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.)

Awadewit: The Cloud

This morning I went looking for a photo of Awadewit for my classroom. I found this pic of her discussing Wikipedia. By pure coincidence, she is referring to my article on Harriet Tubman.

For two years, I only knew Adrianne Wadewitz by her Wikipedia username “Awadewit”. She was anonymous in that world, because she worried she might not be able to find a job in academia if her secret life editing pages online was revealed. (Eventually she removed the mask and became one of the great champions for an integration of Wikipedia and the academy.)

I first met Awadewit in 2007, when I submitted an article about the French novelist Honoré de Balzac for review as a “Good Article”. Experienced editors volunteer to do such reviews based on their own interests, so it was mostly luck that she happened upon my work. It was an incredible moment of serendipity that sparked the most profound era of my adult intellectual life.

Adrianne was ruthless in her commentary. She delineated all sorts of problems in my writing, from source materials to sentence structure. She knew her stuff, and she expected me to know it too, and she called me on it. But she was also incredibly supportive. She encouraged me to keep working on it, and make it good enough to be a “Featured Article” (which are described as “the best articles Wikipedia has to offer”).

We’re all familiar with Featured Articles; a different one is highlighted prominently every day on the Wikipedia home page. I had never dreamed that something I wrote might be considered good enough for such attention. (I was still glowing with euphoria when I got a tiny “Did You Know” tidbit to appear on the front page.)

Awadewit’s dual swords of high expectations and compassionate encouragement were vital to my entrée into that project. I would never have done anything worthwhile on Wikipedia if not for Adrianne.

I had done research in the past, of course, but working on that first Balzac article brought me fully into the world of serious scholarship, fastidious attention to detail, and (obviously) variegated usage of polysyllabic vocabulary. (At the same time, of course, she insisted that I “keep it simple”.) She was friendly and accessible throughout the process, and she was first in line to vote in favor of the article becoming Featured, once it had been fully developed. (She even said “it is a pleasure to read”.)

Awadewit was supremely nurturing in the years that followed. She gave me barnstar awards for “excellent teaching skills” and “superb copy editing”. She offered suggestions and reference help, on topics as diverse as 19th century literature and photograph copyright law. Ever fastidious about the tiniest detail, Adrianne never accepted sloppy work or the cutting of corners. Like many others, I became a stronger scholar because of it.

In the best tradition of conscious education, she adapted her relationship to every person as necessary by changing levels of expertise and experience. Once it became clear that I (sort of) knew what I was doing, she dropped some of the nurturing commentary when she wrote to me. I like to think that she was just saving it for people who needed it more; I know she was indefatigable in offering her robust knowledge and vital perspective to students and colleagues around the world.

Adrianne was also a feminist like me, and not afraid to use that term. She waged a vigilant war of ideas against systematic bias and underrepresentation. We bonded in part because of our focus on women’s issues (especially when I wrote the article on Emmeline Pankhurst), and she served as a powerful role model, blending feminist principles with relentless scholarship.

I’m not active on Wikipedia these days, but the things she taught me have woven themselves into my high school English classroom, my fiction writing, and my other forms of scholarship. I owe her a tremendous debt of gratitude and appreciation for her guidance, humor, and support. I can only hope that I have a fraction of the influence on students and other people that she’s had on me.

Three days before I learned of Adrianne’s death, I stumbled upon this short video clip by Vietnamese zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh:

He points out that we look at a cloud and think of it as a distinct entity. But when it is time for that cloud to become rain, we can still love the rain that it becomes, and take solace in the continued existence of the cloud as a vital continuity of our world.

I guess it’s time for Adrianne to become the rain, but dammit, I still want her to be the cloud. I want her to post silly things on Facebook, and send me emails that can’t be longer than two sentences, because she’s just too busy helping hundreds of other people. I’m happy to have her rain with me now, nourishing the roots of my intellectual garden. But I wish I could look up and still see the cloud.