The fault in our stars (Chapter 8)
We had a big Cancer Team Meeting a couple days later. Every so often, a bunch of doctors and social workers and physical therapists and whoever else got together around a big table in a conference room and discussed my situation. (Not the Augustus Waters situation or the Amsterdam situation. The cancer situation.)
Dr. Maria led the meeting. She hugged me when I got there. She was a hugger.
I felt a little better, I guess. Sleeping with the BiPAP all night made my lungs feel almost normal, although, then again, I did not really remember lung normality.
Everyone got there and made a big show of turning off their pagers and everything so it would be all about me, and then Dr. Maria said, “So the great news is that Phalanxifor continues to control your tumor growth, but obviously we’re still seeing serious problems with fluid accumulation. So the question is, how should we proceed?”
And then she just looked at me, like she was waiting for an answer. “Um,” I said, “I feel like I am not the most qualified person in the room to answer that question?”
She smiled. “Right, I was waiting for Dr. Simons. Dr. Simons?” He was another cancer doctor of some kind.
“Well, we know from other patients that most tumors eventually evolve a way to grow in spite of Phalanxifor, but if that were the case, we’d see tumor growth on the scans, which we don’t see. So it’s not that yet.”
Yet, I thought.
Dr. Simons tapped at the table with his forefinger. “The thought around here is that it’s possible the Phalanxifor is worsening the edema, but we’d face far more serious problems if we discontinued its use.”
Dr. Maria added, “We don’t really understand the long-term effects of Phalanxifor. Very few people have been on it as long as you have.”
“So we’re gonna do nothing?”
“We’re going to stay the course,” Dr. Maria said, “but we’ll need to do more to keep that edema from building up.” I felt kind of sick for some reason, like I was going to throw up. I hated Cancer Team Meetings in general, but I hated this one in particular. “Your cancer is not going away, Hazel. But we’ve seen people live with your level of tumor penetration for a long time.” (I did not ask what constituted a long time. I’d made that mistake before.) “I know that coming out of the ICU, it doesn’t feel this way, but this fluid is, at least for the time being, manageable.”
“Can’t I just get like a lung transplant or something?” I asked.
Dr. Maria’s lips shrank into her mouth. “You would not be considered a strong candidate for a transplant, unfortunately,” she said. I understood: No use wasting good lungs on a hopeless case. I nodded, trying not to look like that comment hurt me. My dad started crying a little. I didn’t look over at him, but no one said anything for a long time, so his hiccuping cry was the only sound in the room.
I hated hurting him. Most of the time, I could forget about it, but the inexorable truth is this: They might be glad to have me around, but I was the alpha and the omega of my parents’ suffering.
Just before the Miracle, when I was in the ICU and it looked like I was going to die and Mom was telling me it was okay to let go, and I was trying to let go but my lungs kept searching for air, Mom sobbed something into Dad’s chest that I wish I hadn’t heard, and that I hope she never finds out that I did hear. She said, “I won’t be a mom anymore.” It gutted me pretty badly.
I couldn’t stop thinking about that during the whole Cancer Team Meeting. I couldn’t get it out of my head, how she sounded when she said that, like she would never be okay again, which probably she wouldn’t.
Anyway, eventually we decided to keep things the same only with more frequent fluid drainings. At the end, I asked if I could travel to Amsterdam, and Dr. Simons actually and literally laughed, but then Dr. Maria said, “Why not?” And Simons said, dubiously, “Why not?” And Dr. Maria said, “Yeah, I don’t see why not. They’ve got oxygen on the planes, after all.” Dr. Simons said, “Are they just going to gate-check a BiPAP?” And Maria said, “Yeah, or have one waiting for her.”
“Placing a patient—one of the most promising Phalanxifor survivors, no less—an eight-hour flight from the only physicians intimately familiar with her case? That’s a recipe for disaster.”
Dr. Maria shrugged. “It would increase some risks,” she acknowledged, but then turned to me and said, “But it’s your life.”
Except not really. On the car ride home, my parents agreed: I would not be going to Amsterdam unless and until there was medical agreement that it would be safe.
* * *
Augustus called that night after dinner. I was already in bed—after dinner had become my bedtime for the moment—propped up with a gajillion pillows and also Bluie, with my computer on my lap.
I picked up, saying, “Bad news,” and he said, “Shit, what?”
“I can’t go to Amsterdam. One of my doctors thinks it’s a bad idea.”
He was quiet for a second. “God,” he said. “I should’ve just paid for it myself. Should’ve just taken you straight from the Funky Bones to Amsterdam.”
“But then I would’ve had a probably fatal episode of deoxygenation in Amsterdam, and my body would have been shipped home in the cargo hold of an airplane,” I said.
“Well, yeah,” he said. “But before that, my grand romantic gesture would have totally gotten me laid.”
I laughed pretty hard, hard enough that I felt where the chest tube had been.
“You laugh because it’s true,” he said.
I laughed again.
“It’s true, isn’t it!”
“Probably not,” I said, and then after a moment added, “although you never know.”
He moaned in misery. “I’m gonna die a virgin,” he said.
“You’re a virgin?” I asked, surprised.
“Hazel Grace,” he said, “do you have a pen and a piece of paper?” I said I did. “Okay, please draw a circle.” I did. “Now draw a smaller circle within that circle.” I did. “The larger circle is virgins. The smaller circle is seventeen-year-old guys with one leg.”
I laughed again, and told him that having most of your social engagements occur at a children’s hospital also did not encourage promiscuity, and then we talked about Peter Van Houten’s amazingly brilliant comment about the sluttiness of time, and even though I was in bed and he was in his basement, it really felt like we were back in that uncreated third space, which was a place I really liked visiting with him.
Then I got off the phone and my mom and dad came into my room, and even though it was really not big enough for all three of us, they lay on either side of the bed with me and we all watched ANTM on the little TV in my room. This girl I didn’t like, Selena, got kicked off, which made me really happy for some reason. Then Mom hooked me up to the BiPAP and tucked me in, and Dad kissed me on the forehead, the kiss all stubble, and then I closed my eyes.
The BiPAP essentially took control of my breathing away from me, which was intensely annoying, but the great thing about it was that it made all this noise, rumbling with each inhalation and whirring as I exhaled. I kept thinking that it sounded like a dragon breathing in time with me, like I had this pet dragon who was cuddled up next to me and cared enough about me to time his breaths to mine. I was thinking about that as I sank into sleep.
I got up late the next morning. I watched TV in bed and checked my email and then after a while started crafting an email to Peter Van Houten about how I couldn’t come to Amsterdam but I swore upon the life of my mother that I would never share any information about the characters with anyone, that I didn’t even want to share it, because I was a terribly selfish person, and could he please just tell me if the Dutch Tulip Man is for real and if Anna’s mom marries him and also about Sisyphus the Hamster.
But I didn’t send it. It was too pathetic even for me.
Around three, when I figured Augustus would be home from school, I went into the backyard and called him. As the phone rang, I sat down on the grass, which was all overgrown and dandeliony. That swing set was still back there, weeds growing out of the little ditch I’d created from kicking myself higher as a little kid. I remembered Dad bringing home the kit from Toys “R” Us and building it in the backyard with a neighbor. He’d insisted on swinging on it first to test it, and the thing damn near broke.
The sky was gray and low and full of rain but not yet raining. I hung up when I got Augustus’s voice mail and then put the phone down in the dirt beside me and kept looking at the swing set, thinking that I would give up all the sick days I had left for a few healthy ones. I tried to tell myself that it could be worse, that the world was not a wish-granting factory, that I was living with cancer not dying of it, that I mustn’t let it kill me before it kills me, and then I just started muttering stupid stupid stupid stupid stupid stupid over and over again until the sound unhinged from its meaning. I was still saying it when he called back.
“Hi,” I said.
“Hazel Grace,” he said.
“Hi,” I said again.
“Are you crying, Hazel Grace?”
“Why?” he asked.
“’Cause I’m just—I want to go to Amsterdam, and I want him to tell me what happens after the book is over, and I just don’t want my particular life, and also the sky is depressing me, and there is this old swing set out here that my dad made for me when I was a kid.”
“I must see this old swing set of tears immediately,” he said. “I’ll be over in twenty minutes.”
I stayed in the backyard because Mom was always really smothery and concerned when I was crying, because I did not cry often, and I knew she’d want to talk and discuss whether I shouldn’t consider adjusting my medication, and the thought of that whole conversation made me want to throw up.
It’s not like I had some utterly poignant, well-lit memory of a healthy father pushing a healthy child and the child saying higher higher higher or some other metaphorically resonant moment. The swing set was just sitting there, abandoned, the two little swings hanging still and sad from a grayed plank of wood, the outline of the seats like a kid’s drawing of a smile.
Behind me, I heard the sliding-glass door open. I turned around. It was Augustus, wearing khaki pants and a short-sleeve plaid button-down. I wiped my face with my sleeve and smiled. “Hi,” I said.
It took him a second to sit down on the ground next to me, and he grimaced as he landed rather ungracefully on his ass. “Hi,” he said finally. I looked over at him. He was looking past me, into the backyard. “I see your point,” he said as he put an arm around my shoulder. “That is one sad goddamned swing set.”
I nudged my head into his shoulder. “Thanks for offering to come over.”
“You realize that trying to keep your distance from me will not lessen my affection for you,” he said.
“I guess?” I said.
“All efforts to save me from you will fail,” he said.
“Why? Why would you even like me? Haven’t you put yourself through enough of this?” I asked, thinking of Caroline Mathers.
Gus didn’t answer. He just held on to me, his fingers strong against my left arm. “We gotta do something about this frigging swing set,” he said. “I’m telling you, it’s ninety percent of the problem.”
Once I’d recovered, we went inside and sat down on the couch right next to each other, the laptop half on his (fake) knee and half on mine. “Hot,” I said of the laptop’s base.
“Is it now?” He smiled. Gus loaded this giveaway site called Free No Catch and together we wrote an ad.
“Headline?” he asked.
“‘Swing Set Needs Home,’” I said.
“‘Desperately Lonely Swing Set Needs Loving Home,’” he said.
“‘Lonely, Vaguely Pedophilic Swing Set Seeks the Butts of Children,’” I said.
He laughed. “That’s why.”
“That’s why I like you. Do you realize how rare it is to come across a hot girl who creates an adjectival version of the word pedophile? You are so busy being you that you have no idea how utterly unprecedented you are.”
I took a deep breath through my nose. There was never enough air in the world, but the shortage was particularly acute in that moment.
We wrote the ad together, editing each other as we went. In the end, we settled upon this:
Desperately Lonely Swing Set Needs Loving Home
One swing set, well worn but structurally sound, seeks new home. Make memories with your kid or kids so that someday he or she or they will look into the backyard and feel the ache of sentimentality as desperately as I did this afternoon. It’s all fragile and fleeting, dear reader, but with this swing set, your child(ren) will be introduced to the ups and downs of human life gently and safely, and may also learn the most important lesson of all: No matter how hard you kick, no matter how high you get, you can’t go all the way around.
Swing set currently resides near 83rd and Spring Mill.
After that, we turned on the TV for a little while, but we couldn’t find anything to watch, so I grabbed An Imperial Affliction off the bedside table and brought it back into the living room and Augustus Waters read to me while Mom, making lunch, listened in.
“‘Mother’s glass eye turned inward,’” Augustus began. As he read, I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once.
When I checked my email an hour later, I learned that we had plenty of swing-set suitors to choose from. In the end, we picked a guy named Daniel Alvarez who’d included a picture of his three kids playing video games with the subject line I just want them to go outside. I emailed him back and told him to pick it up at his leisure.
Augustus asked if I wanted to go with him to Support Group, but I was really tired from my busy day of Having Cancer, so I passed. We were sitting there on the couch together, and he pushed himself up to go but then fell back down onto the couch and sneaked a kiss onto my cheek.
“Augustus!” I said.
“Friendly,” he said. He pushed himself up again and really stood this time, then took two steps over to my mom and said, “Always a pleasure to see you,” and my mom opened her arms to hug him, whereupon Augustus leaned in and kissed my mom on the cheek. He turned back to me. “See?” he asked.
I went to bed right after dinner, the BiPAP drowning out the world beyond my room.
I never saw the swing set again.
* * *
I slept for a long time, ten hours, possibly because of the slow recovery and possibly because sleep fights cancer and possibly because I was a teenager with no particular wake-up time. I wasn’t strong enough yet to go back to classes at MCC. When I finally felt like getting up, I removed the BiPAP snout from my nose, put my oxygen nubbins in, turned them on, and then grabbed my laptop from beneath my bed, where I’d stashed it the night before.
I had an email from Lidewij Vliegenthart.
I have received word via the Genies that you will be visiting us with Augustus Waters and your mother beginning on 4th of May. Only a week away! Peter and I are delighted and cannot wait to make your acquaintance. Your hotel, the Filosoof, is just one street away from Peter’s home. Perhaps we should give you one day for the jet lag, yes? So if convenient, we will meet you at Peter’s home on the morning of 5th May at perhaps ten o’clock for a cup of coffee and for him to answer questions you have about his book. And then perhaps afterward we can tour a museum or the Anne Frank House?
With all best wishes,
Executive Assistant to Mr. Peter Van Houten, author of An Imperial Affliction
* * *
“Mom,” I said. She didn’t answer. “MOM!” I shouted. Nothing. Again, louder, “MOM!”
She ran in wearing a threadbare pink towel under her armpits, dripping, vaguely panicked. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing. Sorry, I didn’t know you were in the shower,” I said.
“Bath,” she said. “I was just…” She closed her eyes. “Just trying to take a bath for five seconds. Sorry. What’s going on?”
“Can you call the Genies and tell them the trip is off? I just got an email from Peter Van Houten’s assistant. She thinks we’re coming.”
She pursed her lips and squinted past me.
“What?” I asked.
“I’m not supposed to tell you until your father gets home.”
“What?” I asked again.
“Trip’s on,” she said finally. “Dr. Maria called us last night and made a convincing case that you need to live your—”
“MOM, I LOVE YOU SO MUCH!” I shouted, and she came to the bed and let me hug her.
I texted Augustus because I knew he was in school:
Still free May three?:-)
He texted back immediately.
Everything’s coming up Waters.
If I could just stay alive for a week, I’d know the unwritten secrets of Anna’s mom and the Dutch Tulip Guy. I looked down my blouse at my chest.
“Keep your shit together,” I whispered to my lungs.