Remembering Antonio

My friend and coworker Antonio Turrubiartes died on Sunday after fighting cancer for many months. He was an academic, a watch-repair specialist, an ESL teacher, and — most recently — the receptionist at our school’s front office.

I bowled with Antonio. If Bowling Alone is a sign of community dissolution, then my time with Antonio on the lanes is a good example of something more than friendship. Like Walter and Donny to The Dude, I got to know this man on the planks. We shot the breeze, discussed current events, and cracked jokes. I met his lovely wife Kathy and got to hang out with his sons outside of school.

Recently I started making a half-hearted attempt to learn Spanish. A native speaker, Antonio used every opportunity to help me — he spit immersive questions at me and waited for a proper rejoinder. He corrected my sentences in a way that no website or textbook can. He was always friendly and positive.

One of my favorite things about Antonio was making a joke that took a moment to sink in, and then watching his face erupt in laughter when he realized what I was getting at. He had a sharp wit that not everyone got to see. I’m lucky for that reason among others.

I taught his son Manny for a few semesters. He has his father’s joyful smile and positive attitude. It’s always interesting to befriend multiple generations of the same family, and it was great to add this layer to my friendship with Antonio. Manny is creative and fun to be around. (I’ve met, but never worked with, his other son Tony. I can tell he shares his father’s best qualities.)

Antonio had an operation this spring, which supposedly removed all the bad stuff. He came back to school for the final days of the semester and I was delighted to hear his voice on the intercom once more. Then, all of a sudden, last week we got an email explaining that his condition had declined rapidly and he was in hospice. He wasn’t accepting visitors, but cards were appreciated.

I was at a coffee shop on State Street when I got the news. I closed my laptop and raced to Room of One’s Own to buy a card. Nothing seemed right; what kind of card is appropriate for that moment? Nothing is right or appropriate about a moment like that. The universe lied to me, dammit. He was beating the disease that took my father when I was in high school. Then it all went wrong.

I spent an hour in the public library, crying into a handkerchief and trying to find words to balance my pain and sadness with the warmth and gratitude I wanted Antonio to feel in this insane moment. Nothing I wrote felt adequate, but it would have to do. I sent it off and I knew that would be the last thing I would ever say to him.

Well, the last thing he’ll hear. For a while. In her essay “Women Like Us”, the Haitian writer Edwidge Danticat says: “Death is a path we take to meet on the other side.” I’m not a religious person, but I really want to believe there’s some kind of afterlife. I want to see my father again. I want to see my college buddy Evan. I want to talk to my Wikipedia friend Awadewit some more. I want to bowl again with Antonio.

You can’t work at a school for 13 years without saying goodbye to lots of people. People retire, students graduate, and things fall apart. Usually when tragedy strikes, it’s someone I don’t know very well. There’s a bond of collegiality and human connectivity of course, but there’s a distance too. You contribute to the memorial fund and sign the card and life goes on.

It’s different when you know the person well. Now I know who ought to be in that chair. I can tell that the voice on the intercom is different, and it’s wrong. I’m sure the new receptionist is — or will be — a lovely person, but it won’t be Antonio’s smile greeting me en español when I check my mail in the morning.

On the flip side, one of the greatest joys of working in a school is watching a person’s impact ripple out among the young people. This week I got to see hundreds of students declare their fondness for Antonio and their condolences for his family. He lives in their lives, and exists within his family.

He lives in me.

Goodbye, Antonio.

(If you can, please donate to his memorial fund. Thank you.)