grief

Remembering Antonio

hood rats

Hood rats of Holyoke

Forgive me, Jerica.

“That life – whatever else it is – is short. That fate is cruel but maybe not random. Death always wins but that doesn’t mean we have to bow and grovel to it. That maybe even if we’re not always so glad to be here, it’s our task to immerse ourselves anyway: wade straight through it, right through the cesspool, while keeping eyes and hearts open. And in the midst of our dying, as we rise from the organic and sink back ignominiously into the organic, it is a glory and a privilege to love what Death doesn’t touch.” -Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch

I have been meaning to write this for some time, though at first, I did not know what to say. Or perhaps more accurately, I did not know how to write about it. What prepares anyone for the finality of death?

Antonio Nieves Martinez was my professor. It is true that I did not know him that well. I did not talk to him as I should have, I did not spend enough time with him.

We met in my first year of graduate school, in 2014. He was a new professor in my program, and I was a new master’s student taking the hard blows of imposter syndrome for truly the first time. And I’m sure he had felt the same way years ago, yet there he was, graceful, charming. I don’t know how to say this. Antonio was not perfect. He had moments when all transparency went out the window, when I could tell he was only going through the motions, and wasn’t fully present or engaged. But there were other things he did so beautifully.

On July 13 of this year, I was nearing the end of the eighth day of my new job at Hampshire College. A friend of mine, a doc student interning in Alaska at the time, called me over Facebook messager out of the blue. She hadn’t contacted me in a while, and we were going to move in together in about a month, so I wondered if she had had some problem signing for the apartment. I wish that had been the problem. She told me instead that Antonio had committed suicide.

I’m not sure I fully understood in that moment, what she had said. I was living with another friend, and I knew I would have to tell her as well, when I got home that day. She and I were in the same cohort, and we both took Antonio’s class at the same time. In fact, at that moment, I was dimly aware that I really needed to tell all of my cohort and the one after mine, and anyone else who knew him, what had happened. Looking back now, perhaps it was not my place to have done that. But I also knew that the faculty of my program and the administrators of the College of Education would keep it quiet, and that felt wrong. Because personally, I did not care how he had died. He deserved to be remembered.

More than that, he deserved to be loved. The friend I was staying with went to New York that weekend after I told her. We were supposed to meet up with members of my cohort the Friday after that, to celebrate Antonio’s life.

I had the apartment to myself the next day. I drove to my favorite ice cream place, ordered a giant tub of blue ice cream, came home, ate it, and cried. I cried for a long time. I don’t remember when I stopped. I just remember thinking he must have been in so much pain near the end of his life, and I couldn’t bear to think of him feeling that way. Not when he had had such a colorful life, not when he probably knew so much more about living than I did. Of course I know now that he always assigns the Duncan-Andrade piece, the ones about roses that grow in concrete, because he was one himself.

I did my crying in co-counseling. And alone in my car on the way to work. I’d put on all the Spanish music I could find and it would remind me of him. And I’d cry. This man probably knew so many things that I don’t, and I never bothered to ask. I know because I’m going through life now wishing I could ask him.

After I graduated from my program in 2016, I spent a year in my hometown, Tampa. Intermittently, I would think of Antonio. I’d think maybe I should email him, and tell him what I’m up to. In May of 2017, I knew I had received the job at Hampshire, and I knew I would be moving back to New England. I didn’t know then, but Antonio and his family were moving back to Oakland. I thought I’d tell him I got this new job, eventually, perhaps once I moved back and settled in. I’d reach out to him, to the other professors, see how they were doing.

I will never tell him now. There was a gathering for him at UMass. I did not go. I could not talk to anyone besides my co-counselors about him. I remembered him by wandering around Western Massachusetts alone. I swam alone. Explored remote towns alone. Stood on the edge of large lakes alone. There was a gathering for him in Holyoke. I didn’t go to that either. His daughter will never have those important conversations with her father, like the one where she calls him at 3:00 a.m. to tell him her car has gotten towed. Again. Or the one where she tells him she finally got a job, so would he please help her move her stuff 1,000 miles away. He is never going to have those conversations with her.

My cohort gathered to remember him. However, they wouldn’t confess to past mistakes they have made. For their dishonesty, I destroyed the cohort. I scattered them to the winds. I did not go to meet them. How could they be such cowards when Antonio was dead?

Finally, my friend and I moved to Holyoke, where Antonio used to live while he was in Western Massachusetts. I know now why he chose to live here with his family. It’s a beautiful town, far too small for how much life it contains. On walks in the streets, I meet people who say “¿’ta bien?”. Little black and brown children run around barefoot in the summer. On my street, there’s an old Boricua who goes to Stop and Shop in an electric wheelchair and blares loud bachata music from two speakers that he rigged himself. I once had a little old brown woman follow me around for 10 minutes because she thought I was someone else. I didn’t really mind.

This was your city,
child of immigrants.
In your memory, in your name,
I will do everything.

We had our own remembering party, my roommate and I. We invited some of the Latinx folks we knew from our program, a small group of 5 people. It was good. We brought things that remind us of him. There was a lot of drinking involved. And bachata. I think Antonio would be proud.

I’ve left the Hampshire job. I loved the position, but my boss sucked. I remember all the ways that Antonio tried to help make my life easier, when it felt like nothing was going right. Coincidentally, a friend of mine who works at a school in Holyoke recommended me for an open position there. I now teach ninth graders. Antonio used to teach in high school, once upon a time.

I wish you were here. I’m bewildered and inspired by these young people every day. Most days, it’s really, really fucking hard. You would have known exactly what to do. I miss your guidance, and I miss you very much.

Antonio had these moments when he could be unfathomably sweet. I remember, on our first day of class with him, he asked us if we would mind if he took a selfie with us. He said that he would like to send it to his mother. He said his mother is a Chicana immigrant who doesn’t fully understand what his job entails. He wanted to send her a picture so she could understand. We agreed to let him take the photo. Who does that? Who remembers their mom like that? Even I don’t, family girl as I am.

I remember he was there on the day I graduated. I remember he asked what I was doing next, and I told him I was going to Tampa to continue prospecting for jobs. He told me congratulations, and I think he hugged me. I hope he did. Antonio deserved a hug.

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6 Weeks

Trigger warning: abortion

People in the United States really romanticize this 20’s-vagabond lifestyle. They really want you to believe that moving around and “seeing the world” is going to change your life for the better. They think it really benefits young people to not be in one place for longer than 2 years. To me, this is telling of how much masculinity, classism, and consumerism is rooted in “American” culture (quotation marks used intentionally to question the authenticity of what we consider to be “American”). It’s easy to move around when you’ve been socialized to deny your own feelings and thereby not develop an emotional connection to anyone or anything. It’s easy to move around when you have money. It’s easy to move around when you’re bombarded with images that other people’s cultures and lifestyles are consumable, and consumption is “good for the economy”, therefore the world is one giant meal or conquest after another.

About 2 months ago, I got an abortion. The people I went to at the clinic gave me a lot of literature that said most women feel relief after they go through with the procedure. In “rare cases”, some women feel deeper, more distressful emotions. This might be because they have pre-existing mental health conditions.

This was all they told me.

I went through with the procedure and waited to feel relief. I waited for days, which turned to weeks and then a month. I felt nothing. I threw people out of my life and dragged other people into it. I felt no remorse. My mother forced me to go back to graduate school. I have been here ever since, going through the motions and pretending that I give a fuck.

Still, I felt nothing.

Finally last night, I was watching an episode of a popular television show. It was the one where we find out the dead girl was 6 weeks pregnant.

6 weeks.

That was how far along I was when I ended the pregnancy. I took out some paper and started writing all these thoughts, the same ones I have been writing in my journal for weeks. I wrote about the baby.

I went to Google and, out of curiosity, typed in “abortion support groups”. The first page to pop up was the Project Rachel page. I clicked through the website and found this page that really surprised me. I have been raised Hindu and pro-choice all my life, yet this organization founded by Catholics and very pro-life knew my heart better than anyone I have talked to in the past month.

And I was filled with a rage and sadness and confusion. I understand now that my gut really is the only thing worth listening to. I remember feeling, while I was pregnant, that if this society actually gave a shit about women, every pregnancy would be celebrated because the ability to give life is precious. And that’s basically what the Project Rachel page said, in a somewhat roundabout way. This quote from the website brought me to tears:

Many people close to a women in a crisis pregnancy don’t feel comfortable with the decision to abort, but they don’t know what to say. They want to be supportive and non-judgmental, so they say something like, ‘You’re really in a bad situation and I’ll support whatever you decide.’ The helpful response, the right response should be, ‘Don’t have an abortion. I will not abandon you. Together we will find a way for you to have your baby.’

On some rational level, I know it’s not true. Pregnancy is not some fairy tale, and we don’t live in a society where a community would come together just to help out a pregnant woman. I know I don’t have the money to raise a child, and it’s not fair of me to put that burden on my parents. I know that baby would not have had a father. And even if it did, I’m not sure I would want that father to be around so much.

But it is not reason that rules my thoughts right now. It is grief. And in the depths of my heart, I wanted my baby. I apologized to her every day for 6 weeks. I told her I was sorry that I could not be her mother. I told her I was sorry for abandoning her in this way.

In the end, though, she is gone. I’m supposed to just get on with life. I try not to tell people about the abortion. The few people I have told have no idea what to say other than “I’m sorry”. They continue to act the way they always have around me, to treat me like there’s nothing wrong with me. They fall unimaginably short.

I’m supposed to just believe that there’s some other “time and place” for this to happen. Some situation where there is some man who will be a husband or whatever. Some situation where I can afford a real living space and diapers. Some situation where I can afford stuff like prenatal pills.

In that sense, I guess I made the right decision. The one where I can still survive in this world. The one where it is more acceptable to be a single woman than a single, unmarried mother of a child.

There is no doubt in my mind, though, that the world was not built for women. Not for women, not love, not community, not happiness. Not for children. Not for growth.

And the sad truth is, I don’t want to fall in love any more. I hate that I am still able to. I hate that I can give something as precious as love to adults who don’t deserve it instead of to my child who will never be born.

I keep myself busy by applying to jobs in places where I think maybe, just maybe, I can put down roots and stay for a long time. I pray that I can build a robust community. I pray that I will not be so alone because I cannot continue with this 20’s-vagabond lifestyle. I have had my fill. I need elders and youngers and good people to come back to me. I need to be in a place long enough to know its secrets.

I need to mourn my child.