This is the first time I've typed it: my high school Russian (and choir, and theater, but most of all Russian) teacher, Valerie Navarro, has died.
There's a long list of high school friends and classmates I need to reach out to, to make sure they hear the news before months pass and it becomes both sad and awkward. But I couldn't bring myself to type the messages, not today, because it'd mean repeating those words over and over.
She died this morning at 5:09 AM Pacific -- or 7:09 Central, when I was waking up in an apartment in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago, much like the one I lived in about 20 years ago, with the group of friends who'd become my husband, and our kids' godfathers.
After I left Tacoma and didn't come back.
The last few days here -- part of an all-summer cross-country-and-back road trip with the kids -- have been infused with nostalgia. The first day I woke up and saw those brick and wood porches out the window, it was possible for just a moment that those 20 years simply never happened. That I needed to get out of bed and trek in for a work shift at the computer lab, where I'd sweat all the way there, then shiver all day in a room air conditioned for 100 computers, and not a human in shorts and a tank top. But the computer lab doesn't exist anymore either, and anyway, there was a tell: none of my roommates from back then were morning people, and I could hear my three kids carrying on in the living room down the hall.
What if I'd stayed? What if I'd gone back?
It would not have changed the course of the ovarian cancer. But there were years when we'd fallen out of touch. I had no idea there was anything amiss until November 2021 -- about two years later, having missed a whole narrative arc. When I saw Valerie for the first time since the pandemic (and then some), it was September 2022, and she was finishing a musical she'd written with support from some of her former students about her cancer journey. I asked her about a logo for it, and through a series of many iterations via email, we designed one together.
I was there on November 18th for the premiere of the musical. Valerie wanted me to wear all black -- no easy ask, given my colorful wardrobe -- so I could join the performance as a chorus member if the inspiration struck. But so much time has passed since I played the actress who'd walked from Odessa to Moscow to audition to be a star in our high school production of Neil Simon's "The Good Doctor". (And the idea of walking from Odessa to Moscow takes on so much heaviness now, with Russia's war and SUCHO.) No, I wouldn't join in the chorus in front of the audience. I'm comfortable in my skin as staff, as infrastructure. I would bring my cameras and record the show for her. And so I did.
But what if I'd stayed? What if I were part of that group of students who were there for the whole journey? Who ran errands, who brought things, who helped her craft this swan song? Sitting in the suburban house of one of these students for dress rehearsal -- the kind of place where the decor is tasteful and perfectly seasonal and prominently features words and phrases written in cursive -- I tried to envision what my life would have been like if I'd gone back, and it short-circuited even my vivid imagination.
But what if? I was the kind of high school student who was a researcher's nightmare subject. I didn't answer questions the "right" way, I answered them the way I saw fit. My high school class had to fill out a survey with questions about languages spoken at home, and with each of our parents. And I decided, in my principled way, that I would not dignify my father's wife with the category of "mother" -- the closest person in my life was Valerie. And so I filled out the survey stating that I spoke Russian with my mother.
I wrote her letters -- mostly in Russian -- for at least the first year of college. Like her, I could pull off a solid spoken accent in Russian (it was a point of pride), but, like Valerie, I could never get rid of the accent in my handwriting. Russian was large and cursive and loopy, a different writer altogether than my tiny, precise handwritten English. And I wrote everything. Especially about this guy I didn't dare like, who was my best friend, who had a long-distance girlfriend.
What if I didn't stay in Chicago? What if I'd gone back? What if I'd stayed close to that chosen family -- with Valerie, and her husband Daniel, who flew to the East Coast in the winter and went to Martha's Vineyard in a snowstorm to officiate our wedding at the last minute when almost everyone else flaked -- and I could have been there to support them through all this?
We said goodbye after the musical, thinking that would be it. But when she asked me to come out again at the end of March for some "Swedish death cleaning", I had to say yes. Not only yes to coming, but on my own volition, taking on the ultimate grown-up scavenger hunt of tracking down as many of Valerie's former students as I could find via Facebook, Instagram, and elsewhere, trying to talk each of them into making a recording for her to share some memory or what she meant to them. I managed to bring with me 13 videos, plus several emails and shorter notes. Over the course of a couple days, the weekend before spring quarter started, we went through several totes and boxes in the garage. Valerie had saved everything. The IB oral exams for every class starting with mine. We pulled out and cut the magnetic tape from these, and put them in a black garbage bag, along with all the other cassettes, lovingly gathered and curated from around the world. What do you do with cassette tapes anymore anyhow? The brown magnetic tape stayed in my head; when I got home, I ordered roving and spun it into yarn, learned enough crochet to make a hexagon sweater, formed in a repeating pattern of colors from that last trip. Her favorite colors (which I'd finally asked about): "red, deep purple, sometimes teal". A friend had given me roving in a colorway called "Mojave" that was the perfect red, and another called "Jacob" that was various grays and white (like all those boxes of papers), and one called "Champs-Élysées" that was that teal, but also blue, and sometimes orange; Valerie asked if it was "the lights in Paris in the evening in October" when I texted her a picture. There was a brown and black yarn, for the cassette tapes, and a brown and blue one (again, haunted by cassettes), and one that was red and blue (the dress and robe she was wearing the last time we said goodbye, waving from the car until she was out of sight.
I finished that sweater right before hitting the road. She saw a bad photo of it in the mirror, before I'd woven in ends, when the whole thing was clipped together with stitch markers. But she was unconscious by the time I had decent pictures of it actually done.
What if I'd stayed? Would it have been less awkward when I offered to fly up for a few days in June? Would I have been able to help more? Or at least do more for Daniel?
I got the news this morning. A text, while cutting watermelon for the kids, while debugging a Nintendo Switch that wasn't charging, while trying to decide whether to nudge a friend who was supposed to be coming over. I wrote back, and I put the news in a tightly-closed box in the back of my head. There were old friends coming over, a 4th of July parade to attend with friends, overheating thirsty children to wrangle. Life goes on.
But in a way that haunts me, too. We plopped chairs and a bamboo mat down across the street from the last apartment we lived in, in Chicago. Where, on a sweltering July day, we hauled all our stuff down the stairs, sweating as we heaved it into a U-Haul, and I cried as we got onto the freeway. It was a strange moment, yesterday, typing my phone number into the kiosk of the local boba store, for order notifications, and realizing that for the first time since the advent of these automated interfaces, I was somewhere where I fit -- at least numerically. I got my first cell phone on the south side of Chicago, in the days when number portability wasn't a thing, but my second phone number, too, was from here, and it's the one I carry to this day. 773. If you know, you know.
The last few days have brought joyful reunions with friends I met here, some of whom came when I did (or before), and made their lives here. I could have stayed here, too. What if I had?
This is the carnage of academia that we don't talk about: we come to places, maybe we fall in love with them, but one way or another we start imagining what it might be like to build a life there. And more often than not, we leave. I can't complain, I know I'm lucky, I live (in a way I have every reason to think will be long-term) in the second place I've moved to since high school. 10 years in Chicago; almost 11 years in Berkeley. But, Everything Everywhere All at Once-style, in some way we live with all these parallel universes in our head. What if I'd stayed in Tacoma? What if I'd stayed in Chicago? What things do I not even realize I missed because I didn't get the job at MITH? What if, what if?
Valerie has died and it's the second time someone I thought of as a mother has died long before it would be reasonable to expect it. Maybe being my mother is an occupational hazard, or maybe it's just a category that's not meant to make sense to me, but either one is probably reading too much intentionality into the universe. I wept in the shower the night after I saw her in September and fully understood the news, heaving sobs that made it hard to breathe. The logo for her musical -- a reference to an extended metaphor about a river -- is permanently tattooed on my right arm as of January. It seemed the least I could do for someone who had the most profound impact on my life of anyone (if it weren't for Russian, I wouldn't have met my husband or done DH), since my hair is already permanently part-purple for Rebecca Munson.
I will wear the sweater I made from our last visit, and hug it to myself and imagine it's a hug from Valerie. But I went to school the day my mother disappeared, and the next day after they had found her car by the bridge. There are reports to write, a conference talk to prepare for, but more imminently, demands for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich that I've managed to postpone for the last couple hundred words, but patience is running short.
I don't have it in me to conjure up the soaring language of my younger classmate Courtney Taylor (who did stay), who I'm grateful to for doing some of the work on Facebook, sharing the news that "There is a beautiful new star in the sky". Valerie is dead, and I am sad, but my complicated feelings about the choices I've made in my life are nothing but mist in the face of the boulder that is a 5-year-old's desire for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I suppose I should be grateful to, if nothing else, be presented with a clear answer to the question, "What do I do now?"