The fault in our stars (Chapter 22)
When we first got there, I sat in the back of the visitation room, a little room of exposed stone walls off to the side of the sanctuary in the Literal Heart of Jesus church. There were maybe eighty chairs set up in the room, and it was two-thirds full but felt one-third empty.
For a while, I just watched people walk up to the coffin, which was on some kind of cart covered in a purple tablecloth. All these people I’d never seen before would kneel down next to him or stand over him and look at him for a while, maybe crying, maybe saying something, and then all of them would touch the coffin instead of touching him, because no one wants to touch the dead.
Gus’s mom and dad were standing next to the coffin, hugging everybody as they passed by, but when they noticed me, they smiled and shuffled over. I got up and hugged first his dad and then his mom, who held on to me too tight, like Gus used to, squeezing my shoulder blades. They both looked so old—their eye sockets hollowed, the skin sagging from their exhausted faces. They had reached the end of a hurdling sprint, too.
“He loved you so much,” Gus’s mom said. “He really did. It wasn’t—it wasn’t puppy love or anything,” she added, as if I didn’t know that.
“He loved you so much, too,” I said quietly. It’s hard to explain, but talking to them felt like stabbing and being stabbed. “I’m sorry,” I said. And then his parents were talking to my parents—the conversation all nodding and tight lips. I looked up at the casket and saw it unattended, so I decided to walk up there. I pulled the oxygen tube from my nostrils and raised the tube up over my head, handing it to Dad. I wanted it to be just me and just him. I grabbed my little clutch and walked up the makeshift aisle between the rows of chairs.
The walk felt long, but I kept telling my lungs to shut up, that they were strong, that they could do this. I could see him as I approached: His hair was parted neatly on the left side in a way that he would have found absolutely horrifying, and his face was plasticized. But he was still Gus. My lanky, beautiful Gus.
I wanted to wear the little black dress I’d bought for my fifteenth birthday party, my death dress, but I didn’t fit into it anymore, so I wore a plain black dress, knee-length. Augustus wore the same thin-lapeled suit he’d worn to Oranjee.
As I knelt, I realized they’d closed his eyes—of course they had—and that I would never again see his blue eyes. “I love you present tense,” I whispered, and then put my hand on the middle of his chest and said, “It’s okay, Gus. It’s okay. It is. It’s okay, you hear me?” I had—and have—absolutely no confidence that he could hear me. I leaned forward and kissed his cheek. “Okay,” I said. “Okay.”
I suddenly felt conscious that there were all these people watching us, that the last time so many people saw us kiss we were in the Anne Frank House. But there was, properly speaking, no us left to watch. Only a me.
I snapped open the clutch, reached in, and pulled out a hard pack of Camel Lights. In a quick motion I hoped no one behind would notice, I snuck them into the space between his side and the coffin’s plush silver lining. “You can light these,” I whispered to him. “I won’t mind.”
While I was talking to him, Mom and Dad had moved up to the second row with my tank, so I didn’t have a long walk back. Dad handed me a tissue as I sat down. I blew my nose, threaded the tubes around my ears, and put the nubbins back in.
I thought we’d go into the proper sanctuary for the real funeral, but it all happened in that little side room—the Literal Hand of Jesus, I guess, the part of the cross he’d been nailed to. A minister walked up and stood behind the coffin, almost like the coffin was a pulpit or something, and talked a little bit about how Augustus had a courageous battle and how his heroism in the face of illness was an inspiration to us all, and I was already starting to get pissed off at the minister when he said, “In heaven, Augustus will finally be healed and whole,” implying that he had been less whole than other people due to his leglessness, and I kind of could not repress my sigh of disgust. My dad grabbed me just above the knee and cut me a disapproving look, but from the row behind me, someone muttered almost inaudibly near my ear, “What a load of horse crap, eh, kid?”
I spun around.
Peter Van Houten wore a white linen suit, tailored to account for his rotundity, a powder-blue dress shirt, and a green tie. He looked like he was dressed for a colonial occupation of Panama, not a funeral. The minister said, “Let us pray,” but as everyone else bowed their head, I could only stare slack-jawed at the sight of Peter Van Houten. After a moment, he whispered, “We gotta fake pray,” and bowed his head.
I tried to forget about him and just pray for Augustus. I made a point of listening to the minister and not looking back.
The minister called up Isaac, who was much more serious than he’d been at the prefuneral. “Augustus Waters was the Mayor of the Secret City of Cancervania, and he is not replaceable,” Isaac began. “Other people will be able to tell you funny stories about Gus, because he was a funny guy, but let me tell you a serious one: A day after I got my eye cut out, Gus showed up at the hospital. I was blind and heartbroken and didn’t want to do anything and Gus burst into my room and shouted, ‘I have wonderful news!’ And I was like, ‘I don’t really want to hear wonderful news right now,’ and Gus said, ‘This is wonderful news you want to hear,’ and I asked him, ‘Fine, what is it?’ and he said, ‘You are going to live a good and long life filled with great and terrible moments that you cannot even imagine yet!’”
Isaac couldn’t go on, or maybe that was all he had written.
After a high school friend told some stories about Gus’s considerable basketball talents and his many qualities as a teammate, the minister said, “We’ll now hear a few words from Augustus’s special friend, Hazel.” Special friend? There were some titters in the audience, so I figured it was safe for me to start out by saying to the minister, “I was his girlfriend.” That got a laugh. Then I began reading from the eulogy I’d written.
“There’s a great quote in Gus’s house, one that both he and I found very comforting: Without pain, we couldn’t know joy.”
I went on spouting bullshit Encouragements as Gus’s parents, arm in arm, hugged each other and nodded at every word. Funerals, I had decided, are for the living.
After his sister Julie spoke, the service ended with a prayer about Gus’s union with God, and I thought back to what he’d told me at Oranjee, that he didn’t believe in mansions and harps, but did believe in capital-S Something, and so I tried to imagine him capital-S Somewhere as we prayed, but even then I could not quite convince myself that he and I would be together again. I already knew too many dead people. I knew that time would now pass for me differently than it would for him—that I, like everyone in that room, would go on accumulating loves and losses while he would not. And for me, that was the final and truly unbearable tragedy: Like all the innumerable dead, he’d once and for all been demoted from haunted to haunter.
And then one of Gus’s brothers-in-law brought up a boom box and they played this song Gus had picked out—a sad and quiet song by The Hectic Glow called “The New Partner.” I just wanted to go home, honestly. I didn’t know hardly any of these people, and I felt Peter Van Houten’s little eyes boring into my exposed shoulder blades, but after the song was over, everyone had to come up to me and tell me that I’d spoken beautifully, and that it was a lovely service, which was a lie: It was a funeral. It looked like any other funeral.
His pallbearers—cousins, his dad, an uncle, friends I’d never seen—came and got him, and they all started walking toward the hearse.
When Mom and Dad and I got in the car, I said, “I don’t want to go. I’m tired.”
“Hazel,” Mom said.
“Mom, there won’t be a place to sit and it’ll last forever and I’m exhausted.”
“Hazel, we have to go for Mr. and Mrs. Waters,” Mom said.
“Just…” I said. I felt so little in the backseat for some reason. I kind of wanted to be little. I wanted to be like six years old or something. “Fine,” I said.
I just stared out the window awhile. I really didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to see them lower him into the ground in the spot he’d picked out with his dad, and I didn’t want to see his parents sink to their knees in the dew-wet grass and moan in pain, and I didn’t want to see Peter Van Houten’s alcoholic belly stretched against his linen jacket, and I didn’t want to cry in front of a bunch of people, and I didn’t want to toss a handful of dirt onto his grave, and I didn’t want my parents to have to stand there beneath the clear blue sky with its certain slant of afternoon light, thinking about their day and their kid and my plot and my casket and my dirt.
But I did these things. I did all of them and worse, because Mom and Dad felt we should.
* * *
After it was over, Van Houten walked up to me and put a fat hand on my shoulder and said, “Could I hitch a ride? Left my rental at the bottom of the hill.” I shrugged, and he opened the door to the backseat right as my dad unlocked the car.
Inside, he leaned between the front seats and said, “Peter Van Houten: Novelist Emeritus and Semiprofessional Disappointer.”
My parents introduced themselves. He shook their hands. I was pretty surprised that Peter Van Houten had flown halfway across the world to attend a funeral. “How did you even—” I started, but he cut me off.
“I used the infernal Internet of yours to follow the Indianapolis obituary notices.” He reached into his linen suit and produced a fifth of whiskey.
“And you just like bought a ticket and—”
He interrupted again while unscrewing the cap. “It was fifteen thousand for a first-class ticket, but I’m sufficiently capitalized to indulge such whims. And the drinks are free on the flight. If you’re ambitious, you can almost break even.”
Van Houten took a swig of the whiskey and then leaned forward to offer it to my dad, who said, “Um, no thanks.” Then Van Houten nodded the bottle toward me. I grabbed it.
“Hazel,” my mom said, but I unscrewed the cap and sipped. It made my stomach feel like my lungs. I handed the bottle back to Van Houten, who took a long slug from it and then said, “So. Omnis cellula e cellula.”
“Your boy Waters and I corresponded a bit, and in his last—”
“Wait, you read your fan mail now?”
“No, he sent it to my house, not through my publisher. And I’d hardly call him a fan. He despised me. But at any rate he was quite insistent that I’d be absolved for my misbehavior if I attended his funeral and told you what became of Anna’s mother. So here I am, and there’s your answer: Omnis cellula e cellula.”
“What?” I asked again.
“Omnis cellula e cellula,” he said again. “All cells come from cells. Every cell is born of a previous cell, which was born of a previous cell. Life comes from life. Life begets life begets life begets life begets life.”
We reached the bottom of the hill. “Okay, yeah,” I said. I was in no mood for this. Peter Van Houten would not hijack Gus’s funeral. I wouldn’t allow it. “Thanks,” I said. “Well, I guess we’re at the bottom of the hill.”
“You don’t want an explanation?” he asked.
“No,” I said. “I’m good. I think you’re a pathetic alcoholic who says fancy things to get attention like a really precocious eleven-year-old and I feel super bad for you. But yeah, no, you’re not the guy who wrote An Imperial Affliction anymore, so you couldn’t sequel it even if you wanted to. Thanks, though. Have an excellent life.”
“Thanks for the booze,” I said. “Now get out of the car.” He looked scolded. Dad had stopped the car and we just idled there below Gus’s grave for a minute until Van Houten opened the door and, finally silent, left.
As we drove away, I watched through the back window as he took a drink and raised the bottle in my direction, as if toasting me. His eyes looked so sad. I felt kinda bad for him, to be honest.
We finally got home around six, and I was exhausted. I just wanted to sleep, but Mom made me eat some cheesy pasta, although she at least allowed me to eat in bed. I slept with the BiPAP for a couple hours. Waking up was horrible, because for a disoriented moment I felt like everything was fine, and then it crushed me anew. Mom took me off the BiPAP, I tethered myself to a portable tank, and stumbled into my bathroom to brush my teeth.
Appraising myself in the mirror as I brushed my teeth, I kept thinking there were two kinds of adults: There were Peter Van Houtens—miserable creatures who scoured the earth in search of something to hurt. And then there were people like my parents, who walked around zombically, doing whatever they had to do to keep walking around.
Neither of these futures struck me as particularly desirable. It seemed to me that I had already seen everything pure and good in the world, and I was beginning to suspect that even if death didn’t get in the way, the kind of love that Augustus and I share could never last. So dawn goes down to day, the poet wrote. Nothing gold can stay.
Someone knocked on the bathroom door.
“Occupada,” I said.
“Hazel,” my dad said. “Can I come in?” I didn’t answer, but after a while I unlocked the door. I sat down on the closed toilet seat. Why did breathing have to be such work? Dad knelt down next to me. He grabbed my head and pulled it into his collarbone, and he said, “I’m sorry Gus died.” I felt kind of suffocated by his T-shirt, but it felt good to be held so hard, pressed into the comfortable smell of my dad. It was almost like he was angry or something, and I liked that, because I was angry, too. “It’s total bullshit,” he said. “The whole thing. Eighty percent survival rate and he’s in the twenty percent? Bullshit. He was such a bright kid. It’s bullshit. I hate it. But it was sure a privilege to love him, huh?”
I nodded into his shirt.
“Gives you an idea how I feel about you,” he said.
My old man. He always knew just what to say.