Mr. Bishop’s Opus

mr bishop and kristinI became acquainted with the smallest of the orchestral string instruments as a matter of surprise. My parents took quiet stock of my interest in the violin and tucked one away within a box, within another, and another, wrapped it in paper within paper, then placed it beneath our Christmas tree. The package bore little resemblance to its contents, foreshadowing my disbelief, and my wonder.

A few months later, I began the process of transferring from the small private school I’d attended since childhood to a local public school that boasted a competitive music program. While the violin and I were still learning each other, I’d already been playing the piano for eleven years, and recently, I’d told my parents that I wanted to begin serious study in preparation for pursuing a music degree in college. The guidance counsellor facilitating my admission urged me to register for orchestra in the upcoming semester. “I’m probably not good enough,” I told her. “I’ve only started playing the violin. Maybe I should wait a year, practice more, then join.” But she dismissed my hesitation: “Nope, you’re exactly the type Mr. Bishop wants—students who come to learn.”

As we all began to tune our instruments to the first violinist’s A440 on the inaugural day of rehearsals, I felt a soft place in my center sink down in the best possible surrender, to a sea of perfect fifths. Over the course of the next few weeks, I began to learn the basics of group performance and underwent my first orchestral audition, in which I found out I wasn’t as bad as I thought after all and placed far from last chair.

I also quickly learned about Mr. Bishop’s penchant for assigning his students music far beyond their skill level, and he’d tell us as much. For him, it was simply a reason to learn more, practice harder. On days when we’d first receive a new piece of music, he’d give us a few minutes to look it over, and then we’d launch in. Woe unto the students who played the first note with the center of their bow held to the string. He’d drop his baton and stop the whole orchestra: “Start at the frog. That passage should use the length of the bow. Dig the hairs into the string.” Not knowing the piece wasn’t an excuse because getting it right the first time, or even the second or third times, wasn’t the point; playing like you meant it was. 

So, too, was taking music seriously, always. One day I was passing time in the music theory classroom by playing a selection of Mozart but grew bored and pulled my hands from the piano keys abruptly. “Put some phrasing on that passage,” he admonished, and hummed the rest of the melody as he’d see it interpreted. I hadn’t even known he was listening.

It is a tired cliche to use passionate to describe those in whom profession and vocation reach symbiosis, but it would be an apt way to portray Mr. Bishop. That passion coupled with his approachability made him beloved by students. He was a master of puns so bad they were good and full of anecdotes whose humor stemmed first from the stories themselves and later from his forgetful retelling of them. We’d roll our eyes, but mostly found him endearing. There was the story of the overweight German opera singer who’d knock over music stands during her entrance on stage, to which she’d always reply to the disgruntled violinists that, with her, “der is no sidevays.” And there was the story about the students, early in his career, who stapled a centerfold into one of his scores on the evening of a public performance. And there is still my memory of embarrassing myself by asking aloud: “What’s a centerfold?”

Mr. Bishop was full of devices for remembering tricky musical concepts—like how to play a dotted-eighth note followed by a sixteenth (by saying “day-today”) or a quintuplet (by saying “university”). And he laughed when, in music theory, I shared that one could remember the three steps in making a Neapolitan sixth chord (find the lowered second, build a major chord, put it in first inversion) by remembering that Neapolitan ice cream has three flavors. Later, when I taught piano classes at a local music store, I took his memorable pedagogical techniques to heart. Donning a furry dog mask, I introduced my young child students to a canine named “Dot”—a musical note’s best friend and, thus, worth half its value—and in so doing, taught them how to calculate the value of dotted notes, how to count their beats. They’d giggle their way through class.

Though Mr. Bishop never formally served as a piano teacher for me, he never failed to be a source of musical and moral support when I began, during my senior year, to audition for piano performance programs. And he celebrated with me when I learned I had been accepted to my dream school: the prestigious Berklee College of Music. Financial considerations ultimately prevented me from attending; though I’d received a partial scholarship, it was far from enough to cover the institution’s tuition as well as the cost of living for an out-of-state student in Boston. So I planned to attend a university in Georgia to complete my core classes then transfer, but I ended up taking courses on English literature in which I rekindled an old love of words and decided to devote my life to a different art—or rather a different medium, as I’ve since come to think of it. Each has informed my perception of the other, made my expression of the other richer. And both, at their most beautiful, leave me utterly undone, surrendered to the sublime sea of helplessness beyond the shore of art that carries us closest to life’s inexpressible essence.

My dad earned his third-degree black belt under the tutelage of Mr. Bishop’s daughter, who owns a karate school in my hometown, so Mr. Bishop and my father frequently ran into each other after I graduated high school. Long after I’d embarked on a different life path, Mr. Bishop continued to take an interest in my pursuits, always asking my father about me. “How’s my girl?” my dad says he would say. Once Mr. Bishop expressed his admiration for my being a person who didn’t wait around for teachers who could impart the knowledge I desired. If I had no teacher, he told my dad, I’d just find a way to teach myself. Mr. Bishop was one of the teachers against whom I set my standards.

My dad was also the one who told me, a few weeks ago, that Mr. Bishop was sick. Beyond cancer caught late in its progression, I don’t know many of the details. What I do know is that I cried when my friend and former orchestra classmate Sarah messaged me on Facebook last Thursday to ask if I’d heard the news. “Are you sure?” I asked her. I’d known his health was deteriorating and that he’d been moved to hospice, but I didn’t know, to use the euphemism, that things had taken a turn for the worst. “I’m really sorry to tell you,” she said.

We reminisced about our time in orchestra for a while. “I’m kinda sad that I didn’t keep up with my music,” she admitted, adding that she hadn’t played her viola in ten years. It’d been a long time for me, too, I said. The hairs are falling from my bow; the strings are falling out of her pegbox. Yes, it’s too bad, we both agreed, that we haven’t practiced more. One of us proposed playing really rusty songs with bad intonation on our falling-apart instruments in his honor. It seemed as fitting an homage as any.

Mr. Bishop, if you don’t mind, I’ll let my song be a little more metaphorical than literal. But I will play as you played, always—bow hairs digging into the strings—and I will mean it.

In Midtown, an Unexpected Encounter

Grand Central Station and Chrysler Building in Midtown ManhattanAhead, a man slowed the pedestrian traffic exiting Grand Central toward Lexington. One suitcase in front and another behind, he inched his way through the acute angle the heavy door formed with its jamb. A nudge with the foot, a push with the hip to make the angle wider. Another inch.

With the exception of potential delay, New Yorkers tend to make their way toward doors already in use, one after another going through until the final someone twists her body to slip through just before it closes. 

On either side of the man, the people before me took to the unused doors; to open one, to struggle with its weight was quicker than to pause before passing through. 

As I entered the door to his right, I noticed the luggage I’d first seen from afar piled high in my periphery. I looked over: two small push carts, laden with large, plastic bags—a balancing act from the sum of his belongings. 

When the door at last closed behind him, he paused in the vestibule. I opened the second door and held it from the other side while two people took the opportunity to pass through and the man pondered a solution to yet another exit. 

I was awaiting a companion who remained behind him, he seemed to assume. Unmoving, he peered blankly through the opening to the bustling sidewalk—a way made but not for the taking. 

Whether from shock or relief, his eyes grew wide when I motioned for him to come through. 

“You saved the day,” he said, his voice carrying a small laugh through the white of his beard. 

His face was inches from mine as he pulled the second cart through the door. I smiled. 

“Take care of yourself,” I replied, knowing how little that means—and, hopefully, how much.

Bar Island Sandbar

I wanted to walk the length of the expanse before me, held back only by the water itself, so I pinched and pulled at the map on my iPhone in search of the nearest spot where brown met blue, uninhibited by docks or harbors. We parked our rental car and made our way down a road that dead-ended at our destination. We got more than we bargained for: a beach of stones and swooping swathes of water divided by a sandbar that reached outward to an indeterminable end. And thus, nearly by accident, we discovered Bar Island Sandbar while visiting Maine this summer. In hindsight we learned that place was as serendipitous as time: the sandbar, which connects Bar Island to the town of Bar Harbor, is exposed only for a few hours each day, during low tide. With one move in either direction we might have seen a different sight entirely. Coincidences, I’ve come to believe, are no small thing.

Bar Island Sandbar, Maine

You knelt as you marveled,
your finger sliding unscathed and unstopped across one’s surface.
We slid it in your pocket
to bear the weight of the whole.

From afar, they are one beach,
the thousands of stones.
The water has closed in and retreated until they lay
with their callouses softened,
edges curved.

Only my feet touched the water.
It lapped and pooled at my ankles,
where I thought I left it behind,
undulating.

When we returned to the city,
I knew otherwise:
I let the soft tide close in to remind me
how to bend and listen and know,
how to give mercy.

We placed the stone on a window sill
overlooking an expanse of building bricks
and an alley, overgrown.
It has been patient with us—as if to say
it knows we did the best we could,
the sunlight the closest we could return it
to its natural habitat.

Patchwork

With OllieAt first and from afar I could not identify the foreign shape—too large for fuzz, too small for something spilled. So I walked over to touch it, to retrieve the unwanted object, until my index finger slipped through and touched the soft blanket underneath. And then I knew: a hole lay in the centre of the new grey quilt atop my bed. A small hole, edges uneven, it had been punctured with the teeth and nibbling of a pup who had grown to perceive the world as a place for his play and pleasure, its trinkets his toys. “Ollie just chewed a hole in the new comforter,” I texted Teo, my husband. “I’m so upset. I just bought it a few days ago. Maybe I should just make him sleep on the floor.”

It was among several bed coverings I’d replaced since finding Oliver, at least one for every year since he appeared on my grandmother’s porch as a stray dog—small, emaciated, and abused, in need of food and a home and the ability to once again trust a human. But normally he’d wait longer, let me enjoy my new purchase before sinking his teeth into the softness. And then for months afterward my bed would bear its battle wounds: a down comforter suddenly emitting a new puff of feathers called for my mom’s latest round of patchwork until one day I stuffed the whole unsightly thing into a duvet cover. It wore its newness well until holes also began to appear in the cover, and I pulled the comforter from it for more patching with a sea of feathers gathering at my feet. Repaired once more, the comforter sat in its cover on the bed, and I closed the new holes with oversized safety pins then hid them beneath a quilt that came to bear its own holes. Then one day I finally decided that the battle for newness wasn’t one worth fighting, at least not so vigilantly. And I let the holes gather. Holes upon holes upon holes that seemed to appear from nowhere—I’ve never caught Oliver in the act of making even one.

When Teo and I moved from Georgia to New York, the holes weren’t so easy to mend. The tailor across the street from our first apartment was not as accommodating as my mother and came to bemoan our appearance at the front door, our arms full of a comforter with perforations held together precariously with chip clips. During our first visit, the tailor ensured we knew our makeshift tactic had failed as she made a scene of sweeping the feathers from her shop’s front counter. It was returned to us a few days later in a large, black trash bag, tied as though to be quarantined, with jagged thread lines closing the holes, the chip clips nowhere to be found. And we came to dread the journey to the tailor more than the discovery of new holes in need of tailoring, a puff of feathers foreshadowing the uneasy encounter. Not surprisingly, the tailor across from our current apartment is also not too fond of us and has intimated that a bed may not be the most ideal location for a dog. Many others—family and friends who have seen me pick out yet another bed covering—have asked more directly: “Why don’t you just make him sleep on the floor?”

I don’t remember exactly when Oliver moved from sleeping on the floor to sleeping in the bed. But it did not take him long to begin using my shoulder as his pillow or the arc of my legs when I lay on my side as a place to nestle. It did not take him long to begin moving from the foot of the bed to where I slept so he could lie with his belly next to mine. I also don’t remember exactly when Oliver changed from the timid dog I found to one who knew it was safe to love and be loved. But it did not take him long to trust me, to know that I would protect him whether awake or in that uniquely vulnerable state of slumber. And I cannot help but think that redefining human contact as a source of comfort rather than physical pain underpinned that transformation.

Shortly after discovering the most recent hole, I calmed myself and sent another text. “People have asked why I don’t, but I just can’t do it,” I told Teo. “One day when he is gone, am I going to look back on his life and wish I’d put him on the floor more often to save my comforters? Or am I going to be happier that each night he snuggled next to us and knew that he lived, for the time he was with us, a very loved life?” In fact, if there’s any relationship in life that we shouldn’t view this way—with full consideration of what we may one day come to regret, of the love we can give while we still have the opportunity—I’ve yet to find it. It’s among the many things that a once timid dog has taught me with shredded fabric and a mended heart.

Big Brat, Little Brat: Saying Goodbye to Aunt Judy

Aunt Judy and me

Some hours ago, my Aunt Judy passed away. On March 27, she entered the hospital for a routine procedure and was later discharged, only to return with complications a few days after. Her condition continued to worsen as intervention after intervention failed. In the end, it was only life support that sustained her, and it was her own wishes not to be resuscitated that meant we had to let her go.

When I was a child, Judy lovingly and jokingly began calling me “Little Brat.” I suppose this is because I often derived attention from (usually literal) poking and prodding of the people to whom I showed affection. Or because, in an extended family with few children and none my age, embodying the trickster was another guaranteed way to earn attention. Being surrounded by adults was the norm in my childhood, so I engaged them in the ways I knew how, and they in return, me. The latter meant I grew up precocious, with an expanded vocabulary, with more self-awareness than a child should possess, and a sense that I was no different from the older people around me. But Judy was one of the few who approached me as a child and not only played my games but who, childlike, also made me play hers. When I finally began calling her “Big Brat,” having conjured the obvious retort to the nickname she had given me, she seemed both shocked at my self-assuredness and pleased that we were both participants in what ultimately became a decades-long bout of light-hearted repartee.

As I grew older, we retained our nicknames, even when, in adolescence, I surpassed her in height. I joked as I hugged her, my arms then wrapping around her shoulders rather than her waist, that she should be “Little Brat” now. But with one of her characteristic quick retorts, she said that she would always be “Big Brat” because she would always be the oldest, and plus, she was bigger this way, she added, and held her hands at her waist, pulling them outward in an expanding motion. The names necessarily became less literal, more ironic, but they also became an homage to who we were as aunt and niece at the moment that relationship became a friendship. And throughout her life, the names remained as they were at that point of origin. In every Christmas card, birthday card, and later every Facebook post, she would sign as “Big Brat.” When I became old enough to fall in love, to marry, she accepted Matt with open arms as both a nephew and new member of the family, drew him into our game of repartee, and cleverly christened him “Matt Brat.” He, too, loves her dearly.

Judy was too cool for cool; endured far too much; maintained an intense strength, despite all odds; and she continued to love—fiercely—against which the odds were even greater. Mostly Judy was taken from us far too soon. But I have always thought about her less as “Judy” and more as “my really awesome aunt who always let me call her ‘Big Brat.'” Because I love her, and despite already missing her, or perhaps especially so, “Big Brat” she shall remain.

Ollie’s Birthday

Four years ago, my cousins and I—some still in high school, others of us in college—were spending part of our summer vacation with our grandparents when, in mid-July, a small and emaciated dog made his way to their front porch. My grandfather, as well as my uncle who lives next door, never ones to take pity on stray animals, shooed him away. “If you feed ’em, if you pet ’em, if you water ’em, they’ll keep coming back for more.” This mantra of theirs sometimes ended with an explicit order to adhere to its tenets; at other times, the imperative lurked beneath unmistakable facial expressions.

So that night, when the little dog returned, my cousins and I did the only logical thing: once we were sure everyone was sleeping, we took him inside, bathed him, gave him milk, and fed him food sneaked from the bowl belonging to my aunt and uncle’s dachshund. Afterward, we had to send him back into the night, but we were happy to see that my grandpa and uncle’s mantra proved true. Each time the little dog returned, I became more determined to make him mine.

Still living at home with my parents and leaving the country, in just a matter of weeks, for a semester-long study abroad program, I had already begun begging my mom’s generosity. Would she please take care of him for me while I was away if I promised to pay for all his expenses? With a twinge of regret, she said no, blaming her response largely on my dad, but I remained sure that I could change her mind. Then the little dog stopped visiting, and I began to worry that he had passed from this life—that the sustenance we had secretly been providing him was not enough, that maybe he was already too sick and emaciated to get better. I soon discovered he was still alive but that my uncle had loudly scared him off, and those who saw it happen were sure the little dog wouldn’t return.

Then, a few days later, he did. I took pictures, sent them to my mother, called her, said, “Look how cute he is! How can you refuse his sweet face?” She responded simply, with a sly smile in her voice, “You can keep him.” I was in disbelief until I discovered that she had changed her mind days before and told my aunt but swore her to silence: if the little dog never returned, my mom didn’t want me to be heartbroken. “What are you going to name him?” my mom asked. I didn’t know then, but a few hours later, I decided on “Oliver,” an homage to his orphanhood.

But he wasn’t an orphan for long. We quickly bonded, and it was as though he had been a part of our family for years. Still, his transition from a life on the streets to one with a family was not always easy for him. He had clearly been abused, which was evidenced not only in the way he would cower and growl when meeting new people, especially men, but also in a literal scar on his body, what I later learned from X-rays was the result of being shot with a BB. His emaciation was the manifestation of malnutrition, and he also tested positive for heart worms, having been without preventative medication for an unidentifiable period of time. He endured painful treatment for the illness, growing sicker and weaker before he finally recovered.

Since that time, Ollie’s recovery has been more than physical. His feeling of safety is now apparent in his trust in people. Recently, for example, we hosted a party at our apartment in which Ollie greeted every guest—even those he had never before met—with attention, with joyful whining, with requests to be petted. He looks forward to seeing members of our families; he knows they are his and he is theirs. But more than I rescued Ollie, he has rescued me. He found me during one of the most difficult points in my life and has never ceased to bring me healing and joy. So while we do not know—and can never know—his real birthday, in mid-July we celebrate his “birth” into this life we share together, ever better because he is in it.

A Sudden Blow

A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
                                   Being so caught up,
So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?
—W. B. Yeats, from “Leda and the Swan”

Thus, the most common trauma of women remains confined to the sphere of private life, without formal recognition or restitution from the community. There is no public monument for rape survivors.
—Judith Herman, from
Trauma and Recovery

The night he came in, I nearly died. Everything after that has been an image of him—the merciless aftermath of coming to understand what he meant when he said, “One day you’ll wish I’d just killed you.” Then he left. I’ll never know if he was there fifteen minutes or five hours. They say the mind does funny things in times like those, in times when some stranger has entered your house to enter you. I never pressed charges, too afraid he might come back and undo his words, finish me off anyway. But lately, I’m beginning to wonder if that might have been an easier way to go. Quicker. A single gunshot. Like the feel of his loins firing inside me.

Sometimes I think it’s all his tiny sperm that later became the cancer—like maybe they sat in me until they started to eat me away, organ by organ, breath by breath. At night I lie in my bed, the same bed where he held the gun to my head and told me to take off my clothes, and wonder how many minutes I have left. Then I see him on top of me again, and I think the countdown must be something like staring above you trying to count those damn sheetrock drops that look like zits on the ceiling or trying to count the number of times the fan buzzes round and round—anything but the number of seconds he has been shoving himself between your legs.

I still replay that moment when I suddenly woke up, and there he was, standing over me like the feeling of guilt before confession. They always say the woman wants it—like somewhere in me I had enough power to will the stars of the universe to align so that he could rattle my doorknob on the exact night I forgot to turn the deadbolt latch and fell into bed after working a sixteen-hour shift at the restaurant. And after a while, you begin to believe them. Not that I’d know who “them” is. No. Because I’ve never told anybody. But I still hear their voices. The ones who speak on the 6:00 news, barely audible. But they’re still there, whispering to some other victim that she wanted it, blaming her and blaming me all in the same breath. They speak in that split-second flinch before they voice that awful word—that shameful word that tries so hard in four letters to get at what some man did to her, did to me. Then they shove her story away in the time it takes the fan to buzz round twice. They let the dead victims of murder live longer in the dull light of the flickering screen. But I remember them, the others who are like me. I keep their stories in a shoebox beneath my bed, right between the folder that contains my positive cancer screening and a box of my mother’s old knickknacks.

The doctors keep telling me I only have six months left. It’s so funny—not haha funny, but ironic funny—to think that cancer cells are killing you where new life is supposed to grow. I mean, they could have been pulling a baby out of me, rather than tearing out my insides—letting an infant cry with his first taste of air, rather than letting that putrid, malignant sack of uterus sit on a sterile tray in the corner of the operating room. They took my chance at the baby boy I always wanted and the cancer all at the same time. Or so they thought. Three months later, they said the cancer had continued to spread. And now my life has become has become the loss of one dispensable organ after another, has become measured in chemo treatments and the number of victims I can save from the newspaper before the cancer takes me. But no one, not even God, can save me.

I lost him that night, too—God, that is. Not all at once, though. First it was in the moments when I couldn’t love my neighbor as myself. Because maybe the faceless man from that night was my neighbor. Because maybe I drove by his house everyday, and he was watching me suffer, laughing over his victory. Then it was in the moments when I couldn’t forgive. Because how do you forgive someone who takes that much from you? And then it was in the moments when God had—or rather, didn’t have, as I know now—a master plan and that somewhere in the middle of it, that man smothering me with all his heavy weight would work out for the greater good. Then it was in the moments when the watery blood started pouring from me and the jabbing pains of an invisible knife came closer and closer to where he shoved himself inside. And now God lives somewhere between the second I felt the cold gun barrel against my temple and the second I finally heard the front door latch with him on the other side, deadbolt still unturned. After God, the things I lost became as uncountable as the zits on the ceiling.

I often pull out the shoebox, trying to see if the others lost those things, too—what it feels like to think you’re safe, that your body is your own, that your voice will be heard, that anything can be explained with words. But you never really have any of those things. No, the difference between who you were and who you become is the difference between believing those things exist and knowing they don’t—because this is what he takes from you: The moment before disillusionment. The moment before you realize you left the door unlocked, before the doctor breaks the news, before you wish he’d just killed you. Quicker. A single gunshot. Like the feel of his loins firing inside.

Defining the Imperfect

“Mark is dead.” These are the words that kept resounding in my mind as Emily and I hurriedly gathered our belongings and ran out the door of Trini and Leonardo’s Spanish apartment. The elevator seemed to take an eternity to make its way to the second floor. In reality, it wasn’t taking any longer than it usually did when the two of us would stand in front of the same elevator every morning before wrestling with the heavy metal door at the entrance to the apartment complex and beginning our thirty-minute walk to the Universidad.

The opportunity to study abroad had enticed me since I was first introduced to the idea. I knew that in Spain my physical world would literally become my classroom as simple, daily interactions became tests of my knowledge. I would have the opportunity not only to improve my understanding of the Spanish language but also to learn about the culture that shaped it. I understood that the experience would be both exciting and challenging, but I was ready to test the limits of the Spanish proverb that says, “Lo que en los libros no está, la vida te enseñará.” (That which isn’t in books, life will teach you.)

When our group arrived in Spain, we were placed with host families who didn’t speak English. I took some comfort in the fact that, Emily, one of my friends from the States, would be my roommate, sharing the experiences of the summer and the bedroom in Trini and Leonardo’s apartment with me. But I quickly realized I was far outside my comfort zone when the number of phrases I understood during our first conversation with the older Spanish couple could be counted on one hand. Many humanizing moments came when I realized the limits of my own language in this new environment, when words failed me—or when they didn’t, but my accent stood in the way of comprehension.

After a month in Spain, we had seen the Roman aqueduct in Segovia and the running of the bulls in Pamplona. We had gone through our recursive bouts of culture shock and homesickness. The rhythms of Spanish were becoming more innate with each passing day until my thoughts had begun to come to me in a language that was not my own and the sounds of Castilian Spanish had begun to have a familiar taste as they slid across my tongue. We were finally starting to make a routine out of our lives in another country. Then Mark’s death came, bringing with it the unsettling reminder that tragedy cannot be escaped, that wherever you are, it will always—without fail—break the standards of the mundane.

“Shouldn’t we just take the stairs?” I asked, receiving no answer from Emily. We both darted simultaneously for the darkened stairwell, finding a bit of relief when we reached the ground floor. We knew the walk would take too long, so we went as far as the bus stop and paid the eighty centavos it would cost to ride to the parada closest to the apartment where Sara, our group leader, was living for the summer. The bus driver stopped on a side street, next to the Plaza Mayor in the heart of Salamanca. Emily and I got off the bus, watching the groups of chattering Spaniards who were making their way along the cobblestone sidewalk and up the staircase into the Plaza. Then we walked the streets toward Sara’s, asserting in the face of oncoming traffic as many pedestrian rights as one may have in Spain.

Arriving at her apartment, we saw Sara and her assistant holding open the front door, telling us to go on up to where the others were already waiting. In the living room, I looked at the faces of my fellow students, seated in a circle around the room. Some were crying; others were talking among themselves; some just sat in silent contemplation, numb to the others’ existence. No matter the response, we all wanted to know what happened, to know the explanation that would surely make sense of it all.

A mere half hour before, Emily and I had been studying in a café at the end of Calle de las Petunias, trying to perfect the use of the imperfect versus the preterite. For speakers of Spanish, the distinction between imperfect and preterite verbs defines, with a mere change of verb endings, the difference between repeated actions and singly occurring actions in the past—or the difference between the scenarios in which we found ourselves and the actions that interrupted those contexts. For Spanish-language learners, the concept is at first an uncomfortable one, challenging us to redefine our perceptions of past time and, in some way, to reevaluate the strictures that we impose upon time and its fluidity.

After studying for several hours (imperfect), Emily and I decided (preterite) to make the thirty-second walk back to the apartment. As we were crossing the street (imperfect), we saw Mónica (preterite), Trini’s daughter-in-law, running toward us. We greeted her with a hug and dos besitos, one on each cheek, as Trini and Leonardo watched from their second-story balcony. “¡Rápido, rápido!” yelled Leonardo. “Surely we’re not that late for dinner,” I thought to myself, as Mónica opened the door at the main entrance. The elevator carried the three of us to the second floor, and I found myself laughing at Mónica’s humor, infectious even in my second language, but as we entered the apartment, I knew something was horribly wrong.

My laughter stopped immediately. The look on Trini’s face—I had seen it before. It was the same one my parents had given me when I was eight, right before they told me that my best friend had just died. “There is a time for everything,” I could hear my dad say. “Well, your friend, Grace …” He didn’t even have to finish before my tears came. Somehow I just knew. Then Trini spoke, jolting me out of my retrospection: “Un de los estudiantes en tu grupo … murió.¿Murió, murió?—surely there was some mistake; my mind kept repeating the word, translating it, conjugating it, retranslating it. Morir: to die. Muero, mueres, muere: I die, you die, he dies. Morí, moriste, murió: I died, you died, he died. “Which student?” I asked. “I don’t know,” said Trini; “Sara said he was about thirty.” “¡Dios Mio! It’s Mark,” I said to Emily, using English for the first time in front of our host family. The language I used didn’t really matter anyway; in English and in Spanish, Mark was no longer with us.

At that moment, life and learning merged so uncomfortably that I desired only to pry them apart. Any romanticized notion I had of the two coming together was irreversibly shattered when the once-abstract concept of the imperfect became the representation of Mark’s presence in our lives and the preterite became the moment when he was suddenly gone. The experience left no room to misunderstand why the verb morir makes little use of the imperfect. Death happens. Death comes. It interrupts life as we have known it. It barges mercilessly into our present and seeks to destroy the context of our past and the perceptions of our future. It challenges our reality, the sources of our feigned security, the relationships we cherish, and ultimately, the very essence of our selves. Death is a series of questions left unanswered.

As we all sat in Sara’s apartment, waiting for an explanation, many of our questions remained unanswered. The cause of death shocked all of us with its suddenness, yet the questions of logistics, once answered, aren’t the ones that continue to haunt you, but rather the questions that attest to the utterly human struggle to comprehend the inexplicable. What do you say to the group of students who must leave Europe knowing they’ve left a friend behind? What do you say to the two students who walked in to check on their sick travel companion only to find a lifeless body beneath the sheets? What do you say to the señora who doesn’t want to return to her own home, to the place where the cherished student, and later the lifeless shell of him, once lay? What do you say to the mother who will wonder during sleepless nights if life would have been easier had she just been cursed with a barren womb? What do you say when you have two languages at your disposal and both leave you powerless, without answers for the hardest of life’s questions?

When Grace died, I didn’t have words even to ask the questions, much less to find the answers. The death of another child, for a child, is simply incomprehensible. Normally reserved for older individuals, like the grandfather I never had the chance to know, death could now rob even children like me of their very childhood. No one was safe. This vulnerability would make itself known in the most unseemly circumstances—one of my classmates, nervous about a difficult math test, jokingly saying he was too young to die, another responding, “Grace wasn’t too young to die.” And she wasn’t. Even now, I can hear her saying, “I’ll see you soon,” as we parted ways on the last day of third grade, eager for summer vacation. I never saw her again.

At the time, I dealt with the grief in the only ways an eight-year-old knows how. It often manifested itself in outward, physical ways, like when I would crawl underneath a table, each breath becoming harder and harder to breathe until the tears finally came. I didn’t attend her funeral, not wanting the end of her young life to tarnish my memories with her. I collected various mementos of our friendship and stored them in a shoebox beneath my bed, where they stayed until I was fifteen. When I think of Grace, I still see us playing dress-up one day after school, only a few weeks before she died. I picture our faces, covered with red lipstick, and our hair, pulled into a haphazard arrangement of ponytails. These memories—these subjective accounts of my past—became my way of preserving Grace, allowing her to grow older with me.

When Mark died, one loss meshed into the other, carrying me back to when I was eight, but age had brought with it the ability to acknowledge the questions that came with Mark’s death. As I began grappling with those questions, my unspoken uncertainties about Grace’s death rose to the surface. Over a decade after the afternoon that had almost divided my life, clean-cut, into two portions, one preceding and one following the death of my childhood friend, I began to walk the painful journey toward closure. I began asking the questions that sought to make sense of a loss I viewed as unjust. How could I remember her and still let her go?

Sometimes, I suppose, there are no answers to our questions; there is only what we learn in the process of asking them. At times, the thoughts still creep in that remind me of how old Grace would be, what college she might be attending, the friendship we might have if she were still alive. But what both of these losses have taught me is that life should not be defined by the brief instances of life in the preterite, but rather by the life we define for ourselves in the spaces of the imperfect—the context in which others may enter our lives and change it forever. In the spaces of my imperfect, I see Grace, and I am blessed that she was.