Viken Berberian

Request for a More Complete Obituary

I found out about Professor D’s death from a social media post. A silent scream curdled in my throat as I read the obituary in disbelief. His daughter-in-law had shared a photo of him and written a tribute to which students and family responded with 159 emojis of grief. Most had clicked on the crying face, while a cousin from abroad left a comment about his manifest charm and niceness. He was a highly regarded linguist who may have objected to the note that accompanied the post. ‘We will greatly miss you,’ it said. Maybe. Better to have written, ‘We will miss you greatly.’

But chances are he would have qualified his correction, conceding that syntax is neither right nor wrong; that it is shaped by cultural, migratory, and geographic forces, by what one wanted to accentuate or play down. There is not just one order, ever, and if Professor D were alive, he might have pinched his daughter-in-law’s derrière, and perhaps offered that the word derrière was originally an adjective, dating back to the Latin deretro, meaning towards the rear.

If the daughter-in-law had died before the professor, he might have written, ‘We shall miss you greatly,’ even if it sounded a little pompous and out of sync with the times. Or he would have simply avoided social media all together because he thought that humans were infinitely more complex than a puerile post. And to make that clear, he would show off his crooked teeth as if to affirm the frailty – and asymmetry – of the human condition.

In class, the professor was dishevelled like the books on his shelves, his shoulders sprinkled with dust. He could barely see through his glasses, and in the winter months, he wore the same wool sweater several days in a row. It had a patch on the left elbow, displaying a certain cultivated neglect. Below his tweed cap, one could discern a fleshy face, not unlike Humpty Dumpty’s, and one sensed that at any moment, he too could fall off a wall – I wish he did – though his legs were not quite as short. Of course, none of this was mentioned in the obituary.

His students were tethered to their phones. While the professor’s lectures were not entirely boring, in the last two years they had turned into rambling monologues. Sometimes, Professor D would forget his train of thought, standing in the middle of the classroom, perplexed, and then he’d start talking about Razmo, his cat, before switching to universal grammar, followed by an unexpected pause, after which he might delve into an excursus about Nikola Tesla, the scientist ‘whose contributions to the spread of the light bulb were as great as Thomas Edison’s’, he said.

The students were baffled.

When I served on the grievance committee, I read a course evaluation by one of his students: ‘Professor D gets a B for his encyclopaedic references, even if they have nothing to do with the course,’ she wrote, ‘but avoid his office hours. If you must go to his office, make sure you don’t wear tight jeans, and keep your face mask on, because the pulpy smell of his sweater can cause an allergic reaction.’

Professor D had his own sensitivities, especially when he caught a student gazing into their phone. ‘Put it away,’ he would say. ‘I don’t care if you’re sending a thumbs-up for the carrot cake your mother baked. Not everything is a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down. Put. It. Away. In the back pocket of your tight jeans.’ He would say this with the insouciance of a gnomic professor secure in his ergonomic chair.

No, not everything was a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down. What about all those sub-granular quantum states where a sentiment or a thought could be and not be at the same time? Now that is the real question, you wrote, the one we forget to ask, a question that enshrines the principle of uncertainty in language. There was no mention of these insights, some of which you published in the New England Journal of Computational Linguistics.

But then, you did give a thumb’s down of sorts to Mr. K when he failed to make it beyond adjunct. And please don’t pretend that the denial of his promotion had anything to do with his continuous passing of wind during faculty meetings. You clearly saw him as a vassal, as some kind of ancillary leftover in the department, and you took pleasure in that, don’t deny it. I could see that smug glint in your eyes, decode the patina of contempt and good education that covered your face: PhD from MIT, studied under Noam Chomsky.

Well, I can smell meanness a mile away. Need I remind you that I wrote my thesis on Gogol’s The Nose and its linguistic hermeneutics. When adjunct K resigned, all that you managed was an elusive email to faculty: ‘I’m sorry it didn’t work out this time, but we’ll figure it out for the future, hopefully.’ Except that adjunct K was diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome not long after, which explained his relentless and incorrigible farting. None of his anguish made it into your obituary, Professor D, but please do not take this as vilification of how you bullied other faculty members. No, it is not a crime to push people around.

I have never written an obituary, but I would be remiss if I did not mention that balmy weekend at the faculty retreat in the mountains before the start of the semester. It began innocently enough with pep talks and pedagogical pointers, the same ones from last year. The food was awful, the archipelago of cheddar cubes melting under the sun, the over-cooked soy burgers, the brittle honey-glazed BBQ chicken wings, that swamp of guacamole. You were on the porch with a cluster of faculty around you. I was there too. You said something and the professors nodded before disbanding. They went to watch a tutorial inside a pavilion, but you and I lingered on the porch overlooking the weeping willows, and you leaned forward and placed your right hand on my left knee, sheltering it in an avuncular cusp, but there was nothing uncle-like in what you did.

‘Don’t worry,’ you said. ‘We can skip the breakout sessions. It’s my last year before retirement, and you’re in the company of a professor who is in good standing. Let’s talk cognates.’ And we did, between sips of disgustingly warm lemonade. You made reference to other linguistic conundrums, like wound, as in wrap around, and, wound, as in injury.

The other day I said hello to your Filipino caretaker, Miss R. Sometimes she walked with you to the college, and after lunch, you played Scrabble with her. Thanks to you she learned impressive words and their meanings, and Miss R taught you foreign words too, words in Tagalog like propesor. ‘I am so happy to see you,’ she said. ‘You know, Propesor D spoke so nicely of you, so so nicely, always nicely.’ Thanks to you, you claimed, Miss R knew ten times more English words than the 3,000 pairs of shoes Imelda Marcos had. Miss R was like a real daughter to you. You gave her books to read, plates to wash, pots of bromeliads to fertilise.

Your wife passed away several years ago. I thought it was impolite to ask you the cause of her death, not that you’d remember, but apparently, she was a drinker. My online investigations revealed that she was an accountant, had more than 700 connections on LinkedIn, and brought her own home-made treacly liquor to the year-end faculty party. It tasted like mouthwash, a tide of insufferable cool mint. But did you know that her LinkedIn page is still up? Perhaps it will outlive us all in perpetuity.

I came across a passing reference to your wife in a letter, though there was no mention of her drinking. It was when I served on the grievance committee of the faculty senate. Another anonymous student had filed a complaint about your behaviour. The letter did not get into the details of the alleged incident, just mentioning that ‘Professor D’s efforts to slip his hand into my jeans startled me.’ An internal inquiry followed, prompting a review of other student evaluations, interviews with undergraduates who had taken your classes. The evidence was inconclusive and the accuser’s motivation murky. We dismissed the allegation, contained the fallout, and I learned a little bit more about you.

The committee would have cleared you, regardless, but you felt it necessary to respond. ‘This is an outlandish lie by some rapscallion to tarnish my legacy and the memory of my beloved wife,’ you said. ‘We need to pursue more tangible outcomes in this college.’ The Dean was at that meeting too, and he gave you a thumbs-up.

The day after your death, the Dean sent an email to faculty highlighting your achievements, as well as the date and venue of the memorial services, which I did not attend. There was a call to collect donations and plant a silver birch in your memory in the sculpture garden. I didn’t contribute to that initiative either, and yet I did feel a certain discharge with your passing away. Death is like a black hole that consumes everything, the forage of life, the haha faces, the tears, the wows.

Now, when I visit our college garden, I will have to make sure to avoid the birch tree. My hope is that it will be planted far from my favourite sculpture. The sculpture is chiselled from a hunk of dolomite, two horizontal hands, a woman’s and a man’s, one clasping the other. The other night I walked through the garden, to step out of my shell, curious to see if anything had changed. I quickened my pace, breathing the ice air, shrivelled under the weight of my thoughts. There was no sign of the birch tree, not yet. Maybe they are still collecting the funds or ordering your plaque. I approached the two hands and placed my palm against the cool dolomite. The sculpture is called Hold On, and it cheers me up; it makes me think of the friends I have, but on that particular night, I thought of you, and I dreamt that the hands had bled. Even my treasured statue, that commentary on trust, could not expunge from my memory that tussle, the searing heat rising to my head.

I once saw you in the cafeteria, it was at the end of the term, and you looked upset. Miss R was about to win your last Scrabble game with the word ornery, which landed on a triple word score. ‘Let’s end this game right now,’ you said. ‘And don’t forget, Miss R, everything you know about the English language is because of me.’

If you were still alive, you would barely recognise me. Amnesia gave you amnesty. You finally became the dishevelled, absent-minded professor that you pretended you were. And then you conveniently forgot several consequential facts, including that weekend when you invited me to your apartment to review my essay. ‘You smell like a flower,’ you said. ‘Is it your perfume or your natural bloom?’

I sat on the sofa, which looked as paunchy and wobbly as you, but somehow you still had a surfeit of force in those ageing muscles to do what you did. We went over my paper for the conference you had graciously invited me to attend. ‘It’s a brilliant conceit,’ you said about my paper. ‘I just tweaked it here and there to flesh out the body in question, which I now have difficulty remembering but to which I would like to turn my full attention. Remind me what the main points were again?’ You kept staring. I was frozen in consternation. My heart skipped, sprinting across a forest, or some other sparse place where there was no one, only the silence of the firs and the beetle bugs in the foliage, hiding from themselves and the animals they occasionally encountered in the orange expanse of the fields.

You died in bed a few days after returning from the hospital, surrounded by Miss R, your daughter-in-law and surviving son, as well as Razmo, the cat. I read in the post that at the funeral your daughter-in-law said how happy you were in your last hours to be in the company of family. Never mind that you probably did not recognise them. Maybe you did. There was a hyperlink to the eulogy at the end of the post, a gateway to your son’s blog that traced your life as a young student; how you left your ancestral Belgrade for Boston; how the brilliant post doc student then married an accountant, blah, blah, blah, but there was no mention of your original name, or why you decided to change it to D. ‘I was tired of being the other,’ you said during one of our Scrabble games. ‘You know, these days they even discriminate against bald, clean-shaven white men with weird- sounding names. Well, I am not exotic. I am exhausted.’

There was also no mention of your scholarly essays. There was another lacuna for which your daughter-in-law is to blame: the Scrabble games you had won with unlikely words like quetzal, the national bird of Guatemala, and oxazepam, the anti-anxiety drug I take, and gherkin, the small pickle for which you scored 30 points. It landed on a double word score.

‘How about a gherkin before we jump into your paper?’

‘A what?’

‘Those pickles Miss R made. Let me get the cheese, the chips, the eggplant tapenade.’

You walked over to the kitchen with a slouching gait.

‘Can we focus on the paper? I’m not that hungry, really.’

We live in a world fraught with forgetfulness. Perhaps your daughter-in-law does not know certain things. There is so much she left out, like the mendicant monk at University Square you gave money to; the letters you toiled over to make sure your students were admitted to the best schools; the petition you signed on banning single-use plastic bags. You carried a cloth bag yourself with a portrait of Tito, the benevolent tyrant on a tote. ‘He Kept Yugoslavia Together, But He Was an Awful Speller,’ it read. And now you’re dead like Sumerian, and no one will ever know.

Your daughter-in-law did share an image of you holding a kitten in your arms. I wonder who will take care of Razmo now? I ask myself who might step in to take your place since you were so adored? ‘It’s not just that Professor D left big shoes to fill,’ the Dean said. ‘He took the shoes with him.’ I look at the photo on my computer screen. You are bald and bespectacled, sporting a frayed wool sweater, at ease in what you are wearing and in your flesh. The picture is dated, taken ten, perhaps fifteen years ago. If you were alive, I wonder if you might have picked it yourself as the last definitive memory by which to be remembered.

It started a few minutes after you walked backed from the kitchen to the living room. We were reviewing one of my claims, which you said lacked clarity of aim. You sat next to me on the sofa and placed your hand on my thigh. ‘You smell of flowers,’ you said. ‘It’s making me heady.’ I peeled your right hand off me, but it fell again. You then grabbed my arm, bending me to the floor. I broke free and thrust my fist into your face, smashing your glasses. This lack of etiquette on my part must have startled you, and you, the linguist, were at a loss for words, except for a grunt. I sprinted to the door and made sure to avoid you for the rest of the term. I stopped going to our faculty meetings and skipped the conference. For weeks, and for no reason at all, I started to count the fleecy clouds in the sky. I resigned from the grievance committee and kept mostly to myself. I began to fold my clothes like lavash, the diaphanous bread I liked to eat, but which I gave up on, because I had no appetite for bread, black or white, soft or hard. Maybe these are the solemn rites one practises to forget.

Sometimes I would see you at the cafeteria playing Scrabble with Miss R. We crossed paths once in the park, your eyes had faded into an insipid gray. All that you managed to say was: ‘Please tell me what happened. I’m sorry if I’ve hurt you in any way.’ Now it’s too late to tell you what happened because you’re dead, but I’m about to press post. I’m going to let the whole world know, and I’m fairly certain that I will get more than 159 emojis of grief.

I shall not miss you, at all.
Viken Berberian is the author of the novels Das Kapital (Simon & Schuster), The Cyclist (Simon & Schuster) and, with Yann Kebbi, of the comic book, The Structure is Rotten, Comrade (Actes Sud, Fantagraphics Books). His memoir, essays, and short stories have appeared in Granta, the New York Review of Books, Foreign Affairs, BOMB, The Nation, Le Monde Diplomatique, the International Herald Tribune, the Financial Times, and the New York Times.

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