I’ve tried as much as possible to omit spoilers, but there may be one or two.
After having it on my reading list for well over a year now, I finally picked up John Green’s novel A Fault in our Stars. At first, I’d simply put it off because the wait list was long at the library, then I’d forgotten about it, and finally, I’d actively shied away from reading it after the first miscarriage. It seemed like a book that would open wounds, being a story about pediatric cancer. However, in the last month or so, I figured that since everything seems to make me cry, why not give it a go?
I was really surprised at how much I wound up liking it. Yes, Hazel and Gus have dialogue that’s way too consistently sharp and witty for real teenagers. Of course, I cried. But I enjoyed the novel overall and found myself more than once laughing out loud at a line.
What I found most interesting about the story, however, was Green’s carefully nuanced portrayal of being a patient and what it means to struggle against a disease. Green, unlike many authors, does not fetishize sickness and suffering. Instead, his characters go through the real, messy, physical process of being sick, not sanitized or cleaned up. I’m used to authors perhaps using one or two scenes of bodily function to lend a touch of authenticity, but Green does not shy away.
The part that made me cry was completely unexpected. I expected to cry at the end, or at the eulogies, but what got me, what still gets me is this passage:
“One afternoon, he pointed vaguely toward a laundry basket in a corner of the room and asked me, ‘What’s that?’
‘The laundry basket?’
‘No, next to it.’
‘I don’t see anything next to it.’
‘It’s my last shred of dignity. It’s very small.'” (p. 247-248)
I sobbed openly when I read that passage. It was, for me, one of the most powerful moments in the book.
When I had my D and C, one of the moments I remember most clearly was when I was wheeled into the operating room. The nurse taking me in was one of my former preceptors and charge nurses from back when I was new at my job, and I knew the other nurse who was preparing to scrub in to assist. Both of them were, of course, exemplary and professional.
As I scooted from the cart onto the surgical table, I had to ask them something that, to this day, still makes me cringe. I motioned to my former charge nurse and whispered “I still have my panties on because I’m bleeding so much and I didn’t want to bleed all over the sheets.” She kindly reassured me that this was fine, I laid back, the anesthesia provider pushed some fentanyl and propofol into my IV, and the next thing I remember was waking up in recovery.
I know, working in healthcare, that removing my bloodstained underwear really was no big deal to anyone in that room. I know this with every fiber of my being, and yet to me, it was absolutely humiliating. That I had to let another human being take care of me in that way was of the most weirdly emotionally difficult moments I’ve had.
That particular instance isn’t by any means the only one. The simple fact of being a patient means a fairly regular barrage of tests and treatments and people in private areas, both emotionally and physically.
And those small indignities, slowly adding up to the larger ones…that is what Green portrays so vividly and so well through his characters. There is no apology to the reader, no mollifying “but there is such dignity in suffering” reassurance. I’ve never been through cancer or a terminal illness, and I don’t want to overstate, but I could definitely relate to the feeling of powerlessness, the difficulty of needing others.
As a patient, I am grateful to Green for that particular truthfulness.