The text arrived after 11p.m. It pinged and surprised me. I was reading. It was from my granddaughter, who is nearly 13 and attending her first, sleepaway camp. A camp named something like, "The totally awesome math and science and art camp." The text included the angled, precise drawing of the bear on the flag on my porch -- the bear from the logo of the state of California. "Look what I drew today!" Izzie proclaimed.
Just days before at lunch she confessed to me her apprehension about going to camp, having a roommate and all those things that could go wrong in the mind of an emerging teenage girl. We texted for a bit that night and then one of us must have dozed off. The next night I received a video tour of her dorm room, kitchen and shared living space and the amazing multi-colored, geometric-shaped mobile she had created that day.
She was having the time of her young life.
I thought about that when I returned home from the movies later in the week with two younger friends -- one in her forties and one, I think, 17-ish, a senior in high school. We had seen "The Fault in Our Stars," the enormously popular, New York Times bestselling, young adult novel by John Greene, made into a movie. I had read the book this winter at the recommendation of these two.
And yes, for readers/movie-goers of a certain age, you might say this is a younger version of "Love Story" but with teenagers and cancer, and you would be partially right. Except this is surprisingly unsentimental and very real and very raw and very, very, very beautiful.
"Pain is meant to be felt." Main characters Hazel and Augustus take turns saying this in the movie. In a kind of matter-of-fact way. And you understand or you try to, what it would be like to be a teenager, almost an adult and knowing you were dying... soon-ish. You would want to live every moment before you didn't anymore.
These two are geeky and gorgeous. They have the shared love of a strange novel whose author wrote only one book and then fled to Amsterdam to become a recluse and, it turns out, a drunk. Through the Genies (Make a Wish folks) the two take a short trip to visit the author. Magic ensues. And realism. Our heroes can turn out to be mean and it comes as a surprise to discover, one young person can be a hero to another. And that can be enough. Completely enough for a life that is deep if not wide (to paraphrase the author).
You could say they were star-crossed lovers but I think of them as star-aligned lovers. The pair share a bottle of champagne (yes, they do, they are in Europe at a fancy restaurant) and they marvel at the very first sip. The waiter tells them the story of the old monk, Dom Perignon, who, upon tasting his fermented wine for the first time, says "Come quickly, I am drinking the stars."
The young girl who plays Hazel wears a cannula to breathe oxygen through most of the film. I had completely forgotten I once wore one until I sat in that theater. It was 1999. I had an undiagnosed lung ailment. For months I lived on oxygen. I was allowed to be off the oxygen for about two hours a day. I would use up those hours to get dressed, leave the house, go out in public. I'd pick up the mail, like always, at the post office, I'd attend my weekly Rotary meeting, I would do the visible parts of my job/life. Then I'd go back home and slip that thing over my head and drag the tank around my house. I worked from my phone and my computer for some time. Only a handful of close friends knew about my non-public hours.
And though I went for the best respiratory care in the country, at National Jewish Medical Center in Denver, no one could ever say what had made my lungs stop working right. And when they suggested, even though I did not have any form of cancer, I try chemotherapy or count down three years with the lungs I had, I chose to try alternative methods of healing. And I did. Heal. For reasons that are an equal mystery.
It was before the birth of any of my three grandchildren who make all the days of my crazy earlier life make sense. I am grateful, every day, I did not miss these years, right now, with each of them. When death faces you and you are allowed, briefly, to look away, you find sunsets and swing sets can equally bring you to tears.
The theater was filled with a staccato of air-gasping sobs and giggles, simultaneously. The sharp writing -- the movie follows the book -- hits those emotions often.
The title comes from Shakespeare. "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, / But in ourselves..." And as flawed creatures, we never know when that spark is wear-dated to expire. Not exactly, not even with what is described sometimes as a terminal illness.
I remembered a quote I heard from a recovering Episcopalian priest, in the '70s, at a kinda camp for adults who were seeking... which was most of us in the '70s. On the final night, when I was filled with wonder at the remote wilderness and perhaps a bit heady from the communal wine, he hugged me and said, "we are the stuff that stars are made of." And all those theories -- energy can neither be created nor destroyed -- the Big Bang, creating the earth from stardust -- it can be a bit much to wrap your head around. But I'm gonna try. It will be while I am spending time with the three single-best reasons I celebrate living to this point in my deep and wide life, with The Grands, this Sunday in the Park...
Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the director of the organization that provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.