Everybody was told to make a funny face, but I didn’t get the memo.

Esther Earl would’ve been 18 tomorrow, a real adult. I miss her. 

It’s very easy to turn the dead into Lessons for the Living—to say that Esther taught me to Live Life or To Be Grateful or Not To Take Beauty for Granted. But honestly, in my opinion at least, any lessons learned from her death could’ve been learned in some other, easier way. I think the universe overall would be better off if she were still making videos.

I am so glad that I knew Esther, and that she was a nerdfighter, and that through Esther’s family and This Star Won’t Go Out we can still decrease suck with her. But I am also really pissed off that she died. 

She was young, blessed with a genuinely sophomoric sense of humor, silly, empathetic, madly in love with her friends and family, and a very gifted writer. It’s hard to isolate why, but I’ve never liked a teenager so much—at least not since I was a teenager. She was just really cool, in the best sense of the word. She never made me feel uncomfortable. She listened to me and responded thoughtfully, and was also happy to tell me I was full of shit. 

(On the day this picture was taken, I generally did a not-great job of being an Adult and cried a lot, and at one point Esther was talking about her complicated relationship with the idea of heaven, and I answered that there were all kinds of ways of imagining an infinite afterlife, some of which weren’t even necessarily that supernatural, and she just cocked me a look like, “You need to learn the meaning of the word infinite.” She was right, of course. Back in my hotel room that night, I jotted down easy comfort isn’t comforting, which ended up in TFiOS.) 

The nearly two years since her death have complicated my relationship with Esther because now of course there is not only time but a book between us: I could never have written The Fault in Our Stars without knowing Esther. Every word on that book depends upon her.

But at the same time, I don’t want people conflating Esther with Hazel (they’re very different), and it’s extremely important to me that I not claim to be telling Esther’s story. Esther’s story belongs to Esther and to her family, and they will tell it brilliantly and beautifully.

When I was doing publicity for the book, lots of reporters wanted me to talk about Esther because these days novels “based on a true story” do so much better than novels that are just novels. 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 I was very angry after her death and wrote constantly, with a focus and passion I hadn’t known since I was rewriting Looking for Alaska in 2003. And Esther helped me to imagine teenagers as more empathetic than I’d given them credit for. And her charm and snark inspired the novel, as did her idea of incorporating an author she liked into her Wish. But the story is also inspired by many other people—by my son, by my wife, by the kids I knew and loved who died in the children’s hospital when I was a student chaplain, by my own parents (my dad is a cancer survivor), etc.

I wish she’d read TFiOS. I suspect she would’ve found it a bit far-fetched, but I do hope she’d have enjoyed it anyway. I’ll never know, though. I am astonished that the book has found such a broad audience, but the person I most want to read it never will.

Esther has become a hero in our community, and the heroic narrative doesn’t always line up perfectly with the person she was. (Heroic narratives never do.) But this much was true, at least as far as I knew her: She was generous, and loving, and full of grace—which was, after all, her middle name.

Plus, she knew how to make a funny face on cue.

When I told Esther we wanted to celebrate her birthday as long as there were vlogbrothers videos, and that videos on that day could be about whatever she wanted them to be about, she waited a couple weeks before getting back to me. She finally decided she wanted it to be a day that celebrated love in families and among friends. I think of Esther Day as a kind of Valentine’s Day for all the other kinds of love.

It was a brilliant idea, Esther. Thank you for Esther Day. Thank you for helping me say to my family and friends what I still hope I can say to you, even over the great divide: I love you.

(You can support This Star Won’t Go Out, the organization founded in Esther’s memory that helps families of children with cancer, directly here or by buying a TSWGO wristband.)

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