I remember each of my personal encounters with death: my very first pet which was a white rabbit and small enough to be cupped in my palms. My grandmother, who used to hoist me up and put me on her lap every day to teach me phonetics and the proper way to hold a pencil. My father—the love of my life, really—on a hospital bed in the quiet, early hours of morning, rendered dumb by the malignancy of his cancer. In every instance, I loved, and lost, and grieved. Hard. Losing them broke me because they mattered to me. It was painful because it was personal. It stung to tap into happy and intimate memories with them—to come to terms with the fact that from that point on, there wouldn’t be new ones.
My last encounter with death didn’t make me ache for the same reasons. He was my English teacher during my sophomore year of high school, and frankly, I didn’t really know him very well. We rarely spoke. He towered over six feet tall with the build of a teddy bear, and he always wore the same charcoal-colored cardigan, converse sneakers, and square-rimmed glasses. He was famous school-wide for his kindness, loved by his students for being more understanding than most. He had a voice that could lull you almost, but not quite to sleep during a lecture with its gentleness, because its nasal inflections were surprising and interesting and different. And it didn’t wear anger well. His voice’s quality was so naturally jovial that if he had ever tried to be disciplinary, it would have backfired and somehow sounded like a pep talk.
One of the few memories I have of him happened during class, when he opted to show us Nina Simone’s cover of the 1960’s jazz single “Feeling Good” in lieu of getting on with the next act of “Antigone.” Towards the end of the song, Nina Simone builds to a cadenza; with every breath, she charges her scatting with such power and emotion that words with absolutely no meaning somehow start to make complete lexical sense. All at once, the strange and foreign phonemes that she crafts in the spur of the moment take on the most multifaceted identities, as if sung in a language only she were fluent in. Like everyone else in the class, I was floored. I listened to Nina Simone the rest of that day. For weeks after, her contralto continued to ring in my ears.
The next time I ran into my teacher, we were walking down opposite ends of the same hallway. I had never really talked to him aside from the occasional homework question, and I found myself ambushed by the same sort of feeling that caught me at the throat whenever I met new people, a sort of anxiety that I knew all too well. I scrambled to take the few seconds before our paths intersected to decide whether or not I should say hello. Or tell him about Nina Simone. Or maybe I should just turn the corner of my mouth and look up as a sort of non-verbal acknowledgement and forego the act of talking altogether, which was scary in and of itself. But wait—if I did, how acutely should I turn the corner of my mouth? What if he didn’t notice, and didn’t return the half-smile? What would I do then?
As I sifted through the slew of “what ifs,” the few seconds that I had to act slipped through my fingers. In the end, I’d just stared at our feet walk across the floor in opposite directions. I never told him about Nina Simone, and we never shared a substantive interaction—not only that day, but for the rest of the time that I knew him.
Around two years later, I learned of his lymphoma. I cried hard when he died. My teachers and friends were sympathetic but confused, and I didn’t blame them. My reaction must’ve seemed incommensurate—it wasn’t as if we were particularly close; I barely knew the man.
But maybe that was the point. The truth of the matter was that his death jolted me into awareness. It made me all the more conscious of how I was always too afraid that what I’d say wouldn’t be intelligent enough, or substantive enough, or just plain enough. The ache that gnawed at me was a constant reminder of that time in the hallway, and of all the instances when a sense of anxiety had prevented me from sharing experiences and thoughts, from exchanging words and opinions, from starting potentially wonderful conversations.
I wish I could say that, since his death, I’ve completely changed. That I’ve mastered the art of breaking through self-consciousness to say what I mean. That I’m now perfectly able to power through the silence that’s all too comfortable to fall back on and tell people how I really feel, about the impact they’ve had on me and how grateful I am for it. But to this day, I still find myself silenced at times by the very same feeling of worry.
But ever since then, I’ve been learning. I’ve listened to that Nina Simone song at least 100 times—the texture of her voice and the emotion that she fashions feel just as entrancing as they did four years ago. I’m learning to coax out the words collecting at the back of my throat, and to truncate the thoughts collecting at the back of my mind. I’m learning to lift my eyes off the floor.
I know that I’ll never be able to tell my teacher what I wanted to say. I also know that I’ll never be able to say everything that I want to say to anyone I know, as death has an uncanny habit of catching us off guard. But I’m sure now that it’s worth it to try.