The fault in our stars (Chapter 21)
Augustus Waters died eight days after his prefuneral, at Memorial, in the ICU, when the cancer, which was made of him, finally stopped his heart, which was also made of him.
He was with his mom and dad and sisters. His mom called me at three thirty in the morning. I’d known, of course, that he was going. I’d talked to his dad before going to bed, and he told me, “It could be tonight,” but still, when I grabbed the phone from the bedside table and saw Gus’s Mom on the caller ID, everything inside of me collapsed. She was just crying on the other end of the line, and she told me she was sorry, and I said I was sorry, too, and she told me that he was unconscious for a couple hours before he died.
My parents came in then, looking expectant, and I just nodded and they fell into each other, feeling, I’m sure, the harmonic terror that would in time come for them directly.
I called Isaac, who cursed life and the universe and God Himself and who said where are the goddamned trophies to break when you need them, and then I realized there was no one else to call, which was the saddest thing. The only person I really wanted to talk to about Augustus Waters’s death was Augustus Waters.
My parents stayed in my room forever until it was morning and finally Dad said, “Do you want to be alone?” and I nodded and Mom said, “We’ll be right outside the door,” me thinking, I don’t doubt it.
It was unbearable. The whole thing. Every second worse than the last. I just kept thinking about calling him, wondering what would happen, if anyone would answer. In the last weeks, we’d been reduced to spending our time together in recollection, but that was not nothing: The pleasure of remembering had been taken from me, because there was no longer anyone to remember with. It felt like losing your co-rememberer meant losing the memory itself, as if the things we’d done were less real and important than they had been hours before.
* * *
When you go into the ER, one of the first things they ask you to do is to rate your pain on a scale of one to ten, and from there they decide which drugs to use and how quickly to use them. I’d been asked this question hundreds of times over the years, and I remember once early on when I couldn’t get my breath and it felt like my chest was on fire, flames licking the inside of my ribs fighting for a way to burn out of my body, my parents took me to the ER. A nurse asked me about the pain, and I couldn’t even speak, so I held up nine fingers.
Later, after they’d given me something, the nurse came in and she was kind of stroking my hand while she took my blood pressure and she said, “You know how I know you’re a fighter? You called a ten a nine.”
But that wasn’t quite right. I called it a nine because I was saving my ten. And here it was, the great and terrible ten, slamming me again and again as I lay still and alone in my bed staring at the ceiling, the waves tossing me against the rocks then pulling me back out to sea so they could launch me again into the jagged face of the cliff, leaving me floating faceup on the water, undrowned.
Finally I did call him. His phone rang five times and then went to voice mail. “You’ve reached the voice mail of Augustus Waters,” he said, the clarion voice I’d fallen for. “Leave a message.” It beeped. The dead air on the line was so eerie. I just wanted to go back to that secret post-terrestrial third space with him that we visited when we talked on the phone. I waited for that feeling, but it never came: The dead air on the line was no comfort, and finally I hung up.
I got my laptop out from under the bed and fired it up and went onto his wall page, where already the condolences were flooding in. The most recent one said:
I love you, bro. See you on the other side…. Written by someone I’d never heard of. In fact, almost all the wall posts, which arrived nearly as fast as I could read them, were written by people I’d never met and whom he’d never spoken about, people who were extolling his various virtues now that he was dead, even though I knew for a fact they hadn’t seen him in months and had made no effort to visit him. I wondered if my wall would look like this if I died, or if I’d been out of school and life long enough to escape widespread memorialization.
I kept reading.
I miss you already, bro.
I love you, Augustus. God bless and keep you.
You’ll live forever in our hearts, big man.
(That particularly galled me, because it implied the immortality of those left behind: You will live forever in my memory, because I will live forever! I AM YOUR GOD NOW, DEAD BOY! I OWN YOU! Thinking you won’t die is yet another side effect of dying.)
You were always such a great friend I’m sorry I didn’t see more of you after you left school, bro. I bet you’re already playing ball in heaven.
I imagined the Augustus Waters analysis of that comment: If I am playing basketball in heaven, does that imply a physical location of a heaven containing physical basketballs? Who makes the basketballs in question? Are there less fortunate souls in heaven who work in a celestial basketball factory so that I can play? Or did an omnipotent God create the basketballs out of the vacuum of space? Is this heaven in some kind of unobservable universe where the laws of physics don’t apply, and if so, why in the hell would I be playing basketball when I could be flying or reading or looking at beautiful people or something else I actually enjoy? It’s almost as if the way you imagine my dead self says more about you than it says about either the person I was or the whatever I am now.
His parents called around noon to say the funeral would be in five days, on Saturday. I pictured a church packed with people who thought he liked basketball, and I wanted to puke, but I knew I had to go, since I was speaking and everything. When I hung up, I went back to reading his wall:
Just heard that Gus Waters died after a lengthy battle with cancer. Rest in peace, buddy.
I knew these people were genuinely sad, and that I wasn’t really mad at them. I was mad at the universe. Even so, it infuriated me: You get all these friends just when you don’t need friends anymore. I wrote a reply to his comment:
We live in a universe devoted to the creation, and eradication, of awareness. Augustus Waters did not die after a lengthy battle with cancer. He died after a lengthy battle with human consciousness, a victim—as you will be—of the universe’s need to make and unmake all that is possible.
I posted it and waited for someone to reply, refreshing over and over again. Nothing. My comment got lost in the blizzard of new posts. Everyone was going to miss him so much. Everyone was praying for his family. I remembered Van Houten’s letter: Writing does not resurrect. It buries.
* * *
After a while, I went out into the living room to sit with my parents and watch TV. I couldn’t tell you what the show was, but at some point, my mom said, “Hazel, what can we do for you?”
And I just shook my head. I started crying again.
“What can we do?” Mom asked again.
But she kept asking, as if there were something she could do, until finally I just kind of crawled across the couch into her lap and my dad came over and held my legs really tight and I wrapped my arms all the way around my mom’s middle and they held on to me for hours while the tide rolled in.