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.