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.


On Mental Health

CW: Suicide

Okay, there’s something I’ve been quiet about for a while. I thought maybe I was quiet out of respect for people’s mourning, but I think now I realize that the person these people are mourning for is more important than the mourning.

In October, there was a boy in our community who committed suicide. I won’t use his name for the sake of privacy. He was 18 years old. He had just started his first semester at a university. His family was part of the Indian community that I was familiar with growing up. We used to see him and his parents around at friends’ houses sometimes when there were parties and other gatherings.

He committed suicide. I can’t imagine how painful that must be for his parents and his brother. I can’t imagine what it is like to lose someone into whom you have poured so much love and hope for 18 years.

I think the reaction I have seen from a lot of community members is a marker of how little our community is allowed to celebrate the humanity of people. So much of what I’ve seen are comments about mental health, as in, “mental health is so important! Reach out to me if you ever need help! Oh, and RIP friend!” and the like.

I cannot express the kind of fury this ignites in me. I cannot express how sad it is to me that this boy, who was so talented and so full of life when he was alive, is being reduced to his mental illness after death. I cannot believe people are allowing him to be remembered in this way, as some kind of victim of mental illness. In my opinion, that is an insult to his memory, and an insult to every person who is still alive and fighting for their lives. As a person who is living with depression, I refuse to allow this to be the narrative you tell. He is no longer alive to tell his story, but this is not the story you will tell about him.

Why didn’t it matter enough to you to check in on him while he was still living? Why didn’t it matter to you to tell him you love him while he was alive? Why didn’t you tell him how smart he is, how amazing he is, that you like his company, that he means something to you, while he was alive? Do not dare say another word about how sad it is when someone commits suicide if you are not brave enough to tell people you love them while they are alive.

I have seen people go to all kinds of lengths to avoid responsibility for what has happened. Saying things like, oh, it was the residence hall that was the problem. Oh, he picked such a hard major. Oh, he should have stayed closer to home. Oh, it was this, that, and the other thing, continuously blaming him. As time goes on, the list of accusations gets longer. This tells me that people know exactly what could have been done and just didn’t do it. It is our responsibility at the end of the day. Yes, ours. We are responsible for his death. We, his community, the people who were close to him and did nothing to stop this from happening. It is our fault.

And I have seen people have the nerve to call him selfish for leaving in that way. For writing a note to his parents that he is finally making a decision on his own. This tells me how little people actually know about mental illness. Of course it is selfish. To consider suicide, a person has to feel as though there is no other escape. Taking their lives comes to be a logical option. Unless you have felt that kind of entrapment, you cannot possibly know the pain he was living with in the last few days of his life.

Be a better community for him. You keep complaining about the stigma in this community around mental health. Are you doing anything to help stop the stigma? Are you educating yourself on mental illness? Do you let people know you are present for them when they need help?

Furthermore, are you honest about your own mental health status? This community is known for pushing young people to their limits, making us compete ruthlessly with the people we should be able to go to for support. It is common for young people to feel anxiety and depression without knowing it because they think this is a “normal” way to live life. I certainly did. Take stock of how well you are taking care of yourself. Go further than just the physical necessities of eating and sleeping regularly. Do you surround yourself with upbeat people who care for your well-being? Do you have people in your life who listen to you deeply, who know how to validate your feelings and recognize your pain? Do you have people in your life who take accountability for their actions and admit when they are at fault?

Notice how a lot of these questions have to do with people.

Do better for him. Do not make his story some melodramatic tragedy about depression. Remember his accomplishments, and appreciate how much he achieved in spite of his mental illness. Who knows how long he was affected by it? But he was still brave enough to get out of bed and go to class every day. He was still brave enough to move away from home. Remember his courage. And remember that about all the people who come out to you with their mental illness. Remember that while you suspect they are just lazy, while you accuse them of not trying hard enough, while you say ignorant things like “mind over matter”. I didn’t choose to live this way. No one wants to live with a mental illness. I live in spite of my mental illness.