I read The Fault in Our Stars before it became a movie and fell in love with Hazel Grace, Augustus Waters, their relationship, their wisdom, and their story. I read it despite the fact that my mom was losing her battle with cancer and that it would undoubtedly be a huge trigger for me. I suspected one of the two would pass away before the end. And yet I couldn’t put it down. I was so deeply affected by Hazel and Augustus that I recommended the book to anyone who would listen.
That includes my mom. I encouraged my – I’m going to say it – dying mother to read a very real and raw novel about dying. To show her that she could still live her life, to let her know that life goes on, and to show her how some infinities are just shorter than others.
We went grocery shopping together one afternoon. While pushing her in a wheelchair and somehow hanging a basket on my wrist, I saw it on an endcap display and impulsively added it to our pile for her. It didn’t occur to me until after checkout that it could have been a mistake.
What if it makes her cry? What if it breaks her?
But it was already too late. She started reading it when we got home and got hooked on it off the bat. She was quickly turning the pages and grasping what she read, which was a relief, because her dexterity, vision, and level of understanding were already shoddy. The book makes a very difficult topic seem simple and bearable. And my mom seemed to love Hazel and she wanted to know what happened in the end.
My mom continued to read the novel on our front porch while my husband and I worked in the garden in front of her. We had a picnic on the porch which is one of the few times she actually put the book down. She was able to feed herself yogurt at that point. I think I had a granola bar while sitting on the porch floorboards next to her. It still counts as a picnic.
During the break, she said she didn’t really understand the title, so I tried to explain to her what I thought about it. How I’d read that it was a nod to a Julius Caesar quote. Shakespeare wrote, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.”
I told her I think that the author is eloquently calling bullshit. I said, “It means it’s not your fault at all, Mom. Nobody chooses to have cancer. You did nothing to cause or deserve this.” She gave a slight smile and continued reading.
I decided it was a good answer. Looking back, of everything I ever did for my mom, making sure she knew that is something I will rest and grieve peacefully with. My mom had confided in me several times already that a family member yelled at her when she knocked things over, spilled her drinks, choked on food, had trouble hearing, and did other things that were a direct result of the tumors in her brain. It was never her fault and I tried to make sure she knew that. I told her she could throw food at the wall if she wanted and that nobody should care if food gets on the floor. The dog would actually welcome that, so have at it.
Anyway, when the summer sun was too warm for my mom’s very reactive skin (a side effect of chemo), she read her novel on the couch and fell asleep with it on her lap often. She was sleeping more often. She took naps frequently. Even while she came in and out of her slumber, I loved being next to her. But when she was reading, I noticed she started missing pages because they were too thin to separate for her fingers and she was rereading chapters towards the end over and over again. Maybe it’s because she didn’t understand them. Maybe it’s because she forgot where she was. Probably a combination of the two. At some point she did claim she finished it though. And she said she loved Hazel. Hazel has the same tenacity as my mom did, so I don’t blame her.
That was the last thing she ever read independently.
What’s my point? One evening just before or just after my mom had finished the novel, the family member who blamed her for things out of her control started putting her down for who she was as a person and decisions she had made long ago. The person said how she wasn’t careful enough around breakables again. I spoke up. I said how she had told me the put-downs had been happening, how she had asked me not to speak up, but how I wasn’t going to let it happen anymore. It’s like she was asking me for help but trying not to get the person in trouble both at the same time.
Anyway, as much as I would have defended her, I didn’t need to. My mom fired back at the bullying family member, “It’s not my fault at all. That’s what it says in the book. Nobody chooses to have cancer. I didn’t do anything to cause or deserve this.”
And for a second, the bully shut up. The comments ultimately resumed and my mom’s new self-assured stance was ultimately worn down again by said comments, but for that one moment, she stood up for herself. I owe The Fault in Our Stars for that. And I’m really proud of her.
This topic might seem somewhat random for anyone reading this, but the novel is fresh in my mind after watching the movie adaptation last night. The movie changed some parts of the book, deleted some characters I’d hoped would be brought to life, and left out some smaller details that were really important to me, but it still made me sob just the same.
It was an ugly cry too. For approximately half of the movie. The kind where the snot is pouring out of your nose, you don’t have a tissue, and there’s so much junk leaking from your face you have no choice but to wipe it on your sleeve. Not that I wiped it on my sleeve. Okay, I wiped it on my sleeve. And then my husband offered me his sleeve and just held me.
I’m really glad I didn’t bring my mom to the movie. I was going to. But by the time it came out in theaters, she wouldn’t have been able to hear it, read any closed captioning, or stay awake through the whole thing. I’m also glad I didn’t see it in the theater, because it would have been one hell of an ugly cry in public. But I’m really happy I saw it last night. Even if it was painful. “That’s the thing about pain. […] It demands to be felt.”
That’s kind of the point of this entire blog too, honestly. The quote “you know it meant something” came from from Peter and the Starcatcher. Which plays off of the First Noble Truth of Buddhism that says, “Life is suffering.” If something is worthwhile and meaningful, it’s going to hurt when it’s gone. Losing my mom has been devastating to a lot of people, so you know her life meant something grander. So I guess that means it’s an honor to be hurt by her loss. It’s supposed to hurt. Because it means I knew her. I was created by an astonishing woman.
My mom treated underdogs and alpha dogs the same. I think that quality was one of her most inspiring. She was nonjudgmental, respectful, and supportive to everyone. She loved everyone equally. But somehow she didn’t think she deserved the same respect. The evening that I witnessed her stand up for herself the first time in my vivid memory was life-changing. And somehow I’d forgotten all about it until last night.
I owe The Fault in Our Stars for a wonderful memory amidst a devastating time in my life. For helping both a victim of cancer and the daughter she left behind.
I guess that’s my review. Two thumbs up. Go read the book right now. And watch the movie. Cry all you need to. Be moved by them both. And no matter what, keep your chin up.