Tuesday, June 10, 2014



That's the thing about pain. It demands to be felt.”
                                                                    Gus, The Fault In Our Stars

I suppose my pain, seemingly an endless reservoir that deepens with age, was being its demanding self when it read the New York Times review of The Fault In Our Stars. If you asked, I would say that I need some good head more than I need a good cry but my pain receptors ordered me to get to the nearest movie house and purchase my ticket (at a painful senior discount) to the new cancer movie.

I chose to go alone rather than subject someone to indulge my histrionics which I knew would be as predictable as the filmmakers incorporating a gooey montage of the sweetest moments of the movie as the final moments unravel (along with the audience).

I find watching a film to be so subjective. I suppose any artistic experience is but—positioned in that darkened space with human emotions magnified beyond any sense of reality—my “material” (as they say) ineluctably merges with the material that those larger-than-life characters are manifesting.

I’m less emotionally rickety watching something on the small screen, residing in a less heightened state; that’s why I’ve avoided The Normal Heart like another colonoscopy. But The Fault In Our Stars is being compared to Love Story—good pain, not the torture chamber of AIDS in the Eighties.

Yes and no. Death is death—whether it’s in Venice, New York City or the emotional terrain occupied by two teenagers in love. Hazel and Gus share scrumptious faces—as likable as they are lickable—and cancer. The inevitable Who-Will-Kick-First? leitmotif is one of the art-mirroring-life subplots that hooked me before the opening credits rolled by.

While many friends and I played that game—replete with campy repartee (“If you go first, I promise to get rid of the dildos under your bed before your parents arrive from Iowa”)—it wasn’t until my relationship with Philip that the theme became deadly (sorry) serious.

Speaking of heart-rending movies, a startling realization struck when Philip and I were seeing Longtime Companion at the Vista Theater. About halfway through the routinely labeled “AIDS movie”, Philip went to the bathroom. Feeling the suddenness of his departure, like a throbbing jolt—in that very moment—I thought to myself, wanting to scream it outloud to the actors on the movie screen: “He’ll die first.”

One of the most defining aspects of my relationship with Philip had been travel. Like the star-crossed lovers in The Fault In Our Stars, we chose Amsterdam, not in search of a famous author (like the lovers in the film) but rather in honor of the one-hundredth anniversary of Vincent Van Gogh’s death. Nearly a quarter of a century prior, yet like our filmic counterparts, Philip and I assumed that we were both approaching a fated finish line.

Hazel & Gus
Perhaps the most jarring scene in The Fault In Our Stars, the one that most shockingly mirrored our peregrination to Denmark, was the unexpected visit that Hazel and Gus take to the Anne Frank House, complicated by the fact that our screen heroine is gasping for breath, lugging her oxygen tank, navigating the steep, narrow stairways to the attic as Anne Frank’s words are spoken in voiceover: “Think of all the beauty still left around you and be happy.”

Philip and I trudged up those same stairs, both of us likely thinking something akin to what Gus and Hazel were thinking, something about the impermanence of life and the gift of having fallen in love before the fault of our stars would separate us.

At this point, during the movie, I was blowing my nose with my cardboard popcorn container. Philip would die less than two years after we visited Amsterdam. A gooey montage, capturing the sweetest moments of our short history together, blurred sequentially in my memory as he was carried away in a body bag.

The day after I saw the movie, Katherine—my daughter/the filmmaker—came home from her first year of studies abroad. Since her taste in film is infinitely more finessed than mine, I knew she would be appalled that I saw The Fault In Our Stars.

“Oh, dad,” she groaned. “You’re such a teenage girl.” I didn’t deny it—even though I did point out to her that I got a senior discount at the box office.

What I didn't tell her is that the tears that dampened my popcorn were also tears of ineffable ecstasy. A couple of years after Philip died, the award in my stars resulted in the adoption of a five month old baby girl.  

In a couple of months, Katherine will no longer be a teenage girl; to be alive for that? I cannot fault my stars, only thank them.

That’s the thing about joy. It also demands to be felt.

Katherine & Dad