At seventeen-years-old, I never imagined that I would be witness to a love story so grand it would demand to be told. I wish I could say that this story belongs to me, but it doesn't. Although, it couldn't possibly belong to two more deserving people. I consider myself fortunate to be able to tell their tale.
I could hear him coming from a mile away. His Toyota wasn't loud, but there was no mistaking the repeated revving of an engine immediately followed by the slamming of brakes. When he whipped into the parking lot, his SUV nearly took to two wheels. And it was the curb in front of his chosen parking spot that brought the wheels to a halt. Even with only one good eye, I could plainly see that Augustus Waters had no business driving.
"I'm still convinced you sold your soul to get your license," I said when he opened the door. "Only the devil himself would give you permission to drive."
"Remind me again which one of us will still have a license two weeks from now," Gus said, fully knowing that it would be him.
If anyone else had said something like that, I'd have been angry. But I had an unspoken agreement with Gus. The insensitive jokes only strengthened our friendship. These were the kind of jokes that only two cancer survivors could make. Without those jokes, I'm positive that my inevitable blindness would've swallowed me whole.
"You going to take me in and introduce me to this group you've been telling me about?" he asked.
As we headed for the door, I wondered what he would think of my Support Group. It's not as if those meetings were going to cure me, but it helped to talk. And even during the worst Support Group meetings, I could always count on an exchange of sighs with a member named Hazel. Her lungs were shot, the cancer had consumed them, but that didn't take away her ability to be annoyed by all things Support Group.
If I hadn't been so consumed with my love for Monica, I might have paid more attention to Hazel. Maybe I would've tried harder to figure out who she reminded me of.
We made our way to the basement of that Episcopal church where I introduced Augustus to the rest of the group, and Patrick, the leader of the group. Then we both chose one of the Kindergartener-sized chairs that that made up the Support Group circle.
I saw Hazel come down the stairs and make her way to the snack table before I noticed Gus staring at her as he slouched in his tiny chair. Only then did I remember who Hazel reminded me of, and I instantly regretted inviting Augustus to the support group.
He didn't take his eyes off her when she sat next to me, or when Patrick began the meeting by reciting the serenity prayer. I considered slapping some sense into him, but decided that would draw her attention to his incessant glare. It didn't matter though. He caught her attention all on his own. She probably felt the heat of his eyes burning holes through her.
I don't know what I expected Hazel to do, but I never expected her to stare back at him with equal fervor. She stared at him until he looked away. I have to say, I was impressed by her determination.
When Patrick concluded the prayer, he said, "Isaac, perhaps you'd like to go first today. I know you're facing a challenging time."
"Yeah," I said. "I'm Isaac. I'm seventeen. And it's looking like I'm going to have to get surgery in a couple weeks, after which I'll be blind. Not to complain or anything because I know a lot of us have it worse," –like Hazel– "but yeah, I mean, being blind does sort of suck. My girlfriend helps, though. And friends like Augustus." I folded my hands together in my lap and stared at them. "So, yeah. There's nothing you can do about it."
"We're here for you Isaac," Patrick said. "Let Isaac hear it guys."
The basement echoed with flat rounds of, "We're here for you Isaac."
I couldn't blame them for lying. The only time we were "here" for each other was when we were sitting in that circle listening to each other's tragic stories of the cancer that had consumed each and every one of us. As soon as the circle was broken, we tried to forget each other until the next meeting. That made it easier each time one of us didn't make it to the next meeting.
Patrick chose people at random around the circle. Sixteen-year-old Lida proudly announced that she was still in remission. I wanted to be happy for her, but I couldn't. Not when her body was still intact, and the only way I would ever get rid of my cancer was to have my only remaining eyeball removed from my head.
The stories of treatments and hospital stays and family struggles bounced back and forth until Patrick called on Augustus.
"My name is Augustus Waters," he said. "I'm seventeen. I had a little touch of osteosarcoma a year and a half ago, but I'm just here today at Isaac's request."
The way he downplayed his situation made me shake my head. His "little touch of osteosarcoma" had claimed one of his legs and nearly claimed his life. Augustus never gave himself enough credit for the battle he had fought.
"And how are you feeling?" Patrick asked him.
"Oh, I'm grand." The way he smiled with only the corners of his mouth, I knew it was forced. "I'm on a roller coaster that only goes up, my friend."
I wanted to ask Gus what the fun in that was, but Patrick called on Hazel before I could.
"My name is Hazel," she said. "I'm sixteen. Thyroid with mets in my lungs. I'm okay."
I wondered if that was true. I could never judge how well Hazel was doing. She hid her pain well and kept to herself during the Support Group meetings. But I hoped her "okay" status was accurate. I knew I would miss exchanging sighs with her when she was gone.
Near the end of the hour, Patrick said, "Augustus, perhaps you'd like to share your fears with the group."
"My fears?" Gus asked. To which Patrick replied, "Yes."
"I fear oblivion," Gus said. "I fear it like the proverbial blind man who's afraid of the dark."
"Too soon," I said, but I was smiling.
"Was that insensitive?" Augustus asked. "I can be pretty blind to other people's feeling."
Even though I laughed, Patrick failed to understand the humor. He waved his finger and said, "Augustus, please. Let's return to you and your struggles. You said you fear oblivion?"
"I did," Augustus answered.
Confused, Patrick said, "Would, uh, would anyone like to speak to that?"
When Hazel raised her hand, I almost fell off my poor excuse of a chair. In the history of her time in the Support Group, I couldn't think of a single time she had volunteered to speak.
Thrilled, Patrick said, "Hazel!"
She stared directly at Gus as she said, "There will come a time when all of us are dead. All of us. There will come a time when there are no human beings remaining to remember that anyone ever existed or that our species ever did anything. There will be no one left to remember Aristotle or Cleopatra, let alone you. Everything that we did and built and wrote and thought and discovered will be forgotten and all of this" –the way she gestured around the room somehow managed to encompass the entire earth– "will have been for naught. Maybe that time is coming soon and maybe it is millions of years away, but even if we survive the collapse of our sun, we will not survive forever. There was a time before organisms experienced consciousness, and there will be time after. And if the inevitability of human oblivion worries you, I encourage you to ignore it. God knows that's what everyone else does."
That was the moment I realized that Hazel was much more than just another one of cancer's helpless victims. She was more than a Support Group cancer patient. Behind her silence, there was a fascinating person. And with the way Gus was looking at her, I knew that he had come to the same conclusion.
To end the meeting, we joined hands to say a prayer. Hazel held one of my hands and Augustus held the other. I swear I could feel both of them wishing I wasn't there.
Patrick prayed for each of us, then he read the names of those who would never return to the Support Group. It was a long list, one that none of us could hope to remember, and we didn't want to. It was too depressing.
Patrick had barely finished uttering, "LIVING OUR BEST LIFE TODAY," before Augustus left his tiny chair behind and made his way to Hazel. "What's your name?" he asked her.
"Hazel," she said.
"No, your full name."
"Um, Hazel Grace Lancaster."
I knew what he was doing, and I couldn't let him, so I walked over to them. Augustus held a finger up and said, "Hold on." He turned to me and said, "That was actually worse than you made it out to be."
"I told you it was bleak," I said.
"Why do you bother with it?"
"I don't know. It kind of helps?"
Augustus leaned closer to me and said, "She's a regular?"
"I know she looks like Caroline–"
"I'll say," he said as he clapped his hands on my shoulders. When he stepped away he said, "Tell Hazel about your clinic."
Leaning on the snack table, I told Hazel about the socially inept surgeon I met with. She made a crack about wanting to meet with him, but I was too busy thinking about Monica to really pay attention.
"Good luck with that," I said. "All right, I should go. Monica's waiting for me. I gotta look at her a lot while I can."
"Counterinsurgence tomorrow?" Gus asked me.
Counterinsurgence was only the best video game to ever be invented, so course I said, "Definitely," then I bolted up the stairs.
I was almost out the door when it occurred to me that I should have forgotten about Monica for one second and drug Augustus out of that basement. I left him down there with Caroline Mathers' doppelganger. I was convinced that this was a terrible was healthy, and Hazel… Well, Hazel wasn't. Losing Caroline nearly did him in, even if he could hardly bear to be around the version of her the cancer created. I thought about pulling him out by his ear, but then I caught a glimpse of Monica standing outside. I couldn't fight the love I had for her, so I abandoned Gus.
As I exited the door of the church, I hoped that Gus would find even one shred of common sense and run away as fast as he could. But that was not the nature of Augustus Waters. He never backed down from a challenge.