she’d had my Go Home Clothes with her all along. A nurse came in and took out my IV. I felt untethered even though I still had the oxygen tank to carry around with me. I went into the bathroom, took my first shower in a week, got dressed, and when I got out, I was so tired I had to lie down and get my breath. Mom asked, “Do you want to see Augustus?”
“I guess,” I said after a minute. I stood up and shuffled over to one of the molded plastic chairs against the wall, tucking my tank beneath the chair. It wore me out.
Dad came back with Augustus a few minutes later. His hair was messy, sweeping down over his forehead. He lit up with a real Augustus Waters Goofy Smile when he saw me, and I couldn’t help but smile back. He sat down in the blue faux-leather recliner next to my chair. He leaned in toward me, seemingly incapable of stifling the smile.
Mom and Dad left us alone, which felt awkward. I worked hard to meet his eyes, even though they were the kind of pretty that’s hard to look at. “I missed you,” Augustus said.
My voice was smaller than I wanted it to be. “Thanks for not trying to see me when I looked like hell.”
“To be fair, you still look pretty bad.”
I laughed. “I missed you, too. I just don’t want you to see… all this. I just want, like… It doesn’t matter. You don’t always get what you want.”
“Is that so?” he asked. “I’d always thought the world was a wish-granting factory.”
“Turns out that is not the case,” I said. He was so beautiful. He reached for my hand but I shook my head. “No,” I said quietly. “If we’re gonna hang out, it has to be, like, not that.”
“Okay,” he said. “Well, I have good news and bad news on the wish-granting front.”
“Okay?” I said.
“The bad news is that we obviously can’t go to Amsterdam until you’re better. The Genies will, however, work their famous magic when you’re well enough.”
“That’s the good news?”
“No, the good news is that while you were sleeping, Peter Van Houten shared a bit more of his brilliant brain with us.”
He reached for my hand again, but this time to slip into it a heavily folded sheet of stationery on the letterhead of Peter Van Houten, Novelist Emeritus.
I didn’t read it until I got home, situated in my own huge and empty bed with no chance of medical interruption. It took me forever to decode Van Houten’s sloped, scratchy script.
Dear Mr. Waters,
I am in receipt of your electronic mail dated the 14th of April and duly impressed by the Shakespearean complexity of your tragedy. Everyone in this tale has a rock-solid hamartia: hers, that she is so sick; yours, that you are so well. Were she better or you sicker, then the stars would not be so terribly crossed, but it is the nature of stars to cross, and never was Shakespeare more wrong than when he had Cassius note, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars / But in ourselves.” Easy enough to say when you’re a Roman nobleman (or Shakespeare!), but there is no shortage of fault to be found amid our stars.
While we’re on the topic of old Will’s insufficiencies, your writing about young Hazel reminds me of the Bard’s Fifty-fifth sonnet, which of course begins, “Not marble, nor the gilded monuments / Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme; / But you shall shine more bright in these contents / Than unswept stone, besmear’d with sluttish time.” (Off topic, but: What a slut time is. She screws everybody.) It’s a fine poem but a deceitful one: We do indeed remember Shakespeare’s powerful rhyme, but what do we remember about the person it commemorates? Nothing. We’re pretty sure he was male; everything else is guesswork. Shakespeare told us precious little of the man whom he entombed in his linguistic sarcophagus. (Witness also that when we talk about literature, we do so in the present tense. When we speak of the dead, we are not so kind.) You do not immortalize the lost by writing about them. Language buries, but does not resurrect. (Full disclosure: I am not the first to make this observation. cf, the MacLeish poem “Not Marble, Nor the Gilded Monuments,” which contains the heroic line “I shall say you will die and none will remember you.”)
I digress, but here’s the rub: The dead are visible only in the terrible lidless eye of memory. The living, thank heaven, retain the ability to surprise and to disappoint. Your Hazel is alive, Waters, and you mustn’t impose your will upon another’s decision, particularly a decision arrived at thoughtfully. She wishes to spare you pain, and you should let her. You may not find young Hazel’s logic persuasive, but I have trod through this vale of tears longer than you, and from where I’m sitting, she’s not the lunatic.
Peter Van Houten
It was really written by him. I licked my finger and dabbed the paper and the ink bled a little, so I knew it was really real.
“Mom,” I said. I did not say it loudly, but I didn’t have to. She was always waiting. She peeked her head around the door.
“You okay, sweetie?”
“Can we call Dr. Maria and ask if international travel would kill me?”