The fault in our stars (Chapter 25)
I woke up the next morning panicked because I’d dreamed of being alone and boatless in a huge lake. I bolted up, straining against the BiPAP, and felt Mom’s arm on me.
“Hi, you okay?”
My heart raced, but I nodded. Mom said, “Kaitlyn’s on the phone for you.” I pointed at my BiPAP. She helped me get it off and hooked me up to Philip and then finally I took my cell from Mom and said, “Hey, Kaitlyn.”
“Just calling to check in,” she said. “See how you’re doing.”
“Yeah, thanks,” I said. “I’m doing okay.”
“You’ve just had the worst luck, darling. It’s unconscionable.”
“I guess,” I said. I didn’t think much about my luck anymore one way or the other. Honestly, I didn’t really want to talk with Kaitlyn about anything, but she kept dragging the conversation along.
“So what was it like?” she asked.
“Having your boyfriend die? Um, it sucks.”
“No,” she said. “Being in love.”
“Oh,” I said. “Oh. It was… it was nice to spend time with someone so interesting. We were very different, and we disagreed about a lot of things, but he was always so interesting, you know?”
“Alas, I do not. The boys I’m acquainted with are vastly uninteresting.”
“He wasn’t perfect or anything. He wasn’t your fairy-tale Prince Charming or whatever. He tried to be like that sometimes, but I liked him best when that stuff fell away.”
“Do you have like a scrapbook of pictures and letters he wrote?”
“I have some pictures, but he never really wrote me letters. Except, well there are some missing pages from his notebook that might have been something for me, but I guess he threw them away or they got lost or something.”
“Maybe he mailed them to you,” she said.
“Nah, they’d’ve gotten here.”
“Then maybe they weren’t written for you,” she said. “Maybe… I mean, not to depress you or anything, but maybe he wrote them for someone else and mailed them—”
“VAN HOUTEN!” I shouted.
“Are you okay? Was that a cough?”
“Kaitlyn, I love you. You are a genius. I have to go.”
I hung up, rolled over, reached for my laptop, turned it on, and emailed lidewij.vliegenthart.
I believe Augustus Waters sent a few pages from a notebook to Peter Van Houten shortly before he (Augustus) died. It is very important to me that someone reads these pages. I want to read them, of course, but maybe they weren’t written for me. Regardless, they must be read. They must be. Can you help?
Hazel Grace Lancaster
She responded late that afternoon.
I did not know that Augustus had died. I am very sad to hear this news. He was such a very charismatic young man. I am so sorry, and so sad.
I have not spoken to Peter since I resigned that day we met. It is very late at night here, but I am going over to his house first thing in the morning to find this letter and force him to read it. Mornings were his best time, usually.
p.s. I am bringing my boyfriend in case we have to physically restrain Peter.
I wondered why he’d written Van Houten in those last days instead of me, telling Van Houten that he’d be redeemed if only he gave me my sequel. Maybe the notebook pages had just repeated his request to Van Houten. It made sense, Gus leveraging his terminality to make my dream come true: The sequel was a tiny thing to die for, but it was the biggest thing left at his disposal.
I refreshed my email continually that night, slept for a few hours, and then commenced to refreshing around five in the morning. But nothing arrived. I tried to watch TV to distract myself, but my thoughts kept drifting back to Amsterdam, imagining Lidewij Vliegenthart and her boyfriend bicycling around town on this crazy mission to find a dead kid’s last correspondence. How fun it would be to bounce on the back of Lidewij Vliegenthart’s bike down the brick streets, her curly red hair blowing into my face, the smell of the canals and cigarette smoke, all the people sitting outside the cafés drinking beer, saying their r’s and g’s in a way I’d never learn.
I missed the future. Obviously I knew even before his recurrence that I’d never grow old with Augustus Waters. But thinking about Lidewij and her boyfriend, I felt robbed. I would probably never again see the ocean from thirty thousand feet above, so far up that you can’t make out the waves or any boats, so that the ocean is a great and endless monolith. I could imagine it. I could remember it. But I couldn’t see it again, and it occurred to me that the voracious ambition of humans is never sated by dreams coming true, because there is always the thought that everything might be done better and again.
That is probably true even if you live to be ninety—although I’m jealous of the people who get to find out for sure. Then again, I’d already lived twice as long as Van Houten’s daughter. What he wouldn’t have given to have a kid die at sixteen.
Suddenly Mom was standing between the TV and me, her hands folded behind her back. “Hazel,” she said. Her voice was so serious I thought something might be wrong.
“Do you know what today is?”
“It’s not my birthday, is it?”
She laughed. “Not just yet. It’s July fourteenth, Hazel.”
“Is it your birthday?”
“Is it Harry Houdini’s birthday?”
“I am really tired of guessing.”
“IT IS BASTILLE DAY!” She pulled her arms from behind her back, producing two small plastic French flags and waving them enthusiastically.
“That sounds like a fake thing. Like Cholera Awareness Day.”
“I assure you, Hazel, that there is nothing fake about Bastille Day. Did you know that two hundred and twenty-three years ago today, the people of France stormed the Bastille prison to arm themselves to fight for their freedom?”
“Wow,” I said. “We should celebrate this momentous anniversary.”
“It so happens that I have just now scheduled a picnic with your father in Holliday Park.”
She never stopped trying, my mom. I pushed against the couch and stood up. Together, we cobbled together some sandwich makings and found a dusty picnic basket in the hallway utility closet.
It was kind of a beautiful day, finally real summer in Indianapolis, warm and humid—the kind of weather that reminds you after a long winter that while the world wasn’t built for humans, we were built for the world. Dad was waiting for us, wearing a tan suit, standing in a handicapped parking spot typing away on his handheld. He waved as we parked and then hugged me. “What a day,” he said. “If we lived in California, they’d all be like this.”
“Yeah, but then you wouldn’t enjoy them,” my mom said. She was wrong, but I didn’t correct her.
We ended up putting our blanket down by the Ruins, this weird rectangle of Roman ruins plopped down in the middle of a field in Indianapolis. But they aren’t real ruins: They’re like a sculptural re-creation of ruins built eighty years ago, but the fake Ruins have been neglected pretty badly, so they have kind of become actual ruins by accident. Van Houten would like the Ruins. Gus, too.
So we sat in the shadow of the Ruins and ate a little lunch. “Do you need sunscreen?” Mom asked.
“I’m okay,” I said.
You could hear the wind in the leaves, and on that wind traveled the screams of the kids on the playground in the distance, the little kids figuring out how to be alive, how to navigate a world that was not built for them by navigating a playground that was. Dad saw me watching the kids and said, “You miss running around like that?”
“Sometimes, I guess.” But that wasn’t what I was thinking. I was just trying to notice everything: the light on the ruined Ruins, this little kid who could barely walk discovering a stick at the corner of the playground, my indefatigable mother zigzagging mustard across her turkey sandwich, my dad patting his handheld in his pocket and resisting the urge to check it, a guy throwing a Frisbee that his dog kept running under and catching and returning to him.
Who am I to say that these things might not be forever? Who is Peter Van Houten to assert as fact the conjecture that our labor is temporary? All I know of heaven and all I know of death is in this park: an elegant universe in ceaseless motion, teeming with ruined ruins and screaming children.
My dad was waving his hand in front of my face. “Tune in, Hazel. Are you there?”
“Sorry, yeah, what?”
“Mom suggested we go see Gus?”
“Oh. Yeah,” I said.
So after lunch, we drove down to Crown Hill Cemetery, the last and final resting place of three vice presidents, one president, and Augustus Waters. We drove up the hill and parked. Cars roared by behind us on Thiry-eighth Street. It was easy to find his grave: It was the newest. The earth was still mounded above his coffin. No headstone yet.
I didn’t feel like he was there or anything, but I still took one of Mom’s dumb little French flags and stuck it in the ground at the foot of his grave. Maybe passersby would think he was a member of the French Foreign Legion or some heroic mercenary.
* * *
Lidewij finally wrote back just after six P.M. while I was on the couch watching both TV and videos on my laptop. I saw immediately there were four attachments to the email and I wanted to open them first, but I resisted temptation and read the email.
Peter was very intoxicated when we arrived at his house this morning, but this made our job somewhat easier. Bas (my boyfriend) distracted him while I searched through the garbage bag Peter keeps with the fan mail in it, but then I realized that Augustus knew Peter’s address. There was a large pile of mail on his dining room table, where I found the letter very quickly. I opened it and saw that it was addressed to Peter, so I asked him to read it.
At this point, I became very angry, Hazel, but I did not yell at him. Instead, I told him that he owed it to his dead daughter to read this letter from a dead boy, and I gave him the letter and he read the entire thing and said—I quote him directly—“Send it to the girl and tell her I have nothing to add.”
I have not read the letter, although my eyes did fall on some phrases while scanning the pages. I have attached them here and then will mail them to you at your home; your address is the same?
May God bless and keep you, Hazel.
I clicked open the four attachments. His handwriting was messy, slanting across the page, the size of the letters varying, the color of the pen changing. He’d written it over many days in varying degrees of consciousness.
I’m a good person but a shitty writer. You’re a shitty person but a good writer. We’d make a good team. I don’t want to ask you any favors, but if you have time—and from what I saw, you have plenty—I was wondering if you could write a eulogy for Hazel. I’ve got notes and everything, but if you could just make it into a coherent whole or whatever? Or even just tell me what I should say differently.
Here’s the thing about Hazel: Almost everyone is obsessed with leaving a mark upon the world. Bequeathing a legacy. Outlasting death. We all want to be remembered. I do, too. That’s what bothers me most, is being another unremembered casualty in the ancient and inglorious war against disease.
I want to leave a mark.
But Van Houten: The marks humans leave are too often scars. You build a hideous minimall or start a coup or try to become a rock star and you think, “They’ll remember me now,” but (a) they don’t remember you, and (b) all you leave behind are more scars. Your coup becomes a dictatorship. Your minimall becomes a lesion.
(Okay, maybe I’m not such a shitty writer. But I can’t pull my ideas together, Van Houten. My thoughts are stars I can’t fathom into constellations.)
We are like a bunch of dogs squirting on fire hydrants. We poison the groundwater with our toxic piss, marking everything MINE in a ridiculous attempt to survive our deaths. I can’t stop pissing on fire hydrants. I know it’s silly and useless—epically useless in my current state—but I am an animal like any other.
Hazel is different. She walks lightly, old man. She walks lightly upon the earth. Hazel knows the truth: We’re as likely to hurt the universe as we are to help it, and we’re not likely to do either.
People will say it’s sad that she leaves a lesser scar, that fewer remember her, that she was loved deeply but not widely. But it’s not sad, Van Houten. It’s triumphant. It’s heroic. Isn’t that the real heroism? Like the doctors say: First, do no harm.
The real heroes anyway aren’t the people doing things; the real heroes are the people NOTICING things, paying attention. The guy who invented the smallpox vaccine didn’t actually invent anything. He just noticed that people with cowpox didn’t get smallpox.
After my PET scan lit up, I snuck into the ICU and saw her while she was unconscious. I just walked in behind a nurse with a badge and I got to sit next to her for like ten minutes before I got caught. I really thought she was going to die before I could tell her that I was going to die, too. It was brutal: the incessant mechanized haranguing of intensive care. She had this dark cancer water dripping out of her chest. Eyes closed. Intubated. But her hand was still her hand, still warm and the nails painted this almost black dark blue and I just held her hand and tried to imagine the world without us and for about one second I was a good enough person to hope she died so she would never know that I was going, too. But then I wanted more time so we could fall in love. I got my wish, I suppose. I left my scar.
A nurse guy came in and told me I had to leave, that visitors weren’t allowed, and I asked if she was doing okay, and the guy said, “She’s still taking on water.” A desert blessing, an ocean curse.
What else? She is so beautiful. You don’t get tired of looking at her. You never worry if she is smarter than you: You know she is. She is funny without ever being mean. I love her. I am so lucky to love her, Van Houten. You don’t get to choose if you get hurt in this world, old man, but you do have some say in who hurts you. I like my choices. I hope she likes hers.
I do, Augustus.
he author would like to acknowledge:
That disease and its treatment are treated fictitiously in this novel. For example, there is no such thing as Phalanxifor. I made it up, because I would like for it to exist. Anyone seeking an actual history of cancer ought to read The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee. I am also indebted to The Biology of Cancer by Robert A. Weinberg, and to Josh Sundquist, Marshall Urist, and Jonneke Hollanders, who shared their time and expertise with me on medical matters, which I cheerfully ignored when it suited my whims.
Esther Earl, whose life was a gift to me and to many. I am grateful also to the Earl family—Lori, Wayne, Abby, Angie, Grant, and Abe—for their generosity and friendship. Inspired by Esther, the Earls have founded a nonprofit, This Star Won’t Go Out, in her memory. You can learn more at tswgo.org.
The Dutch Literature Foundation, for giving me two months in Amsterdam to write. I’m particularly grateful to Fleur van Koppen, Jean Cristophe Boele van Hensbroek, Janetta de With, Carlijn van Ravenstein, Margje Scheepsma, and the Dutch nerdfighter community.
My editor and publisher, Julie Strauss-Gabel, who stuck with this story through many years of twists and turns, as did an extraordinary team at Penguin. Particular thanks to Rosanne Lauer, Deborah Kaplan, Liza Kaplan, Steve Meltzer, Nova Ren Suma, and Irene Vandervoort.
Ilene Cooper, my mentor and fairy godmother.
My agent, Jodi Reamer, whose sage counsel has saved me from countless disasters.
Nerdfighters, for being awesome.
Catitude, for wanting nothing more than to make the world suck less.
My brother, Hank, who is my best friend and closest collaborator.
My wife, Sarah, who is not only the great love of my life but also my first and most trusted reader. Also, the baby, Henry, to whom she gave birth. Furthermore, my own parents, Mike and Sydney Green, and parents-in-law, Connie and Marshall Urist.
My friends Chris and Marina Waters, who helped with this story at vital moments, as did Joellen Hosler, Shannon James, Vi Hart, the Venn diagramatically brilliant Karen Kavett, Valerie Barr, Rosianna Halse Rojas, and John Darnielle.