Author John Green dedicated his hit novel, The Fault in Our Stars, to Esther Earl, a bright teen he met and befriended at a Harry Potter fan conference in 2009. But Earl died of thyroid cancer at age 16 in 2010 before Green’s book came out, and “the person I most want to read it never will,” Green writes in the intro to This Star Won’t Go Out—a poignant collection of Earl’s journals and drawings.
Read excerpts from Green’s moving remembrance of Earl, and one of her own heartrending journal entries, below.
John Green writes:
I knew Esther had cancer, but I also knew that most young people with cancer get better, and I never wanted to pry too much, not the least because I had been working for years on a book about kids with cancer and I didn’t want my friendship with Esther to become a research project. For a long time, there was an element of denial in our relationship. I didn’t want to imagine that this hilarious, devoted fan might die, and Esther wanted friendships that weren’t defined and circumscribed by illness. Her physical disabilities made that difficult in real life, but on the Internet, she wasn’t Esther Earl Who Has Cancer and an Oxygen Tank. She was Esther Crazycrayon the Funny Girl in Catitude.
And then one day Esther and I were typing back and forth when she revealed that she was writing to me from a hospital bed, and—when I pried a bit—that she was actually in the ICU with tubes coming out of her chest to drain fluid that had accumulated in her lungs. Even then, she made it all seem very standard and casual, as if all fourteen-year-olds just occasionally need chest tubes, but I was concerned enough to reach out to her friends, who put me in touch with Esther’s parents, Lori and Wayne. Soon after, all of her Internet friends began to realize that Esther was terminally ill.
I realize now that I’m doing that thing where you create distance between yourself and your pain by using cold, technical phrases like “terminally ill” and by describing events rather than feelings, so: I was so angry—with myself for all the times I cut our conversations short so I could go back to work, and with the Earth for being the sort of reprehensible place where children who’ve done nothing wrong must live in fear and pain for years and then die.
I dislike the phrase “Internet friends,” because it implies that people you know online aren’t really your friends, that somehow the friendship is less real or meaningful to you because it happens through Skype or text messages. The measure of a friendship is not its physicality but its significance. Good friendships, online or off, urge us toward empathy; they give us comfort and also pull us out of the prisons of our selves. I imagine that part of Esther was sad to give up the illusion that she was going to be okay with her Internet friends, but what followed was a revelation for all of us. Our Internet friendships were real and they were powerful, and they became more real and powerful when Esther and her friends were finally able to acknowledge and openly discuss the truth about her illness.
The last thing she ever filmed was part of a Catitude collaboration video for my thirty-third birthday, which was on August 24, 2010. By the time the video went live, Esther was back in the ICU. She died in the early hours of August 25th.
When we think of death, we often imagine it as happening in degrees: We think of a sick person becoming less and less alive until finally they are gone. But even in her final days, Esther was wholly alive, as alive as anyone else, and so even though everyone who loved her understood she was dying, her death was still a terrible shock to me. She did not leave slowly, but all at once, because even when she could not get out of bed, she found ways to be fully alive: to play with her friends, to crack jokes, to love and to be loved. And then she was gone, all at once.
I’ve said many times that The Fault in Our Stars, while it is dedicated to Esther, is not about her. When the book was published, lots of reporters wanted me to talk about Esther; they wanted to know if my book was “based on a true story.” 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 my anger after her death pushed me to write constantly. She helped me to imagine teenagers as more empathetic than I’d given them credit for, and her charm and snark inspired the novel, too, but the character of Hazel is very different from Esther, and Hazel’s story is not Esther’s. Esther’s story belonged to her, and fortunately for us she was an extraordinary writer, who in these pages tells that story beautifully. I find comfort in that, but make no mistake: I am still pissed off that she died. I still miss her. I still find her loss an intolerable injustice. And I wish she’d read The Fault in Our Stars. I am astonished that the book has found such a broad audience, but the person I most want to read it never will.
In these pages, and in my memories, [Esther] reminds me that a short life can also be a good and rich life, that it is possible to live with depression without being consumed by it, and that meaning in life is found together, in family and friendship that transcends and survives all manner of suffering. As the poet wrote in the Bible’s Song of Solomon, “Love is strong as death.” Or perhaps even stronger.
Watch John Green’s video message, “Rest in Awesome, Esther”:
Next: an excerpt of one of Esther’s journal entries:
An excerpt of one of Esther’s journal entries:
December 2, 2008
What are my difficulties? Hmm. First of all, and definitely most difficult, I have cancer, and I’m sick. Second, our money and income stuff is slightly in shambles; though it may not be, I never really hear about our money stuff. Third, I guess there’s not that much of a third, just that I’m getting older, I guess. So, let’s talk about that wonderful cancer topic again.
2 months ago, just a week or so away from another radio-iodine dose, I felt a large rumbling in my lower left/ middle lung, and figured it was another wheeze. I was on the toilet peeing, so I breathed in and out and it rumbled a lot. I coughed, expecting mucus, and instead saw blood.
You don’t know what it felt like to look in my tissue and see blood. My heart thudded so fast, my stomach sunk and I got light headed. I yelled for Mom, but I was so worried my voice cracked. She heard and Mom and Dad came running up. After coughing some more into a bowl, Dad took me to emergency. By then I was feeling fine, still unnerved, but fine. My oxygen was cranked up from 2 to 4, but I was fine, fine. I was checked in and they said I bled mainly because being off my thyroxin (in preparation for radio-iodine) my lung tumors had become über active.
A few days later I had my radio-iodine dose. I was fine for the first day. Second day I was headachey. Third day I was on a new air machine, “BiPAP,” and on morphine. I only remember sleeping, Mom came in and woke me and said Abby and Angie were there, so I drowsily hung out for a few minutes with them. Mom and Dad stayed in my room, sometimes switching and going out for a while because of my high radiation levels.
Apparently everyone highly, highly thought I was going to die. That’s why, despite such high levels of radiation, Mom and Dad spent so much time in my room, and Abby and Angie came to see me. But I didn’t know I was close to dying, I just figured because this dose of radiation was so much higher I was feeling quite sick.
Fortunately, praise God, I made it through! It wasn’t until like a week later, in the ICU where I was staying, that Mom told me about the dying thing. Hearing that made me think more about dying, death, heaven, hell. I’d always thought I knew how scary death was.
I thought you died, and then went to where you were supposed to go, but I didn’t think too hard about it. Now, being at a point in my life where doctors say I’ll live 6 days, or 6 months, or 6 years, or 60 years, they don’t know, I’ve had more time to say, if I died tomorrow, what would happen?
Even having all this time to think, I don’t think my views of death have changed too much. I guess now I figure you die, and then you have a sense of looking at your body from above, as dad has said when we’ve talked about it. And then maybe you meet someone who takes you to where you go. Or maybe you’re already there, I don’t know. I wonder if anyone on earth’s idea of death is spot-on.