It should not be strange that I found this story because I was googling a phrase my old professor used. I left graduate school in 1999 and finished my degree from DC. I didn’t know he was ill until about two years after I moved away. I got word again when he died through an email exchange that went around through the former students.
The author of the essay, his friend, Amitav Ghosh, wrote about an exchange he had with my professor before he died:
I heard him thumbing through his engagement book and then suddenly he said: “Oh dear. I can’t see a thing.” There was a brief pause and then he added: “I hope this doesn’t mean that I’m dying …”
Although Shahid and I had talked a great deal over the last many weeks, I had never before heard him touch on the subject of death. I did not know how to respond: his voice was completely at odds with the content of what he had just said, light to the point of jocularity. I mumbled something innocuous: “No Shahid—of course not. You’ll be fine.” He cut me short. In a tone of voice that was at once quizzical and direct, he said: “When it happens I hope you’ll write something about me.”
Because isn’t that how we truly live on?
I was standing on Steve’s porch, unsure of how I was going to get home from the party, when my professor stumbled out from the kitchen surrounded by a few poetry students. He was drunk. We all were at the party. He pointed at me and said, “you are a naughty girl. Naughty, naughty. That is what I will call you. Naughty, naughty.”
“Me?” I asked. “What did I do?”
“I can tell,” he laughed. “You are naughty, naughty.”
The name stuck for my remaining time in graduate school. People who know me from that era still call me that.
I loved being blessed with a nickname from him.
I love the thought behind my old professor’s words: it wasn’t enough that he was a writer himself. He wanted someone to write about him. Isn’t that how we really know ourselves? When we hear how others remember us?
I’ll give you a story about my grandfather.
He was angry and disappointed and packed hastily when we got back to his apartment. He gave me the keys, directions to the local grocery store, and told me he’d return in a week. I walked down to Vigeland’s Park and sat by the Monolith until it was getting cold. I walked back and bought two potatoes from a street vendor that were coated in dirt. I cried all night.
I didn’t want to go to Israel because I was afraid that once I got overseas, I would feel that same terror from being so far from home. It didn’t matter that I was going with a cousin to see other cousins.
He couldn’t sleep that night and came into the living room to sit in his chair. His legs hurt when he would lie in bed. He asked me what I was worried about and I told him. He promised me that it wouldn’t be that way. That I was a different person from the girl who went on the trip.
He told me to carry a picture of myself that was taken during a time when I felt brave. I tucked one into my journal. I replaced it with a photo that was taken on the trip.
I still always carry a photo of myself as a reminder whenever I travel.
I realized around 5 in the morning, when I was up for an hour and a half for my daily morning worry, that I never came back to the reason for the title. I think it’s such a shame that he waited to write about him until after he was gone and that my professor never got to read the essay. In the vein of a Secret Ode Day, how amazing would it be to get to read the funeral notes and essays before you die?