I was 26 when my mom was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Immediately after her diagnosis — which was Stage 4 — my brother and I quit our jobs and moved back home to help our dad as caregivers. It was a nightmarish eight months and losing my mom is still something that I struggle with now, seven years later. I tell you this so you know my background when it comes to cancer. Because The Fault in Our Stars poster dropped today on Buzzfeed, and it is beautiful and perfect and all the tears — except for the tagline: “One Sick Love Story.” It’s not sitting well with some fans. At first it didn’t sit well with me (I made this face). Then I remembered what I loved most about the book; what I thought John Green nailed perfectly (of all the things he nailed so well): the gallows humor.
When my mom was sick she and I used to talk about how she might not be there to see me get married. We’d joke that if she did die, I’d have a flower girl sprinkle her ashes down the aisle at my wedding. We used to laugh and laugh over this; I can still see us in the kitchen doubled over, hysterical. It’s terrible and dark and something I’ve never shared with anyone before, because gallows humor only makes sense to the people you’re stuck alongside in the trenches of whatever it is you’re going through. To the rest of the world, it’s just a horrible thing to say. For us it was a way of processing, of accepting, of trying to grasp the horribleness of our situation and then give it the finger. Jokes like this kept us afloat when we were drowning under the weight of the disease.
At first, when I saw the poster I was turned off. All my cancer/loss buzzers started pinging. It felt glib in the face of such a thoughtful and meaningful story. It seemed to sell the love story short and even make a mockery of it. But then I recalled Hazel and Augustus, and their humor, wit and wonderfully dry, sarcastic take on the crap hands they were both dealt. That is what lifted them from the page and made them truly human to me.
A commenter on Hypable reported that Green revealed in a live chat today that the tagline is “something that Hazel would say about their relationship.” And while I personally hear it in Augustus’ voice, this makes sense to me. I trust Green as an author and curator of this incredible story. He loves these characters and knows them better than we fans do. The tagline isn’t perfect, but I still think Green’s right. I can imagine Hazel wisecracking these words, maybe even mocking the many hacky, cheesy and uncomfortable ways our society processes and narrates stories of cancer and illness. Perhaps this is the purest voice of his characters coming through, reminding us of TFIOS’ most important message: That life, love and death are all that much sweeter when filled with laughter, no matter how macabre.
Update: John Green weighed in on the tagline on his Tumblr.
[Check out EW’s post on this story, which is a thoughtful and smart read.]