This is a guest post from reader Michael Strand. He lives in Morris, Minnesota.
I picked up John Green’s latest book The Fault in Our Stars (TFIOS) a few months ago, unprepared for the emotive process I’d experience reading the book. Few works have moved me so completely. Here I was, a jaded 25-year-old man reading a book about a teenage girl, crying like a teenage girl.
TFIOS follows two kids dying of terminal cancer as they fall in love, discover new things, and come to certain conclusions regarding the nature of illness and death. It seems a story that could easily be unbearably sappy and cliché, but it isn’t. Green handles the narrative with levity and grace, weaving an emotional and intimate story that, if anything, confronts clichés to uncover the truths hiding behind them.
The book affected me so intensely because I’ve experienced the glacial advance of terminal illness—the doctors, the pain, the fear, the loss of dignity. My father, Ray, died three years ago after a protracted battle with a rare neurological disorder. Instead of being the kid dying of illness, I was the kid with the dad dying of illness. But, to a kid, there’s little difference.
As I read TFIOS, I felt an unstoppable rush of memories and feelings. I saw my own experiences reflected in the characters’ thoughts and feelings. The book did an incredible job of genuinely rendering what it’s like to be very sick, marked for death, and yet still very much alive.
I think the most difficult part of having a life-threatening illness is that it takes great fortitude and endurance to continue living. Everything becomes a battle, and even the simplest tasks are fraught with such frustration and pain you often want to give up. It’s easy, as Green discusses in TFIOS, to “become” your illness. Instead of being a person with hopes, dreams, and desires, you become an object of illness, a grenade waiting to detonate.
For years I had to make some kind of meaning out of my dad’s illness. Dealing with something like that takes work. School, friendships, and future dreams are all overshadowed by the work of living with illness. The process felt like fixing a falling house, furiously trying to rebuild everything brick by brick while sickness relentlessly tore it down. When my dad died, though, I felt like all that work and suffering had been in vain. Nothing had been created. He was just gone.
I’d hoped my dad’s death would bring some kind of closure, that I’d feel a sense of solace and meaning. He’d suffered for so long, I longed for the day when he’d be released from his pain and I’d be released from my servitude to his sickness. I hoped my life would be my own again. The problem was I didn’t remember very well what things were like before my dad got sick. I had memories of that time, of course, but I’d become an adult, and any sense of childhood normalcy had been destroyed.
I’d always expected that when I learned of my dad’s death, I’d cry, rage, and scream. I thought I’d have this amazing emotive experience, expelling all my pain in one great explosion, like an erupting volcano. Instead, when Ray died, my anguish found no voice. I didn’t cry. I didn’t rage. In fact, it felt like nothing special had happened at all. That day, I discovered the meaning of meaningless itself, finding myself suspended beneath a hammer stroke that never fell.
Reading TFIOS reminded me of many things about my dad I loved and miss, many things I’d forgotten. Green’s narrative helped me to see my dad not for his illnesses—and the pain it signifies—but for his personhood, his humanity.
At one point, Green’s main character Hazel Grace, muses: “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 human beings is never sated by dreams coming true, because there is always the thought that everything might be done better and again.”
Lately, I’ve started feeling like I can let go of the things that’ll never be done better or again. I’m learning that it wasn’t my dad’s fault he got sick, or mine. It wasn’t anyone’s fault. It just happened. And, though my dad isn’t here with me, what I learned from him will inform my life forever. In a way, I have John Green to thank for reminding me of this. His book did for me what any great piece of literature should: It facilitated self-transformation and the creation of a new reality within me.