In Memoriam

From the vault: 1 June 2014

It has been one year exactly since I stood on that stage in the Performing Arts Center. In that one TEDx talk, in those 19 minutes, different people held onto a distinct message or part of it, depending on what they needed to hear: 

– A student vowed that they would work to claim their education. 

– A friend said that she would think twice before silencing her daughter. 

– Members of my family confirmed their suspicions about my disordered eating. 

Yes, I was saying all of those things and more. In preparation for the talk, I was told, “Have one central message. Give the talk of your life.” If there was a central message of my talk, it would be that we are taught to believe that certain spaces aren’t for us or that only some voices matter, and, in answer to that, I urged that because we are not given space, we need to claim it, because we never can know who needs to hear or see us. 

But, truthfully, I wasn’t interested in giving “the talk of my life.” All I could do was go up and be open and fragile and honest. I was saying many things because all of those stories needed to be told. They deserved it. 

After I stepped off the stage, a man whom I did not know handed me a note: 

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said,

people will forget what you did, but people will never

forget how you made them feel” — Maya Angelou

Thank you, Todd

It is a note that I vowed, right in that moment, always to retain — a memento. And I have. He may have thought I would look at it and smile, perhaps keep it for a day or two and then let it be forgotten, but I won’t. It has become necessary for me now. 

They are just words on a page, much like George’s email is just an email, but that email is also my only tangible reminder of this man I have thought of more after his death, than in his life. 

What does it mean to grieve the loss of someone you barely knew, if at all? 

In my memory, George can only ever be partial — he is a series of vignettes. All but twice, George is merely a body entering or leaving a classroom. A body in a snug-fitting gray t-shirt, a body with hands that involuntarily shake due to Parkinson’s or some other affliction I shall never know. On one occasion, he is a man naming my difference, showing me that I am the elephant in the room, whether I want to say it aloud or not. On another, he is a man whose face I actually seek, for once, to see. 

George’s impact on me is continuous. I never expected this at all. Whenever I read Lucille Clifton, which is often, I think of George. In some moments of stillness, I think of George. And yet, I’m not sure that I deserve to. What about his partner? His family? Friends? Those who knew him, who would not be surprised, as I was, at the content of his obituary? What place do I have to mourn him? 

The note that stranger handed me has taken on so much more meaning for me. Maya died on Wednesday, and everyone seems to be offering their favorite words and works of hers in homage. I cannot think of a sound byte or a snippet from a poem that stands out for me. It takes too much mental work to do so, and, if I were to be honest, it is absolutely everything about her that is formidable, and so I cannot analyze her that way. So, instead, my heart just aches. I call her “Maya,” because even without her permission or knowledge, I loved her — like a distant great aunt loves you the moment you are born, without ever having met you, simply because you are

In one of my poems, I write: 

Let me become like a map that you cannot refold:

let me remain open and stubborn and take up space 

I will not be quiet and diminutive. I will be loud and unruly

I hold Maya close to me, because her voice allowed me to find mine. And so I mourn. I will always celebrate her gifts, thank her for her light, her vision, her perseverance. But for now, I mourn. 

And in a similar way, I will always remember George. I will think of him now in recompense for all the times I should have seen him and chose not to. And I give myself permission to grieve his absence.