Living In the Shadow
by Pierrette Stukes
These two teenage, giggling girls kept appearing before me. In the ticket line, as my husband and I bought our movie passes, they flipped their long tresses with one hand and scrolled their phones with the other. They were there in the ladies’ bathroom, checking their makeup in the graying mirror, scrolling their phones. And again, as we made our way into the theater, they bounced along and scrolled their phones.
I sidestepped, exasperated, to let them find their seats first and whispered to my husband, “let’s sit on the opposite side of the theater,” in a tone only a middle-aged woman with no children could adopt. I chose two seats in those short rows on the outer edge of the theater, hoping to get away from everyone. Not so—the theater filled up with mostly teenage and middle-aged women and a few men, like my husband, who patted my knee periodically as I sobbed my way through The Fault in Our Stars (2014).
I am a fifty-four-year-old, post-menopausal woman with a PhD in English Literature who has read the young adult Twilight series and seen all five of the movies, more than once. (What are the odds that there are more of me?)
My husband, Bo, has more refined tastes. He’s the Redbox movie chooser. We had the privilege to watch the incomparable Philip Seymour Hoffman in A Late Quartet (2012) and to witness a rare, late-career performance by the stunning Julie Christie in Away from Her (2006)—both superb films that I recommend to every living person for their treatment of the long-arc of sometimes neurotic, sometimes noble life in the shadow of death.
We are eclectic in our movie tastes. We’re mesmerized by the psychopathic violence of Michael Madsen’s character in Quentin Tarantino’s 1992 Reservoir Dogs. We try to see the annual summer Tom Cruise blockbuster; we like to go to the theater to see Cruise movies because we get a rush from the vocal crowd gasping at the over-the-top explosions and daredevil antics.
We had never heard of The Fault in Our Stars. We did not know the movie is a closely-adapted film of a young-adult novel written by John Green and published in January 2012 to much acclaim. We did not know the narrator, Hazel Grace Lancaster, is a sixteen-year-old-soul who is living and dying with cancer and an oxygen tank.
We do know we like the work of the intense, yet restrained, Laura Dern, the only actor in the movie we had heard of and who portrays Hazel Grace’s mother. And we do know I would rather sit with my cousin, Robbie, who is dying with courage and grace, than do anything else. My husband says that I am obsessed with death.
In 1998, my mother-in-law, Gertrude, died of uterine cancer. She turned ninety two months prior to her death. But when someone counsels, “Well, she had a long life,” you want to throttle them. Or, you at least want to have a wise, yet subtle, rebuke ready—about how the tenacity and verve of life itself demands to keep living, regardless of the seething, chronic ache in the bowels left by failed radiation.
Hospice taught us to care for Trudy: to prepare oatmeal when she could eat; to lie gently to her when she wailed, “I do not want to die. I do not want to die. I do not want to die”; to wash her translucent skin, crumbled from decades of life, when her body surrendered and began its inevitable dying process. Hospice taught us to lean into Trudy as she died, to lean into death.
For our Sunday matinee, Bo proposed Cruise’s Edge of Tomorrow (2014), a dystopia of apocalyptic proportions. In this Cruise summer repeat, his character is trapped in a closed-loop of samsāra, even as he learns from each incarnation some essential skill to defeat the other-world aliens.
But Bo preferred The Fault in Our Stars. His sales pitch: Cruise’s summer movies usually rock the box office, but that long weekend, The Fault in Our Stars was defying the movie gods. That opening weekend, Edge of Tomorrow took in $28,760,246 and The Fault in Our Stars$48,002,523.
The title of the movie comes from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar:
Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonourable graves.
Men at some time are masters of their fates:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings. (1.2.135-40)
The speaker is Cassius, the prime fomenter against Caesar. Cassius is trying to rankle Brutus to rise up, to be the master of his fate, to not surrender to the fate of the stars.
Hazel Grace and her boyfriend Augustus, who is also dying from cancer, accept their fate with dignity. After young years spent in hospitals and in remission, they stop striving to beat the impossible odds with brute force. They surrender.
Surrender is a spiritual stance. It is what the Rev. Jean-Pierre de Caussade meant in his classic 1861 The Joy of Full Surrender, when he concludes: “When God lives in the soul, it should surrender itself completely to [God’s] providence.” We live fully, with joy, when we accept the reality of our own deaths.
That weekend, America did not want to be reminded, again, that we are living in an historical moment of horrific violence against human life. Instead, those giggling girls led America into the shadows of the theater. They were Psyches walking willingly into the unknown of the other-world. I am sure they turned off their phones, too. I did, severing willingly, if only for 126 minutes, the thin thread connecting me to the banal life of Twitter feeds and texts.
Pierrette Rouleau Stukes has published creative nonfiction in The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Mountain Memoirs: An Ashe County Anthology, The Rose, Crack the Spine, and The Big Roundtable. Her essay “Swimming” was awarded first place in a regional creative nonfiction contest. “Tilted Toward Life” was nominated for the 2011 Best of the Net for nonfiction. Her short-short story “Between the Lines” and her essay “Misinformation Effect” earned an Honorable Mention in New Millennium Writings.
Movie poster image is from here.