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Icebreaker

On September 3rd one of my best friends flatlined on her way to the hospital. Victoria had faced a blend of illnesses: diabetes, a heart condition for which she had to get a pacemaker, excessive water retention, and hypothyroidism. She was only 32. The last time I saw Vicki she had lost a lot of weight. She had been released with an oxygen machine from a long-term care facility, with a tube protruding from her throat. She didn’t like these changes. But the long hospitalizations wouldn’t outweigh Victoria’s positive outlook. Yes, she did have bouts of depression and anxiety, but she tried so hard to find love and energy in every moment. The extent of her influence can’t possibly be contained in a post this size. It will take years before I’m able to bring some justice to her story in my poetry, one of the countless stories that demonstrate how Americans slip through the cracks of a fractured health care system even after Obamacare. I’d like to think that through my work my friendship with Victoria will extend beyond the 10 years I knew her.

The news of Victoria’s death spread like thick mist during my first week of classes. I was watching the first episode of House of Cards when Victoria’s fiancé called me around midnight. I never got calls this late from Victoria’s fiancé, so I knew something was wrong, which he confirmed. After hours of crying and sleeplessness, I mustered the energy to go to my first poetry workshop. My eyes wanted to leap from my face into an abyss. When I was asked to speak about my work, I tried to make sense of my incoherent thoughts. I wanted to say, Hi, my name is Roy and I’m suffering a world right now. I wanted to say, Death is the only thing no one can ever prepare you for, or, I’m me. But I’ll also never be me again. The lights on the ceiling felt like sacks upon sacks of rice planted on me. My body wanted to bend over, roll again and again onto itself until it didn’t exist anymore. Until it existed in a different form.

People often say that starting an MFA program comes with its set of challenges. You have to work in a new environment, with a new set of rules, around people who will affect your work as much as you will affect theirs. Your writing style may change. You may switch genres. You may find out you love teaching or dread the thought of ever teaching again. You may date someone in your program or you may find out you need a galaxy of space. So you start meeting people within the city, within the town, or someone from a couple towns over. But starting an MFA program doesn’t mean your previous life ends. A new program doesn’t mean every string comes loose. If anything, starting an MFA does the opposite. Drama enjoys lingering. Memories can adapt to new habitats. Some addictions want to be replaced with newer addictions. Victoria’s death hit me like nothing tangible ever could. My financial challenges started to show their true manifestations as well. Homesickness became a thought I wanted to keep aside, until I realized that putting it aside would’ve triggered another layer of creative paralysis.

Before starting my MFA I had been teaching in Miami for 3 years. In the past, teaching had served as a form of therapy during some of my darkest moments. I knew that seeking that form of therapy again would ground me. And it did. Grieving accompanied me during my syllabus preparation, but the syllabus preparation also helped me cope with the anguish. I was afraid my students—whose innocent faces I got to see online before meeting them—would detect my pain. That thought pushed me to focus more. I was assigned an introductory creative writing course. Poetry, fiction, and nonfiction revealed their warm mysteries once more. I planned to have writing exercises on the first day, group activities, moments in which I would connect with my students and they would connect back with me without hesitation.

Things didn’t pan out that way. But it’s not that teaching my first class a few days after Vicki’s passing was a disaster. It’s that the art and energy created inside a classroom can never be fully expected, rehearsed, or calculated. Everything I expected to complete that day mutated by the time I started engaging with my students. We talked about TV shows during an icebreaker. That’s all I wanted to do. I wanted to talk about House of Cards, Game of Thrones, Scandal, Breaking Bad. I wanted us to trade stories of our past, our invisible towns, our haughty cities. I wanted us to come from the Midwest, but I also wanted some of us to come from Boston; for some of us to come from California and for some of us to speak Spanish. More than anything, I wanted to be a child again, finding comfort in my mother’s lap. My first class unsurprisingly brought me the reassurance I needed. I imagined Vicki there, my parents by my side, and everything and everyone who made my journey from Miami to the Midwest possible also cheering me on. Class flew by. My students had poetry to write. I had new poems to write as well.

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