We didn’t make it in time. She died the day before we flew out. Well it was the night before for us. I don’t know why I’m writing this now or why I’m putting this on tumblr but I am.
I’ve been in Sweden for 12 days now. The first few days and over easter I stayed with my mum’s old work colleague and her family. I did ok. I laughed a lot, didn’t think about anything important, survived the jetlag.
Now I’m at the apartment, staying in my grandma’s old room. It still smells of her. It still hasn’t really sunk in yet, it honest to god feels like she’s just popped out to the hair dressers or something like that. I’m still fooling myself into thinking she’ll walk through the door any moment. This is all just a sick joke right? I suppose because I was literally half a world away while she was sick, I was really far away from it all, I just didn’t really believe she was that sick in the first place.
I’m in denial about it, but in certain unguarded moments the grief seeps through my Great Wall of denial and I feel sick to my stomach and there’s this great big hole being ripped into my chest. I don’t know how I feel about anything anymore. I was really close to my grandma and I’m dreading the moment the knowledge that she’s gone really hits me.
I will admit that I am not much of a writer, however you cannot say I didn’t write. And what fuels writing is emotion and you cannot say I don’t feel. Most of the time, I wish I were wrong. I wish I didn’t feel a lot of the time. Lately, anxiety attacks eat away at me like the termites from inside a tree and when I lie in bed I feel like the few specks of sawdust so soiled the mites leave me be. Sleep is impossible. I mean good sleep. I just get small spurts of it and then back to work or studying. I’m sick and tired and I don’t know what to do or where to go. I just lie in bed. I never get out of bed. I don’t want to go out to a movie; it’s shameful to go to a movie alone as a young adult, isn’t it? And they people are less than nothing. They terrify me. I feel like if I don’t do something soon I will never get better and its permanence is imminent. I’m being eaten alive by these butterflies inside me and it clicks, I realize my body is filled with nothing but me. Me caught halfway between suicide and barely adulthood. My writing is only the clinking on the bars of a cage.
I was awakened by someone pushing the doorbell a million times.
I go downstairs and open the door (looking crazy, as I do, with my morning hair) and the guy is like, “Oh, I didnt know anyone was home. I have wine, are you 21?”
What a way to start the day.
I was in a foul mood today until I heard my mother yelling “I am a princess and I don’t need to prove myself to anyone” to the boarder living with us.
I can’t be sad, the flowers in my room will die and then I’ll never forgive myself. I did find myself today - I found myself in the sunrise, the balcony overlooking the city, the vein-like structures of dead trees and the bright eyes of the boy on the morning train. I found myself in the book I was reading. I found myself lost and hallucinating amongst foreign trees. I found myself until the thought of you crossed my mind and I found myself drowning. I don’t know who I am again. All I am is a neurose. I bloom when my thoughts are not thinking ones of you. I miss you / I miss you and that’s all I am right in this moment.
A Totally True Story and the Sadcalf of Unhappiness
Everybody was told to make a funny face, but I didn’t get the memo.
Esther Earl would’ve been 18 tomorrow, a real adult. I miss her.
It’s very easy to turn the dead into Lessons for the Living—to say that Esther taught me to Live Life or To Be Grateful or Not To Take Beauty for Granted. But honestly, in my opinion at least, any lessons learned from her death could’ve been learned in some other, easier way. I think the universe overall would be better off if she were still making videos.
I am so glad that I knew Esther, and that she was a nerdfighter, and that through Esther’s family and This Star Won’t Go Out we can still decrease suck with her. But I am also really pissed off that she died.
She was young, blessed with a genuinely sophomoric sense of humor, silly, empathetic, madly in love with her friends and family, and a very gifted writer. It’s hard to isolate why, but I’ve never liked a teenager so much—at least not since I was a teenager. She was just really cool, in the best sense of the word. She never made me feel uncomfortable. She listened to me and responded thoughtfully, and was also happy to tell me I was full of shit.
(On the day this picture was taken, I generally did a not-great job of being an Adult and cried a lot, and at one point Esther was talking about her complicated relationship with the idea of heaven, and I answered that there were all kinds of ways of imagining an infinite afterlife, some of which weren’t even necessarily that supernatural, and she just cocked me a look like, “You need to learn the meaning of the word infinite.” She was right, of course. Back in my hotel room that night, I jotted down easy comfort isn’t comforting, which ended up in TFiOS.)
The nearly two years since her death have complicated my relationship with Esther because now of course there is not only time but a book between us: I could never have written The Fault in Our Stars without knowing Esther. Every word on that book depends upon her.
But at the same time, I don’t want people conflating Esther with Hazel (they’re very different), and it’s extremely important to me that I not claim to be telling Esther’s story. Esther’s story belongs to Esther and to her family, and they will tell it brilliantly and beautifully.
When I was doing publicity for the book, lots of reporters wanted me to talk about Esther because these days novels “based on a true story” do so much better than novels that are just novels. I never really knew how to deal with these questions, and I still don’t, because the truth (as always) is complicated: Esther inspired the story in the sense that I was very angry after her death and wrote constantly, with a focus and passion I hadn’t known since I was rewriting Looking for Alaska in 2003. And Esther helped me to imagine teenagers as more empathetic than I’d given them credit for. And her charm and snark inspired the novel, as did her idea of incorporating an author she liked into her Wish. But the story is also inspired by many other people—by my son, by my wife, by the kids I knew and loved who died in the children’s hospital when I was a student chaplain, by my own parents (my dad is a cancer survivor), etc.
I wish she’d read TFiOS. I suspect she would’ve found it a bit far-fetched, but I do hope she’d have enjoyed it anyway. I’ll never know, though. I am astonished that the book has found such a broad audience, but the person I most want to read it never will.
Esther has become a hero in our community, and the heroic narrative doesn’t always line up perfectly with the person she was. (Heroic narratives never do.) But this much was true, at least as far as I knew her: She was generous, and loving, and full of grace—which was, after all, her middle name.
Plus, she knew how to make a funny face on cue.
When I told Esther we wanted to celebrate her birthday as long as there were vlogbrothers videos, and that videos on that day could be about whatever she wanted them to be about, she waited a couple weeks before getting back to me. She finally decided she wanted it to be a day that celebrated love in families and among friends. I think of Esther Day as a kind of Valentine’s Day for all the other kinds of love.
It was a brilliant idea, Esther. Thank you for Esther Day. Thank you for helping me say to my family and friends what I still hope I can say to you, even over the great divide: I love you.
Hey guys, what’s up? Oh that’s cool. I’m just here to tell you about the weirdest thing that happened to me, EVER. Or after some careful thought, probably hovering mid-section on a Top 10 list. I learned about myself.
Kids, let me just start off by telling you that I work in a pretty nutso candy store. It’s like if John Waters swallowed six hits of acid and flung himself over a crazy-time jelly-bean induced bebop-rainbow, except there’s giant styrofoam battle ants on our ceiling instead of lucid vaginas. What I’m saying is, is I’m mostly used to colorful clientele and less than ideal levels of comfortable social interaction.
Because the people who buy candy from us are crazed candy bees with no sense of personal space.
Anyway, I digress. I have to tell you about what happened like, totally maybe a couple days ago at work. It changed me forever.
First I have to tell you a little bit about how things work at my place of work. We like to project an atmosphere that is as friendly and inviting as possible, so part of my job is to make idle banter with the customers while they peruse. More often than not this is where I find myself in what I like to call “Interpersonal Quicksand”, wherein I inevitably drown in my own lack of social skills and wind up choking on such phrases as “So what are you up to today?” and “No, floor candy isn’t free”. I usually leave (see: struggle away from) such conversations like a poor wounded sadcalf, red-faced, cringing, gangrenous limbs aglow.
Not this time. Not today.
So it’s a normal day at my job at the candy shop and I’m ringing people through, doing my thing, chatting them up, you know:
“Did you know you could put all your bulk in the same bag? I know, it’s totally crazy!”
“Yeah, sorry, we’re out of inflatable tongues, but we DID get that cotton candy that turns into bubblegum and makes your teeth explode that you were looking for”
“Haha get it I drew you a bean wearing a beret and a mustache and a striped shirt and he’s saying ‘L’Ima bean’ haha get it haha”
This is all happening according to plan and pay rate until what should my eyes behold but the actual Sadcalf of Unhappiness.
She was easily the saddest and most uncomfortable looking person I had ever seen. She was molecularly composed of Eeyores. She had sad eyes with a morose nose and a gloomy mouth filled with 32 moaning teeth. She was intimidating, and she was next in line.
So she gets up to me to check out and she starts telling me all of these sad things that I have no social capacity to handle. I felt like an un-passed fart; trapped, uncomfortable, and pushing for freedom.
“Hey! How’s your day going?”
“It’s okay, I guess. I went to the museum but the museum was closed. So I went to this restaurant to meet my friends for pie but they already had pie while I was at the closed museum. So now I’m here by myself to get candy because I had to put my kitten down this morning. She had a tumor the size of a brain growing out of her eye socket.”
“Urgh, uh, so yeah at least you’re getting candy! Ha.. ha..”
“Yeah it’s good but I have diabetes so I’m not actually supposed to eat it but I figure hey at least it’ll last me a while!”
“Life is awful.”
“Life is awful..”
“Life is awful.”
We carried on an exchanged similar* to the one above while we waited for her transaction to go through. I thought it would never end. (*For any given value of)
But then out of nowhere this guy comes up to the counter. He had a face like a broken mirror and hair like a toupee-hat-not-toupee-but-real-hair hair. And a mohair sweater with grape crush stain accents.
”..Have you seen Elvis today?”
Sadcalf and I exchange furtive looks. I’m assuming there’s an Elvis impersonator going around today, since things like that happen around town sometimes, and I’m thinking, gee wouldn’t it be great to see an Elvis impersonator!
Sadcalf remains stoic.
“There’s been a lot of Elvis sightings recently.” He had a voice like smoked sand, “I haven’t seen him around in about thirty years …”
I notice now that Sadcalf’s exchange has been done for a few moments, but we’re both still standing there together, joined in a mutual cyclone of awkward social circumstance, and Mr Elvis is dancing. Like, totally jazzing up the place, waving his hands in the air (at this point I’ve also noticed he’s wearing a hospital wrist band. Touche, cliche. Touche.), two-stepping. We’ve gone from zero to Gospel Boogie faster than spit. Stocked with cowtails and pop rocks, Mr Elvis jives out of the store wishing all of us a fantastic day.
What am I getting at here? Sadcalf didn’t even flinch. She was immovable. Nothing could break her unhappiness. She out-sadcalfed me to the power of ten. I finally found someone more socially uncomfortable than myself, and not even the power of Jazz Elvis could help her. That’s a huge onus to carry there, Sadcalf. And one that I will not be shouldering.
That’s when I realized just how good I’ve got it. My life is starting over, guys.
Because no matter how sad and uncomfortable I get, at least things are better than life for the Sadcalf of Unhappiness.
Yeah pretty weird, RIGHT?
Tonight is very cold and my heater has mysteriously vanished from my bedroom. The house is empty and all I can hear is the monotonous clock-like dripping of a broken gutter and distant cars driving along dampened roads. The blanket which seemed only too small last night is now engulfing me. I am swimming amongst a collection novels, notebooks and pens, alternating between reading and writing. Tonight is beautiful. Sometimes I wish I could spend the rest of my life this way.
Every Sunday I seem to make a habit of dressing a little unusually and heading into the shopping district of my suburb to pick up supplies before everything shuts. Today I felt reminiscent of a Jodorowsky character with my big hat, puffy shirt, tight pants and boots. I’d hoped the coffee shop near my house would have a book written by Ram Dass (I really just wanted more of his wisdom after watching Fierce Grace this morning). Unfortunately the shop was closed so I went and bought myself an orange, apple, celery, carrot and ginger juice and walked back home. I’m not really sure why I’m telling you this… I think I will try and get started on a new wire sculpture now.
last night I heard the most perfect song ever in a dream, now I’m sad because I’ll never hear it again, maybe that makes it even more beautiful