The Fault in Our Stars and American death.


I think I’ve been pretty open in my admiration for author/internet person John Green. I love his videos, I love his engagement with community, I love his sense of humor, and I love his writing — which is to say: As a reader, I love his stories, and as a writer, I love how he uses language. I claim with pride the mantle of nerdfighter (if you don’t know what that is, go here and/or here) and do my best everyday not to forget to be awesome (here). (I’m also a huge, huge fan of John’s brother Hank, but I digress).

The work for which the elder Green is best known — far and away — is his 2012 book The Fault in Our Stars, recently made into a movie (June 6 release). TFIOS (as the title gets shortened) is a small masterpiece, managing to be neither maudlin, nor treacley, nor false in telling the story of the romance between two teenagers with cancer. It’s an affirmation of the ways in which all lives matter, no matter how few the years or how small the stage, and a reminder of the power of love and joy to create infinity, even when the end of days is all too evident. It’s a thing of beauty, a wonder-ful piece of art that is deeply, deeply human. It’s also been translated into a gajillion languages — I read some of the Hebrew translation in Israel last year and burst into tears as if I’d never read it before — and has inspired an avalanche of TFIOS-inspired fan art, much of it created by the teenaged, YA audience for whom Green originally intended the book.

As you might imagine, the anticipation for the movie is at something of a fever pitch, and when the first trailer was released this week, whole sections of the Internet collectively lost their shit (in a good way). Green (who has been closely involved with the film project from the beginning) asked fans to record their reactions to the trailer, and so many did. One young girl, 13 year old  Naomi Horn, talked about losing her uncle to pancreatic cancer when she was seven, and then just two years later, having to watch her mother face down breast cancer; both the trailer and Naomi’s video are embedded below.

But now, 400 words later, I come to my point.

Watching Naomi’s video last night, it struck me that I’d never really made a mental connection between The Fault in Our Stars and my own father’s death to cancer, when he was only 35 and I was just a baby. Those facts were, I think, too far in the past — and anyway, back when my dad was dying, people didn’t talk about the fact that they were dying. There was no pre-gaming the event, no preparing the family, no writing journals for the children who would come of age without him — just denial. It was the mid-60s, and (my mother tells me) you just didn’t talk about it.

And so it came to me to wonder what kind of difference it might have made in my life if a book like TFIOS had been around when I was Naomi’s age and still very much struggling to accept that I would never know my father — that I could (as I later put it) cry a river, and it would never bring me to him.

But then, an hour or so later, it came to me to wonder what a difference it might have made for my father if he had had a book like TFIOS when he was young — when the idea that he might die at 35 would no doubt have seemed impossible.

We can only live in the slice of history into which we are born. There was no TFIOS in the 1940s when my dad was a teenager (or in the 70s/80s, when I was one) because American culture had to reach a point where we could allow a TFIOS.

But in the moments in which these thoughts came tumbling into my forebrain, I thought of another thing: The Fault in Our Stars is not just a phenomenal book — it is also a turning point in the way that American culture deals with death. It is the turning point — John Green has created a turning point for us, a turning point full of kindness and gentleness and honesty and humanity and deep, deep mattering.

That turning will only be magnified by the movie, which will in turn be magnified by the many, many ways in which the TFIOS community responds and America responds and the people who have read and watched all across the globe respond — but it all started with John Green. With one book that will matter in ways that people reading it today will not know until they are forced to call upon its lessons in the future.

I’m sorry my father couldn’t have had those lessons as he approached his own too-young death, and that I didn’t either, as I tried to grow up without him. But I’m grateful, and a little overawed, as I think about the mighty gift that John Green has given the world in the form of Hazel Grace and Augustus Waters. What a gift. Thank you.


This moment.

Technically, I suppose it’s already Shabbat, and as we all know, I don’t roll on Shabbat. But I just came home from my second wake in eight days, and I feel the need to write — to reach out, I suppose.

The first wake, a week ago yesterday, was for a woman who had lived long and reached the end of a terrible illness. It was a death that might have been better, but came, at last, as a release. The second wake, today’s, was for the 26 year old father of a three year old girl (today, it turns out, was her birthday), a police officer who happened to be the grandson of the woman who died last week. He was killed in a car accident, two days after his grandmother’s funeral.

I didn’t know either of these people — they were the mother and beloved nephew of a close friend. I had met the young man at his grandmother’s wake, and watched his daughter play (watched her with the relief that you feel when you see a child enjoying herself at a funeral), but neither loss was my own.

Yet at the end of this week, bracketed and filled with death and loss, sorrow and fear, I feel entirely drained, and so, so sad. And I feel my attachment to those I love as a tender and wondrous thing, gentle, fragile, a thing to be cradled tonight, held close and with joy.

So all I want to say as we close this week is this: Hold those you love. Take a moment to consider them and their place in your heart, imagine in your mind the delicate filament the ties you to them, and hold them. Tell them that you love them, and remind yourself how lucky you are to have their love.

We can never know when death will come. It may come (as it did for my father) at the end of cruel illness that stole him away over the course of a year; it may come (as it did for that 26 year old police officer, and dozens upon dozens of Egyptians this week) in an instant; it may come (please God) at the end of a long and fruitful life. But of course: It will come.

All we can know is that we have this moment. This is the moment to let love wash over and through us. This is the moment.

Shabbat shalom, to you, to those who mourn, and to all who struggle and strive across God’s earth. May we know peace, in our hearts and in our lives. Shabbat shalom.

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