When I walked into my Elementary Turkish class last Friday, no one was dressed in all black. There were no flowers, and no one was crying. Instead, there was birthday cake and a bottle of Sprite and cheerful echoes of Nasılsın? Iyiyim, teşekkürler. Death had slipped unnoticed into our tiny classroom—we just didn’t know it yet.
When Meriç, our TF, told us that she had learned of Etem’s whereabouts, I expected a story of how the fishing that week was too good for him to pass up, or of how Alpha Delta Pizza had needed a line cook on short notice, and, knowing that we would be alright without him for a few days, Etem had volunteered. I pictured him grilling freshly-caught sea bass or enjoying a full Turkish breakfast at home, complete with honeyed kaymak spread and spicy, cured pastırma. I wondered if he was chortling his full-belly laugh and playing backgammon with his friends.
But when Meriç started to cry, we slowly lowered our half-raised forks of double fudge supermarket cake and tried to believe what she was saying: that Etem Erol, our Etem Erol, would not return to us, would not fish again, would never down another peach-flavored shot of rakı. A heavy, tired silence draped itself over everyone. We could barely move ourselves to swallow our cake and continue reviewing prepositions.
The tragedy was confirmed a few days later via an email that began as follows:
I am writing to confirm what you probably already know or have heard rumored: the terrible news that our well-liked Turkish lector, Etem Erol, passed away after a heart attack in early January, while on vacation in Bulgaria. The funeral was in Turkey, and he was buried in his birthplace, as he wished.”
But even in the email, there was so much already missing, so much already on its way to being forgotten. In a few years, no one here will remember that Etem’s birthplace is an idyllic Mediterranean seaside town a stone’s throw across the straits from the Greek island Lesbos. No one will know that he was in Bulgaria furnishing the summer home he planned to retire to, or that he died in his brother’s arms. No one will know that he had a fondness for seftalı, or Turkish peaches, which he claimed to be an entirely different species than the faulty specimens we are subjected to in this country. People will forget that he could read coffee grounds, and that he believed that buying a lottery ticket was like buying yourself imagination for a week. No one will know that when faced with an impossible question in class, our default answer was “Etem çok yakışıklı,” or “Etem is very handsome.”
Etem has only been gone for a week, and already I feel him slipping away, piece by piece, until all that’s left of him is what we hold onto for safekeeping. Few among us will even care. And I don’t hold onto pretensions of special closeness with Etem; he was my professor, and I liked and respected him. I call him Etem only because he asked us to. But I don’t want to forget him. Not now and not ever. In fact, I’m afraid to forget him—if I do, what will that say about me? What will that say about our world and the place of death in our consciousness? Most of all, I’m afraid that I’m going to learn a cold truth: that these days, there is no space for death of the everyday, individual variety. We have no place for it anymore.
But the fact that I’m afraid at all says something about people in 2016. Death is as real as it has ever
been, but we mourn collectively now—whether that of a time-weathered rock star or a refugee child on a beach halfway across the world, one death can touch us all. And yet at a time when death is always present, splashed across our headlines and our newsfeeds, it is difficult to know how to grieve one single man, loved only by the small group of people who knew him. And the problem with this is that grief does not know how to measure itself. It cannot be proportional to its need. And so when cities are set on fire or when planes crash into the earth, there is no way for me to mourn those people that is different from the way I can mourn a single, kind man who was big enough to contain all the stories that I told my friends about him. I cannot separate those responses, and perhaps that is why I cannot begin to name what I feel. Simply put, my grief is called for so often that I no longer recognize its shape.
But now death has come, and I have no room for it. I still have to go to class and practice and rehearsal, and I cannot pause to grieve. Pausing is not allowed. The hard truth is that there is no space in my life for grief to settle down gently, and so I must take it with me, stuffing it into a pocket and feeling it on the go, whenever I have a second to spare. I have no time to say goodbye. But I hope that perhaps the act of writing, of continuing, of saying nasılsın and responding iyiyim, teşekkürler is good enough.
My lingering concern is this: how can a man who is funny and good and smart simply vanish off of the face of the earth, just like that? And even though I know that feeling bewildered in the face of death is a cliché, for the first time in my life, I understand why. Death is not something I reckon with regularly. I am not fascinated by my own morbidity, even when confronted with Etem’s passing. I understand that unexpected death makes people afraid and that it makes them want to live to the fullest because everything could be taken away in an instant.
I understand that, but I also know that I cannot live as if I am about to die. To continue onwards in my everyday life, I must choose to believe that I am young and invincible, and that death will not come for me, or at least not for a long while. Whether I am forced to reconcile a global loss or a personal one, moving on is often the only option. Moving on from a headline isn’t new to me, but from a friend and mentor is an entirely different challenge. I’ve come to believe that mourning is dictated by distance of experience. Perhaps this shouldn’t be, but I often feel that a single man means more than a statistic. One man is closer. One man is more real.
As of this week, my class has a new Turkish professor. She is kind and gentle and thoughtful, and we will do great things together, I am sure. I know everything is slowly coming back to balance, and yet I can’t help but feel Etem standing in a corner of our classroom, smelling of cigarettes and chalk dust, nodding smilingly when we remember that the third person possessive always requires a buffer. We watch videos and write journal entries and I guess we are successful. Each day we learn a handful of new verbs, new grammar structures, new ways in which language can express itself. In September, we started at zero. It is incredible that after a few short months we have learned to read, to write, and to think from another perspective. Now we can make jokes in Turkish. We can tell stories. We can speak for ourselves. And yet there are still some things I do not know how to put into words.
Today my professor told us that soon we will be ready to learn the future tense. Until then, I think I still need some time in the past.
Etem hoca— çok yakışıklısınız.