I recently read a book by my son, Rabbi Daniel Cohen, entitled What Will They Say About You When You’re Gone: Creating a Life of Legacy. Drawing upon his synagogue experiences and officiating at hundreds of funerals, he poses the question of how we want to be remembered. Through personal anecdote and sharing interviews with movers and shapers in the worlds of business and art, he suggests ways to re-engineer your life so that when your life is over, you will be remembered for things that matter, not for how much you acquired.
The protagonists of The Fault In Our Stars, two teenagers afflicted with cancer, reflect on how they want to be remembered. Recognizing the likely brevity of their own lives gives the question a particular urgency for Hazel Grace Lancaster and Augustus Waters.
Hazel and Augustus meet at a cancer support group. Hazel has stage-4 thyroid cancer and Augustus, in remission from bone cancer, has had his right leg amputated. They share their stories with one another and their literary interests, which deepen their relationship. Hazel’s favorite book is An Imperial Affliction written by Peter Van Houton. The novel ends in mid-sentence when the heroine dies, and Hazel is curious to know the after story of the characters in the book.
Hazel confesses that she has written hundreds of letters to the author asking him to tell her what happens next in the lives of the characters but to no avail. Happily, Van Houton’s assistant responds to Gus when he writes to Van Houton. This encourages Hazel to write Van Houton again and surprisingly he extends an invitation to her to visit him in Amsterdam. Frannie, Hazel’s mom, arranges for the Amsterdam trip for Hazel, Gus, and herself as chaperone.
The meeting with Van Houton does not go as expected. Van Houton is a misanthrope and only has negative things to say about life. Despite his cruel and insensitive outbursts, Gus and Hazel emerge stronger from his excoriations. They dismiss his pessimism and focus on the joy they feel for one another.
As the health of Gus and Hazel goes through peaks and valleys, they ruminate about the eulogy that each might say about the other. They begin to think about what is their legacy given the likelihood of short life spans. When Gus expresses his desire to lead an extraordinary life, Hazel reminds him that an extraordinary life is measured not in things accomplished but in the loving relationships you form on this earth. Hazel proclaims her love for Gus and tells him that her love and devotion to Gus will be remembered. That is the legacy that Gus will leave for Hazel.
Rabbi Daniel Cohen writes that one of the ways we create a legacy is to create memories and that is what Gus and Hazel do. They travel to Amsterdam, have dinner at an elegant restaurant, they discuss literature, and they share everyday experiences, all of which bond them together. Their shared memories animate their conversations as they navigate a precarious and uncertain life.
Rabbi Cohen cites two quotations that reflect the love and passion that Hazel and Gus have for one another. One is a popular quote whose source is unknown: “Life is not measured by the breaths you take but by the moments that take your breath away.” The other quote is by Bob Dylan: “If you want to keep your memories, you first have to live them.” The Fault In Our Stars is sad and tragic, but underpinning the narrative are life lessons about leading a meaningful life, no matter what the obstacles.