The Sound of Home

When I feel homesick, I take the subway out to the airport. Not to look at the announcements of flights going back home because there are not that many; only one a day in winter and two in summer. I go there to listen to the sound of the rolling suitcases. Those little plastic wheels moving on asphalt, on concrete, on cobblestone—that is the sound that reminds me of home. The sound of Frankfurt, Germany.

I have been obsessed with the rolling cases since I was eight years, eleven months and twelve days years old. I know that down to the exact day because it was the Christmas before my ninth birthday. The miracle of being given such a grown-up present blew my mind away.

These suitcases were still a very new thing in 1980, and only frequent travelers had them back then. My father did because he worked in a different city and was gone from Monday morning to Friday night. And every Friday night, I would wait to hear his cab arrive from the train station or airport. I would stand at the window while the driver unloaded his case and he rolled it across the sidewalk to our front door and came in. The sound of his suitcase was the promise of a present he would have for me, every single Friday.

My first wheelie was one of the early Samsonite models: medium-sized, white, with red stickers for the initials you put next to the locks. I fell in love the moment I saw it under the Christmas tree. It was so much more than a case on wheels; it was the promise of a future with exciting trips to all the fascinating places my father talked about. The places in the photos he showed me when he was back; him in front of the Kremlin or on the Chinese wall. The places where he bought souvenirs or dresses for me that me and my friends had never seen before; a scarabaeus on a golden necklace from Egypt, a babushka from Russia or a brightly colored dress from Morocco.

With my suitcase came the promise of a very special trip: My first trip on an airplane. My excitement was endless. Unfortunately, that trip was still months away. But there was no way I would let my parents store my new suitcase in the attic along with their entire luggage. I kept it in my room, stuffed it to the max with my most cherished treasures, locked it and rolled it up and down the long hall of my family’s Art Nouveau home.

When that was not exciting enough any more, I took the wheelie outside—first to the big patio in front of the house, and later to the street. There was no public traffic on the little alley behind our house, so I let my suitcase roll down the steep hill just to drag it back up again, over and over, always imagining that I was about to start on an exciting journey into the unknown or returning home from such a journey. Our neighbors, who immediately called my mother in a fit the first time they saw me and my suitcase walk down the hill in direction of the main street, calmed down when they saw me come up the road again. They probably thought it was a weird thing to do, but eventually, they got used to the sight.

That time was when I fell in love with the sound the wheels made on the street, the sound that would become the soundtrack of my life. The wheels of my first suitcase had to be exchanged due to wear and tear, even before I took it on its first real trip.

Luggage fashion changed over the years. The stock of bags and cases in my parent’s attic grew, and I added some new pieces too, but I never gave up my white Samsonite. As a teenager and student, I dragged it all over Europe. To the great amusement of my friends, it even accompanied me on a four-week camping trip to Greece. New floor surfaces were added to its sound portfolio: grass (very low and irregular), tiles (high and a bit screechy), and wood (deep and reassuring—one of my favorites to this day).

When it was only 17, my travel companion died a very unfortunate death. To make matters worse, it was death by my own hands. It took me days to bring myself to do it, but then I went ahead and murdered it.

It was in the US. I had just moved there for my first job. Back then, the baggage limit was still a generous 140 pounds, so I had acquired two bigger cases to take along. But 140 pounds did not seem remotely enough to hold everything I thought I would need for a year abroad. When a friend came to visit a few weeks after my arrival, she brought my white Samsonite along, filled with more stuff that seemed incredibly necessary at that point.

I met her in New York City, in a shabby hotel in the Village that still offered cheap weekly rates despite the fact that Madonna had had her photo shoot for the Sex Book there. I had long been in bed by the time my friend’s flight arrived from Germany. It was past two in the morning when I woke up to a familiar sound: My suitcase was rolling down the hotel hallway toward the room we would share for a week. I recognized it as mine, just like other people might hear the sound of a car engine and knew the exact make or model.

The next day brought bad news: My friend who was not the most reliable person to begin with had lost the keys to my suitcase. We searched her bags for close to two hours before I finally gave in to the sad truth: I would have to pick the locks. It was the mid-1990s, so there was no YouTube website yet that could have shown me how to do it softly. I remembered from movies that bobby pins should do the jobs, but no matter how I tried the locks held firm. So finally, after I had given up on the pins and also broken a nail file, I said goodbye to my beaten up travel companion and grabbed for a kitchen knife. I took a deep breath, and then I pried the locks open. They gave way with a mean little sound.

When I unpacked all the contents that I had been waiting for so impatiently, they suddenly seemed irrelevant compared to all the experiences the case itself had been a part of. I was 26, and for the first time I fully realized that I cherished my memories and experiences more than the designer clothes I would not get to wear in a laid-back American town anyway.

I did not part with the broken case until I moved again. For another while, it once again turned into my treasure trove—now the storage case for scrapbooks, letters and photos of my old and new life. Contrary to my childhood, though, I could not roll it around anymore. It might sound pathetic, but I guess I would have taken a few rounds around the parking lot in front of the building if only the damaged locks had kept shut.

Two years later, I decided to return to Germany. And I knew there was no way my old suitcase could accompany me on this trip. It had to stay behind, so when my place was almost empty, I finally made myself take it out on the sidewalk to join the other bulk garbage. I put it down next to boxes of useless stuff, broken odds and ends; then I stood in the front door for a while, looking at the piece I had dragged around for so many years and started to cry. Leaving the US again after two years was the end of an era in much more than one respect.

It might be more than appropriate that after many years of wandering around, when I came back to my home country I moved to a city full of people who live a less stable life than migrant birds. Frankfurt is like a revolving door, always open to those who come and go—and not only at the airport. The entire spirit of the city seems to build on this feeling that a life in Frankfurt is a temporary existence. Those who decide to settle there join an exotic species: the migrant bird that decides to stay in a place. If you tell people that this is your intention, they will smile knowingly. They know you won’t, no matter how convinced you are of it when you say it.

In Frankfurt, the wheelies are omnipresent, but their true time is the early morning. You hear them when most of the city is still asleep, even before the street-cleaning crews come out to make people forget about last night’s party. By 6:00am every Monday through Friday, and hardly any later on the weekends, the businesspeople and flight attendants leave their homes and head out to Europe’s biggest traffic hub. Most of them who live in one of the downtown neighborhoods do so by public transport because it is the fastest way to get to Frankfurt Rhein-Main Airport.

A creature of the night, I would often come home only when the sun was about to rise. And while I was still busy taking my makeup off, brushing my teeth and drowning as much water as possible in an hopeless attempt to avoid the unavoidable hangover, I would hear the rumbling and clicking even when the windows were closed: The first irregular scuttling of these ill-equipped plastic wheels on the cobblestone that lined the street outside of my apartment. More would follow in due time, and I would fall asleep when the morning traffic of pedestrians with their luggage, passing my house on the way to the subway station close by, would reach its high point.

Many of them would be back by the evening rush hour. The sound of their suitcases would be almost the same late in the day, but only almost as a stressful day had taken its toll. No matter how much people are looking forward to their free evening, they still walk more slowly when they come home, and the turning of the wheels is just that little notch lower than in the morning. As if the wheels were tired too from their long day out and about.

Most of my times in Frankfurt were good ones, but how much I had grown attached to the sound of little plastic wheels on asphalt and cobblestone again, I realized only on one of my worst days in those ten years: My boyfriend of four years had recently broken up with me, and I had to move out of his condo to a small apartment of my own again. The weekend before I was due to leave his place, he went on a skiing trip to give me the privacy I felt I needed to box up my life.

I was packing up my thousands of books, pausing every once in a while for some wine and whine when I heard my favorite sound outside. Forgotten were the sentimental Billy Joel ballads I had played all day long as the background music to my goodbye from this period in my life. It was close to midnight, and the streets unusually quite for a Saturday night. There was only the faint, irregular grumbling of a wheelie on cobblestone, coming closer from the subway stop.

With a fresh glass of red, I stepped outside on the small balcony facing the street, lit a cigarette and watched the woman and her case approach. She was one of the armada of flight attendants, probably back from a long-distance flight, and as she came closer I could see that she looked as exhausted as her rolling case. They both sounded exhausted too as they made their slow way up the street which would soon not be my street any more.

I continued to watch her after she had passed, imagining that an ex-lover, a pilot, had just forgotten this case at her place when he came to gather his stuff, and that she used it now to remind her that she had known love and lost it. I was in a dramatically sentimental mood.

I continued to watch her until she had reached the next corner where she took a right on the main street, the corner behind which apartments became smaller and less expensive. When the sound of the wheels finally drifted off, I saw a vivid picture in my mind of her dragging up her suitcase to an old place with a small bedroom and shabby little bathroom on the third floor, unpacking it, throwing the laundry into the washer together with her creased uniform, and put the suitcase in its place next to the front door, where it would remain until it was time for her next trip. In my imagination, I could see her place in every little detail: a one-bedroom apartment with the original old doors and windows, so often painted over that they were hard to close, an apartment full of old furniture with some new additions from Ikea—the kind of place you had when you wanted to live in a very central and popular neighborhood despite being on a tight budget. A place like the one I would have less than a week from now.

The next Friday, when the truck had unloaded my belongings—sparse apart from the 52 wine boxes filled with my books—and my friends had helped me rearrange my worldly possessions, I spent almost an entire day on my couch, with the living room window open, absorbing the sounds of my new surroundings. It was louder here—a far cry from the elegant silence of the tree-lined side street I had grown used to, which would only occasionally be interrupted on busy summer weekends. Here, in my new down-to-earth neighborhood, my street was lined with bars, cafés, pubs and Thai take-outs. There was a constant buzz of people coming and going, growing louder by the hour, in keeping with the amount of alcohol consumed by the regulars and those enjoying the nice spring weather.

It was in the early evening when I heard my sound again. The end of the workday, of the workweek, brought me the familiar rumble of wheelie suitcases, and suddenly I knew that I could feel at home in my new apartment too. That my happiness did not depend on the man who did not want to live with me any more, not on his fancy place and not on our extravagant trips. It was the people who had stood by me in the time of crisis and who would remain with me, who would share new experiences with me and make this period a good one.

I had finally found my way home. And this realization was a Friday night present as cherished as the little knickknacks my father would bring me from all over the world when I was a child.

Though I only spent a brief period in this new place, I have taken the spirit with me. I travel lighter these days, and I don’t mind at all any more if my suitcases have as many scars and dents as I do now in my forties.

Now once again, I have crossed the Atlantic, and this time also the entire continent, to start a new period in my life in Seattle. Half a world away, I think of the little girl and her first rolling suitcase, about her excitement to get to know the world—and about the woman she has become. The woman traveling all corners of the world, looking for adventure and home, preferably at the same time.

Seattle is much quieter than Frankfurt. I live in a downtown neighborhood again, but you don’t hear much outside in the early morning or at the end of the workday. Of course the entire city is newer than the last building I lived in in Frankfurt, and the windows here only open a fraction. You might hear an occasional police siren and the constant low buzz from the thoroughfare close by, but that is that. Nobody here drags a trolley suitcase around for a longer distance than from their apartments into the elevator and through the lobby out to the town car waiting in front of the building’s entrance doors, ready to take them to their meetings or to the airport. And if you run into someone with a wheelie on the way to the elevator, you still don’t hear a thing. It’s the carpet in the halls that absorbs all but the most ear-piercing sounds. All that quiet, all that privacy is still weird to me.

I miss my Sound of Frankfurt. Those wheels, with all their promise of travel and adventure that have long ago turned into the comforting sound of home for me.

So in the late Friday afternoons, you will see me on the subway train to the airport, longingly staring at people’s luggage. You will see me strolling through the arrival or departure hall, eventually sit down and have a coffee, close my eyes and listen to the suitcases making their way to some unknown city or foreign country for the weekend, or arriving back home after a week away for work, all of them singing my song of belonging.

Then I take the train back downtown, and I take this warm feeling with me.

The End of Sanity

The day ended in havoc. My parents were trying to subdue me enough to get pajamas on me, brush my teeth and put me to bed. They were working with my psychiatrist from home to switch my medications. He would call every couple of hours to check on how things were going. Things were not going well. I had descended into a psychosis that would prove to be the end of sanity as I knew it.

It was preventable; it had all been preventable.

Earlier that day, I warned my psychiatrist and my mother that I needed to go to the hospital. However, for reasons having to do with insurance, location and transportation, I was not brought to the hospital – not yet anyway. That trip would come later when an ambulance took me in for traumatic injuries, frostbite and hypothermia. But I am getting ahead of myself.

As my parent’s readied me for bed, the belief that we were all in imminent danger took hold of my mind and would not let go. I believed that the house – or more specifically, the furnace in the basement of the house – was about to explode. You see, the house was a historic landmark built in 1914, and the heating system was nearly that old. So, on that cold, January night, heat percolated throughout the house like fire in the belly of a dragon as the house in turn, belched, gurgled and exhaled heat as though in the midst of some horrifying, fiery indigestion.

In the grip of my belief that the steam heat sounds were signs of imminent disaster, I ran downstairs to the basement to check the thermostat on the furnace. The gauge read 140 degrees Fahrenheit. I called both 911 and the workman, who handled the heating system to report our precipitous peril. The workman assured me that the temperature was normal.   However, 911 was ready to respond, which gave me great relief. Only, at the moment when the person on the other end of the line asked for my address, I lost my nerve, and hung up. When that person called back, my mother got on the line and explained that “my daughter has psychiatric problems,” and that “no, it will not be necessary to come.” No one came.

My parents tried to get me to put on my pajamas, brush my teeth, and go to bed. I followed their commands but the conviction that the house was about to explode never left my mind. Later that night, when my parents were sleeping, I awoke to the smell of smoke, which was likely an olfactory hallucination. Not knowing I was in the midst of a delusion, however, I removed the shutters from the family room window, broke the glass with my elbow, stepped out onto the second story balcony, and jumped.

I continued my quest to find help. I searched the backyard and saw a light on near the coach house, where I lived. However, earlier that afternoon I had gone to the coach house to get a change of clothes and had locked the door behind me. That escape route was a no-go.

I then spotted a light shining like a beacon from the porch of my neighbor’s house. I headed toward the light. Only with my first step, I sunk to the ground in pain. My right leg crumpled beneath me as I realized I had landed on an iron grate and not soft padded snow. I had no choice but to crawl on hands and knees to my destination.

One of the coldest nights of the year, the 14 degrees below zero wind whipped through my cotton-thin pajamas. I made my way through thigh high snow drifts, passed through the blanketed boughs of bushes, crossed a brick driveway, and climbed five steps up to my neighbor’s porch. The cold settled into my bones.

I knocked and cried out, but no one answered the door. The world slept that night – deaf to my cries for help. The real trial had only just begun. Waiting. And so I waited. And waited. My fingers began to turn white. I tucked my feet under my pajama bottoms so my toes might escape that fate but to no avail. By some miracle, my mother had given me pajamas with a hood. I tucked my head and ears beneath it. The warmth overwhelmed me. But I was not to escape unharmed.

As the night wore on, I took in the scene trance-like as a thousand winters passed before my eyes. Heading toward unconsciousness, I made one final effort to call out for help. Still no answer. However, I noticed a light in the sky and renewed my efforts. Within the hour, day broke, and my neighbors opened their door to find me frozen and broken on their stoop.

They wrapped me in blankets. Though I could not see or hear them, I could feel their presence. They saved my life. Sane or no, they saved my life.

Those Last Words

“I’m sorry but we have done all the best we can and she isn’t going to make it past tonight.”

Those agonizing words which the doctor left us with are all the memories I have of that night when my mother died. And every time I think of that night, I am reminded of the harsh sobs from my brother and the disbelief etched in my father’s tired face after the constant vigil we all had kept by her bedside for the past one week.

I was just thinking how ridiculous his words sounded. My mother’s condition had been improving and she was still breathing. Her serene face even while being sedated did not seem like she was in pain or that her organs were failing like the doctor explained to us as kindly as possible.

I took her hands in mine and held them while thinking those same hands had carried me all these years, comforted me when I needed it, spanked me when I was misbehaving, cooked me those wonderful meals, and those same hands were soon going to be lifeless and I would never see them again.

I wanted to beg for her forgiveness and let her know how much she meant to me all those years. I wanted her to wake up and let me say goodbye for one last time. I wanted all those things that one does when being told their loved ones whom they took for granted would live a long and fruitful life is not going to live that long after all.

But I could not say it with my throat constricted tight and my chest feeling like it was going to burst, making it so hard for me to breathe. It was as though that I was the one whose organs were failing instead of my mother, who lied there so peacefully in her cold and hard hospital bed.

I just held her hands trying so hard to choke those last words out before the heart rate monitor hooked to her would show that she was no longer just sedated but she would be never waking up again.

And she left us just like that. She died while my father watched disbelievingly, my brother covering his face, his body wrecking with sobs and there was me, who was holding her hands trying to convey some gratitude for the 28 years of love she bestowed upon me without expecting anything in return.

That was three years ago and yet those agonizing last words which the doctor left us with still remain fresh in my memory encompassing everything else that she left us with.

Just How Golden is Silence?

Silence is golden. It’s so cliché and yet probably, at some point in our lives, we’ve all encountered moments when we have believed with every ounce of our being that indeed, silence is golden. When we’ve been in a noisy elementary school lunchroom, needed quiet time to study, or been surrounded by people who like to hear themselves talk. In these instances silence IS golden. However, in my efforts to be a better critical educator, I have come to the conclusion that silence is not always so ideal.

Now that I have become more mindful of how I respond when students make judgmental comments, I have realized that my silence is often misinterpreted as agreement. I have tried to be more cognizant of how I respond, especially now that I know that my silence betrays what my inner self longs to say. The trouble begins when I am caught in the moment and am unable to craft a sensible, meaningful, compassionate response. I seem to be unable to think on my feet, and I end up flustered, tripping over my words. The Lord blessed me with many gifts, but spontaneity of speech is not one of them. In fact, it usually follows that after I speak, I become worried that perhaps my silence would have been more “golden” than the inadequate words I uttered.

Let me recount a recent experience to give you an idea of how my fear of saying the wrong thing often paralyzes me into saying what amounts to virtually nothing at all. I was taking my second grade students to their computer lab class one Friday, and the class before us wasn’t quite finished yet. As we stood outside waiting to be invited in to the computer lab, my students noticed that they had a substitute teacher for computer lab time.

“Aww, Ms. Morgan isn’t here today,” I heard some students whisper to one another.

A couple of the boys in my class, however, were quite pumped to have a young male substitute teacher, and they made comments about having never had a “boy teacher” before. It seemed as though the suggestion of a male teacher in the classroom was somewhat foreign to them. In a quiet voice, I reminded them that we had plenty of “boy teachers” at our school, and I started to name off our principal, PE coaches, and others when I was rudely interrupted by one of my students who commented that the only boy (adult boy that is) at the school was the janitor.

In an attempt to help him – and his classmates – understand that we can learn from people in all kinds of positions, I asked, “Well, can a janitor be a teacher?  Can you learn something from your janitor?” To which the boy offensively replied, “Yeah, I learn something from my janitor every day. . . that I don’t want to be one!”

Of course, his classmates laughed and snickered at his comment, while I found myself aching to interject something meaningful. But I was at a complete loss for words. Why was I, a seasoned teacher, not able to say something that might cause this young boy and his classmates to re-examine their belief systems? Was I afraid I might say the wrong thing? Was I worried that it would lead to a risky discussion? I’m still mad at myself for not having the perfect “comeback” to the boy’s snide remark. My belief system was screaming at me on the inside because what he said was hurtful and judgmental, but why did I struggle so much with what to say?

In retrospect, I can think of all kinds of things I could have said to inform my students about things we can learn from our janitor: how to fix desks, how to work a walkie-talkie, how to use equipment to safely move large objects, how to keep spaces clean, how to be sanitary, how to schedule jobs, how to earn the respect of others. The list could go on and on. But that’s just it. The lessons aren’t nearly as powerful after the fact. I’ve discovered a need for myself as an educator. I need some training on how to be a more critical educator and what to do when I find myself wading through the murky waters of social justice issues. I want to prove to myself that what is golden is not silence but an ability to speak words that transform the minds of students and allow them to see situations differently. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “There comes a time when silence is betrayal.” I couldn’t agree more.

Why I Hate High Heels

I’ve always hated high heels. I don’t want to get out of the car because I know that I’ll have to put pressure on my feet again. Driving here was hard enough with three inches of rods attached to them. Whenever I could successfully angle my toes toward the gas petal—my only contact with the floor a plastic 2cm X 2cm pivot point—twenty blunt screwdrivers seemed to wedge their way into my shoe and press ever harder on the pads of my toes and the balls of my feet. I only cried once on the ride, and only for a few minutes. Thankfully I was smart enough to put on water-proof mascara this morning. It’s hard and clumpy, it prevents me from blinking properly, and it isn’t going anywhere.

I have to wear high heels because I’m wearing my mom’s pants because I couldn’t find my grey dress. She hates when I wear her pants and ruin the hem. That was our deal: If ever I wore her pants, I would have to wear high heels to keep the hems nice. I was crying, too, when she got home and found me tearing through her closet. I had allotted just enough time to get dressed and drive to the church, but when I couldn’t find my dress, my schedule was thrown off and I panicked, tears streaming down my face as I ripped apart my mother’s closet. Her bed was littered with grey, black, and pinstripes by the time she got home. She didn’t even yell at me for making a mess, just hugged me and let me shake.

It’s time to get out of the car now. My mouth is hot, but I can still feel cool, minty pieces of grit from my toothpaste between my molars. I take a deep breath and place my feet delicately on the sweltering asphalt. As soon as I step down, the screwdrivers make their attack again. I rise and extend my sore legs for the first time in almost an hour. There’s nobody else in this parking lot. I parked far away from his family and friends because I don’t know any of them and they don’t know me. I wanted to be able to gather my courage in solitude but I can still hear their hushed chatter from dozens of yards away.

My shoes make me stand straighter and I walk quickly towards the front doors. Click click click click and the pants never touch the ground. Between the three-inch heels and my improved posture, I’m a full head taller than most people I walk by. To them, I’m simply a tall friend of his that they’ve never happened to meet before. To me, they’re everything I never knew about him, the life I only ever got a brief glimpse into. I can’t help but think of the hundreds of memories racing through their minds. Maybe I’m trying to insert myself into them.

I’ve almost forgotten about my shoes at this point. I’m used to walking in them now, as I’ve reached the center of the empty lot. The blood supply to my feet has been cut off and they’re beginning to take on a comfortably numb, tingling feeling.

There’s an alarmingly cheerful man holding the door open for me as I walk up to the front of the church. He smiles and thanks me for coming as I pass through the threshold, the air hitting the insides of my nostrils hard. I hadn’t even noticed how sultry and green the outside smelled until I walked into the cold, clean grey of the atrium. The woman handing out the service programs smiles at me too while she hands me a folded piece of paper. She has thousands of goosebumps on her hands and wrists that make thousands of tiny black hairs stand at attention, almost as if the follicles alone harbor all of her grief. I’m much more impressed with her animation than with the doorman’s. At least he isn’t forced to stare at a smiling picture of him with the date of his death written in pretty script underneath.

I walk into a room plastered with pictures. Tables displaying his life are set up in a horseshoe formation with his childhood on the far left and his graduation on the far right. I never knew twenty-two years could fit on six tables.

People are moving among them. Some observe in no particular order; some stand motionless in the center of the horseshoe and take in the panorama; some hang on the arm of a loved one biting their lips and averting their eyes from the photos whenever possible.

I step into the center of the horseshoe and plant my feet. The blood rushes to my ears when I see Goodnight Moon propped up next to his baby picture; twenty-one years left. My stomach lurches and I think I’m going to throw up when I see a photo of him and his mother on his twelfth birthday; ten years left. Tears flood my cheeks when I see pictures of him with that blue-streaked hair I remember so well; five years left. I let out an uncontrollable hiccup and I feel my sinuses swelling and my throat closing up when I look at his graduation photos; only months remaining.

I look around for someone to smile at me, another person to comfort me with an upturned mouth, but there’s no one smiling anymore—only a blurry man saying blurry words that go along with a blurry gesture. I wiggle my toes in a futile attempt to return feeling to them and turn inside the chapel with the strangers. The service is about to start.

Scattered Thoughts

I saw you for the last time today. I didn’t want to leave you alone yesterday. All by yourself with your loved ones gone. Just like I didn’t want to leave you today laying at the top of a hill. Good news is your daughter is close to you.

Everyone commented on how good you looked. But I didn’t think you looked good. I knew what they meant but I’m positive they agree – I liked you better when you were alive.

Warm skin. Tight embrace. Involuntary and voluntary motions. Warm blood. Beating heart. Comforting accented voice.

I couldn’t bring myself to kiss your forehead. That’s always the part of funerals that I hate. I hate touching the body and feeling how cold and hard it is. You go from soft and fleshy to cold and lifeless. I kept trying to see the rise and fall of your chest. It didn’t happen.

I touched your arm and it felt like my chest was going to rip open. The heaviness was unbearable. The tears wanted to flow with the accompaniment of a painful scream. I think I manage to hold myself together pretty well in public.

I went into the bathroom and cried and asked you to forgive me.

I remember kissing my great grandma on the forehead when I had to pay my respects. The coldness lingered on my lips for hours.

When we were saying farewell to your physical form, I fixed the flower in front of your daughter’s grave. It felt like grieving for two people at once.

You would have been so happy to see everyone in the family there today.

People socializing and eating. Laughing and crying. Kids running around and playing with one another. New life.

Your other daughter played a song you really liked. The lyrics said “don’t cry for me.” I know you wouldn’t want us to be sad because you always said you would be in a better place.

Everyone kept saying how much fun you and your daughter must be having in Heaven right now. I hope that’s true.

The Priest today mentioned a biblical verse that referenced the dead to those asleep. I’d like to think of it that way instead. A deep slumber.

Grief hits you in the oddest of ways. One day you think of the person gone and you feel heavy but you breathe and know you will be alright. Then you’re in Target and are reminded in some way and start to tear up in the middle of Target. Holding some obscure random object. The next you’re out with friends and laughing at something stupid. You’re reminded that it will be alright.

The laughter feels like a release. It feels good. Then you’re walking down 86th street in Brooklyn listening to salsa music and the singer says in Spanish: “This is my grandmother’s music” and you feel a rip of pain. Then to top it off he also mentions Puerto Rico’s dish, Cuchifrito, the nickname you always called me, and you feel like breaking even more. It’s a wonder you don’t stumble over and cry in the middle of the street.

I miss you. The house is not the same without you. No one is the same without you. I miss you.

I wish I could hold you again but those wishes will not come true. I still wrestle with whether there is an afterlife or not. I hope one day you prove to me that there is one. Show me a sign.

Grief reminds you that you also have a life to live. Even though it’s painful. Even though you’re without that person. Weed out the negative and destructive relationships in your life. If you have to question a friendship more times than you can think of reasons to value it, that’s a red flag. It’s a cliché saying but life is too short. It’s cliché for a reason, it resonates with enough people. It holds truth. I still have another grandmother to love. I still have my parents to love. I still have my friends to create memories with. I still have countries to visit and be fascinated by. I still have lives that I haven’t touched. I still have to see the little ones grow up and be wonderful beings. I still haven’t experienced falling in love. I am still someone’s niece, cousin, Titi, daughter and friend. Maybe even someone’s future mother.

Get that drink with your cousin who you haven’t seen in a while. Form new healthy and exciting relationships. Do something you are afraid of. Tell people how you feel about them, when you feel it. Hug and kiss them whenever you have the chance. Live spontaneously. Be nicer to your parents. Even though you think they will never understand you, they’ve had their fair share of pain and struggle too. Stop holding so much inside. Let it out. Even if you have a 9-to-5 job you don’t really like in order to pay bills, do something outside of that job that gives you purpose and makes you happy. Then, slowly but surely leave that job to replace it with one you do like. Take more steps to stop being so angry. Why are you so angry? Leave the past where it is. It will never change and it’s not coming back. And maybe, that’s a good thing. Stop holding other people’s opinions so valuable when you do not even agree with them. You think they’re idiots anyway. Read a new book. You do not have to go to school in order to constantly learn new things. Stop wasting time. Your time is very valuable and every day you are alive is one day closer to your expiration date.

My first semester of college, my favorite professor asked us how often we think about death. I told him I think about it all the time.

Know that you are not immortal. Let that settle in. Now, go from there.

Mr. Thorne

At 9 a.m. sharp, Mr. Thorne would burst into room 306 and make his way to the chalkboard in quick strides. He always carried a heap of handouts and, depending on whether or not he owed us graded papers, a big manila folder. As he placed the pile carefully on his oak desk, I’d notice his body relax slightly.

It was almost like watching a robot transform into a human. The tense, blank facial expression that I usually saw in the hallways became somewhat calmer in the classroom. The rigid posture slowly melted away. And his eyes, usually void of emotion, suddenly looked like they were full of life. After taking a quick look around the classroom, he’d sift through the pile until he found his sheet of notes. Then, he would turn to write our first assignment on the board.

Often times, he would quietly hum, too. He’d gaze back at his sheet after writing each sentence and slightly bob his head as if he were listening to a great song rather than reading through his notes. And when he finished, he would put the chalk down, walk around to the front of his desk and sit there in silence with his arms folded, watching us calmly.

We would chatter on like a choir of angry birds, but within a minute, the noise would dwindle to silence and Mr. Thorne would have our complete attention. You could hear a pen click or a chair squeak. His silence was always loud enough to shut us up fairly quickly.

But one morning in February, I sat among the angry birds in silence. As Mr. Thorne waited for the class to quiet down, my eyes darted to the big manila folder that, I was pretty sure, contained our graded papers on what it means to be human.

Mr. Thorne finally cleared his throat and announced that he finished grading everyone’s papers. My heart skipped a few beats and my body tensed. He had the class take a vote on when he should return our papers, and not surprisingly, all of us voted to have our papers given back right away.

This was it.

I was the third student to receive my essay. I held my breath as he came to me with my paper in his outstretched hand, looping the sheets in half in order to cover my grade from any onlookers. I took a deep breath and peeked at the grade he’d written at the top.


For a minute I went numb. Then I read what he wrote underneath that grade: Please see me after class.

I could not think straight. My class had to discuss the first few chapters of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged that day, but I didn’t pay the slightest attention. All I could think about was that grade.

I couldn’t fathom how he could possibly think that this paper I spent so much time on was bad. Had I completely missed the point of that assignment? Did I make too many mistakes? Did I write too little? Or too much?

After fifty minutes of spacing out and worrying about this paper, I practically ran straight to my teacher when the class ended. I wanted to understand why he didn’t like my essay. This one grade was already beginning to make me doubt my talent as a writer. In fact, I was heart-broken. I was worried that maybe I wasn’t as good a writer as I always thought. Was I only fooling myself?

We sat down to talk after the class left, and I was relieved to see that his human side was still there. The chalkboard was crammed with notes from that day’s class, and on his desk sat a battered copy of Atlas Shrugged, his sheet of notes and a messy pile of extra handouts. He gestured for me to hand him my paper and I relaxed a little, but I was still worried. He made space on his desk and then browsed through my essay as if to re-familiarize himself with it.

These were his first words: “I could that tell you worked really hard on this. It’s definitely well-written, no punctuation or spelling errors, and that’s great. But, my concern is, when you’re describing humans, you’re not digging deep enough.” I nodded and allowed him to continue, expecting this to be a one-way conversation. But to my surprise, he said: “Forget about this paper for a minute and tell me, in your own words, what you think it means to be a human being. Don’t think in terms of physical attributes, think of human behavior or attitudes. How are they psychologically, or emotionally?” He folded his arms and stared at me, waiting.

“Well,” I mumbled, “Humans are not perfect… They make mistakes. And they feel many emotions…” I paused. “They’re complex… They’re rational people.”

“Okay, great start,” he said. “But let me ask you something. If I didn’t have arms, or hands, or legs, would that mean I’m no longer human?” I answered right away, “Of course not.”

But then he gave me a slight smirk and pointed to my paper. “But your essay seems to argue otherwise. Do you see what I’m getting at?”

“Aahhhh… Right.” And in that moment I looked at my paper with new eyes. I was beginning to understand what I needed to do to improve this piece. He went through my paper in more detail and discussed which parts I should consider keeping or eliminating, and by the end of our meeting, my essay was practically splattered with green ink. He had crossed out about half of the writing on my first page, and small notes were scribbled along the margins with no white space left to spare. He must have seen the look on my face as I noticed this, because before I left, he said, “Don’t be discouraged by the grade, I know you’re a good writer. Just take your time with this re-write and think about what I said. The comments are there to help you.”

For the next two days I worked really hard on that re-write, and I ended up with an A-. Below that grade read the comment: This is a big improvement from your first paper. Very well-written. Keep up the good work. I couldn’t help but smile with pride.

It was actually at that point when I made one of the biggest decisions of my life. I decided that I wanted to become a writer. I was now confident that I could hone my skills and grow as a writer like I did in that class. And I was no longer afraid to look into a book that had enough difficult phrases to sound like a completely different language. But even more importantly, I couldn’t have made this decision without that teacher’s encouragement. Although he made it clear that a failing grade or negative feedback should not discourage me, I found that this one failure motivated me to make that choice.

The Beauty of Silence

I could not see her, but I knew she entered the room. It was silent. I never felt such solitude in the midst of others. I tamed my mind to concentrate on a simple assignment, breathing. My mind debated back insisting that I choose something less biological. My thoughts were terrified at what could come to mind; the threat of becoming to acquaint with the repressed that lurked in the abyss of me. My senses desperate for a distraction. But it was too late; she stole me with her still grace.

Her presence was rare and often underappreciated. My mind panicked in not knowing what to do in her company. Pure at heart, calm in spirit, she was. I entered a world of a delightful nothingness. It was a secure, peaceful, and inviting refuge. I was outside of myself, my location: Unknown. At the peak of utter euphoria my phone spoke in the distant, interrupting, and she swiftly departed.

I was forced to return to society’s mundane preoccupation. A world where stress is normal, tasks are ever-present, and entertainment is inescapable. I almost met myself beyond the roles I play, but my master said, “not today.”