The Fault In My Stars

I watched The Fault in Our Stars last night and then couldn’t fall asleep until the morning’s wee hours. Not because the movie got to me. I’m always able to distance myself from film, television and literature and found, well, faults in the cinematic adaptation of John Green’s terrific novel. While the movie opens with a voiceover of Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley in yet another wonderful performance) telling us cancer is real and unpolished, not like what we see in theaters, the movie ironically lacks that authenticity and instead feels glossy and melodramatic despite great acting. I blame the score and part of the script, but I digress.

Yet my mind spun all night. I’m not a hypochondriac, but I’m the type of person who feels an ache and immediately thinks cancer, like I’m just waiting for that bombshell. I tried to imagine what it would be like to be a parent of a dying child, but I couldn’t. I’m unable to do hypotheticals. I’m unable to invent feelings. I feel what I feel when I feel it even if it’s irrational or circumspect or all out wrong. It’s something my therapist and I argue about on a consistent basis. She asks me to imagine being happy, but I don’t know how to do that. So I couldn’t conjure up what a parent of a child with cancer might endure just as I’m unable to picture myself losing an arm in a shark attack. But I could put words to it: devastation, heartbreak, fear, loss, agony, self-pity, rage.

And that made me think of Oren Miller, the founder of the Facebook Dad Bloggers site, the man known as a Blogger and a Father, and the person who by welcoming me into the group as a writer and friend somehow changed the course of my life. Oren went into the hospital for back pain, what he thought was a muscle strain. It’s something we all experience at one time or another. Some weird pain that won’t go away. Some don’t worry. Others like me automatically think cancer! I don’t know what Oren thought when he went to the hospital for his mysterious pain, but I’m sure he didn’t envision a diagnosis of stage 4 lung cancer and a prognosis of maybe a year left to be with his wife and two kids and friends and pets and trees and beauty and sadness and the world that he’s known all his life. How can you predict that even if you’re like me and expect the worst?

In what can only be described as gorgeous, Oren laid bare his soul about the horrors he’s facing, the positive attitude he’s taking (or trying to take), the epiphany he had 4 years prior about being so worried and annoyed and uncomfortable that he didn’t realize he was having the time of his life. Read his words. Are they beautiful? Heart-wrenching? There’s no doubt they are and the dad blogger community came out in droves to support him. Brent Almond of Designer Daddy started a fundraiser with the meager goal of raising $5,000 which was blown away in a matter of hours. Weeks later more than $30,000 is there for the Millers and a new goal of $35,000 has been set. I have no doubt it will be surpassed. More than 40 dads blogged about Oren, his leadership, his friendship, his fight. I did so myself. John Kinnear of Ask Your Dad Blog wrote about Oren and the fundraiser for Lifetime Moms. Carter Gaddis of Dadscribe covered us dads rallying around Oren for Even the Chicago Tribune profiled our rally and Oren’s fight. Men left and right shed tears as words poured from our hearts onto the screen.

But still…

I can’t imagine what Oren’s going through. What is it like to be 40ish, have a beautiful wife, 2 amazing children, a dream house and be told that cancer’s eating you alive so quickly that you might have one year left on this planet? Is there something wrong with me that I’m unable to feel what my good friend Oren is feeling? Does it mean I can’t empathize?

This is what kept me up last night. I lay in bed in darkness, at times feeling Elaine’s body heat when she rolled close to me or I close to her, trying to imagine those words: “You have a year to live.” Trying to imagine the ravaging mental and physical pain. Trying to feel. How would I react if got such news? Would I shatter like stained glass dropped from a rooftop? Would I put on a brave face and walk into battle, head held high. Would I sit alone in a room, shunning my loved ones as my father’s late friend did when he learned he had cancer? I don’t have a clue. I don’t have answers. And I feel like an awful person because of it.

I love Oren. I’ve met him once in person, but I love him because his friendship opened up a world of possibilities to me. And I’m scared for him, for his family, for myself. I want to run down to Baltimore and be with him. I want to cry, but no tears come because I can’t imagine what Oren’s life is now like.

I tossed and turned trying to envision myself hearing that Sienna might die from cancer, that I’m suddenly thrown into a world of chaos, machines, life support, chemo, pain, pain, excruciating pain. I can say the words, but I can’t feel them. Does it make me a bad person that I can’t answer the hypotheticals? That I can’t see beyond my own damn eyes? That my brain, my selfishly depressed mind, can’t see past my own irrationally fractured stars?

And that I can’t even imagine hypothetical happiness outside of empty words and phrases?

My therapist would say that I’ve only reinforced my negativity throughout this post with words like “can’t” but I’m not sure how else to ask these questions and demonstrate what I am, who I am…currently.

The Fault in Our Stars wanted to show cancer unblemished by Hollywood. The book succeeded, in my opinion. The movie failed.

Oren Miller isn’t living a movie or a book. He’s living his life. His real life. His real life with stage 4 lung cancer that’s spread to his brain. He’s fighting a real battle.

And as much as I want to, I can’t visualize it or feel what it’s like.

What does that say about me?

12 thoughts on “The Fault In My Stars

  1. Permalink  ⋅ Reply


    July 2, 2014 at 12:29pm

    I believe you do know how a crisis, any crisis feels deep down, or else you would not have been able to describe Oren’s ordeal clearly; the harsh, devastating reality of cancer. Your question, the why don’t you feel it yourself the way you think you should…it may be a part of you protecting you from pain. This may manifest itself by keeping these situations at arms length. Here’s why I believe this, a part of you knows that if “allowed” to feel, it would be so, so much to take in, too painful to bear. You are not yet ready to handle this, so that part of you protects you. I have seen/known persons who empathized to extremes, and they suffered to the point where their lives became dark, lonely, no longer able to see the beauty in anything. Even worse, they were not able to help anyone anymore, not even themselves!
    This past week, we lost a friend, a young woman named Robin, to cancer. She had the spirit of a fighter, optimistic beyond reason. My heart ached for her; I felt impotent, useless. I had to compartmentalize my emotions so that I could go on with my days waiting for the awful news, the news that I expected and dreaded. So it came, and I felt nothing, completely numb. My inner me was protecting me until I was ready to mourn her passing and to feel the hurt.
    In time, as you make progress, you will be strong enough to allow yourself to feel, to empathize, to hurt with those who hurt.
    You do not need to fault yourself, it takes time.

    • Permalink  ⋅ Reply

      Lorne Jaffe

      July 3, 2014 at 12:44pm

      Thanks so much, M! That’s a good point about protecting myself from pain. I think you’re right that if we empathize to extremes we just won’t be able to function. I don’t want that. Thank you for thinking I’m a good person

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    SHERRY amatenstein

    July 2, 2014 at 2:48pm

    Lorne – your therapist thinks this is a beautiful post, not negative!
    Life is not black or white -many shades of gray in between. And what your friend is going through is horrifically sad. I’m not advocating you become Pollyana about tragedy or concrete stressful triggers, just to know that the thoughts and feelings you sink into are a morass and not to trust them. Being curious about how you would react to something is a great start – alot better than being rigidly negative. 🙂

    Have a great 4th. Prayers for Oren

    • Permalink  ⋅ Reply

      Lorne Jaffe

      July 3, 2014 at 12:42pm

      Thanks so much, Sherry! I really appreciate you saying the post isn’t negative. It’s something that greatly worried me. I’m trying so hard not to be negative

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    July 2, 2014 at 2:54pm

    One of my closest friends died from complications caused by a brain tumor when we were 29. For the last 16 years I have spent countless hours thinking about him and wondering about a million different things.

    I have blogged about it often and thought about how different life might have been. I remember his funeral and insisting that a couple of us bury him because it was one of the last gifts we could give him.

    After years of thinking about it the most important thing I think I learned was to remember to focus on now. I can’t imagine how scary it is for Oren and his family and I wonder how I would deal.

    But I don’t know because I haven’t experienced it and I think Oren will understand when I say I would prefer never to learn from firsthand experience.

    It doesn’t mean we can’t have empathy for him and his family or be concerned. It just means that some things are a bit beyond our grasp sometimes and that is ok too.

    • Permalink  ⋅ Reply

      Lorne Jaffe

      July 3, 2014 at 12:41pm

      Thanks so much, Jack! All of these comments have helped me a great a deal. I’m still trying to learn how to focus on now. It’s hard to do when you’re battling depression, but I try each day. There’s that 100 happy days thing. Maybe I need to do it. I brought it up to my therapist and she thought it was a good idea. Yet, I’m nervous about it and haven’t started. Hope I will soon. You’re right that there’s a difference between empathy and true understanding. All I can do is my best

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    July 2, 2014 at 5:34pm

    HI Lorne,

    I don’t think that it is bad that you cannot visualise or feel what you think might be the appropriate emotions because I’m sure that none of us truly know how we would feel. And we can’t until it happens to us.

    As you are aware I’m in a similar situation to Elaine, and for a long time, while hoping that I would be able to be there to prevent the worse case outcome (and it is worst case, regardless how you feel at the time). I did however try to steal myself to this possible outcome, planned what I might do (a very long walk with a rucksack and tent) as I knew that it would actually take me a while to come to terms with it.

    And that is probably be the best I could do at the time. Know that one-day I might get bad news, and I’d have to have a way to deal with it eventually.

    Thankfully I think that the bad news I was preparing for seems to have become more remote.

    • Permalink  ⋅ Reply

      Lorne Jaffe

      July 3, 2014 at 12:38pm

      Thanks so much for the comment, Cormac! You’re right as is everyone else who said it’s not a bad thing that I can’t visualize what another’s going through. Some things just aren’t in the realm of possibility. And thank you for thinking I’m a good person

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    July 2, 2014 at 6:31pm

    Really, don’t worry about it. It’s not about empathy.

    I’ve noticed something in the last month–no one knows what to say. Some people come to the house and act like everything is normal. Others see me and tilt their heads in pity. It was weird at first, but I understand, because there’s no right or wrong reaction. People act the way they do because that’s just the way they are. And it’s not like I know better, you know? A few people have gotten me in contact with others who have a similar condition in the last month, and I’ve reached out to the other people, but I still feel my emails sounded hollow to them, because I have no idea what to say. I know how I feel physically and to a smaller extent, mentally, but I have no idea what these other people are feeling. They’re other people–they’re their own individual worlds–I can’t get in there, and I can’t even try. Most of the time I don’t even know what I’m feeling. Sometimes, it still feels like this is something that’s happening to someone else–and when it does, trust me, I feel empathy, but I have no idea what that guy is going through…

    • Permalink  ⋅ Reply

      Lorne Jaffe

      July 3, 2014 at 12:37pm

      1) Thank you so much for your response, Oren. It means a great deal to me. I didn’t mean to make the post about me, or maybe I did. Maybe I meant to delve into my psychology about life in general and I wound up bringing your current situation into it. Regardless, you’re right. It’s just impossible to know what someone else is thinking/feeling. I can’t imagine what other people with depression feel, but I can empathize. So thank you. 2) I would NEVER look upon you with pity. 3) I will be visiting soon! 4) Love you, man!

  6. Permalink  ⋅ Reply

    Dustin Fisher

    July 7, 2014 at 7:51am

    How can we possibly know what it’s like to be in any other position? I can relate to Oren’s position by remembering what it was like to lose my dad to lung cancer. But I can’t imagine what it would be like if it were me. Because it’s not me. I can guess, but are those really feelings? I did start to think about what it would be like to leave this world without the opportunity to see Mabel grow up and my brain had to shut that down. I’m not sure if that’s empathy or sympathy or what, but I didn’t care to dive in any deeper. Fortunately, I don’t have to experience that pain right now. I feel horribly for Oren, Beth, Liam and Madeline – even if I don’t know how to express it sometimes – but I don’t think putting myself in their position is the answer. Be happy for your time with Sienna. That’s the easiest solution.

    • Permalink  ⋅ Reply

      Lorne Jaffe

      July 7, 2014 at 9:48am

      Thanks Dustin! You’re so right in that imagining another’s world, no matter how hard we try, is impossible. All I can do is be there for Oren as best as possible and learn to appreciate my own life that much more

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