What Russian Grammar Taught Me about Death

By

Professor Kun flew into the classroom as she normally did, wearing a long skirt and shirt in muted colors. She was a petite woman with an abundance of energy, darting between her podium and the chalkboard, demanding our focus.

Her attention fixed on me when she saw I was back. It was ten days after my dad had died. Because he died shortly before spring break, I only missed two days of classes. It was morbidly fortunate for me.

“Aleesa, where have you been?” she asked while depositing her bag and books onto the table near the chalkboard.

The expectation in every foreign language class I’ve ever taken is when the professor asks a question, you answer in the language you’re studying to the absolute best of your ability. Despite my efforts, I was a solid B student in my Russian classes, but even with straight As I would have no idea how to say, “Sorry, Professor Kun, my dad died of cancer over spring break. I wasn’t ready to come back to campus, so I took a few extra days off and that’s where I’ve been. But since arriving back, I’m not sure this was a good idea after all, and I’d like to go back to my dorm now, if you don’t mind.”

Instead, in English, I said, “My dad died. He had cancer.”

She sunk into the chair next to her podium. “Oh, Aleesa.”

She quickly rebounded to the chalkboard where she wrote in her neat Cyrillic, Мой папа умер от рака. Moy papa umer ot raka. “My dad died of cancer,” she read aloud.

Great, I thought, now I can say it in two languages. Chalk in hand, Professor Kun tapped on умер. “This is the verb for ‘to die.’”

She separated the final ‘а’ in рака. “Рак is cancer. It takes the genitive case,” she said, circling the final “а” and от so the connection was clear. He hadn’t just died—he’d died of cancer. It was now a vocabulary and a grammar lesson, in one short sentence.

I dug my notebook out of my bag and opened to the next clean page before copying her notes from the board. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my three classmates do the same. I could hear their pens and pencils scratching across the pages as they wrote into their own notebooks in silence. I looked only at my notebook and the chalkboard. If I didn’t look at them maybe they’d forget this unplanned lesson was about me.

I was keenly aware of myself in a way I’d never been before—of my Converse-clad feet barely touching the dark gray carpet, of my back against the unforgiving wooden desk chairs that filled Hamilton Hall, of my left hand tucked into the crook of my right elbow as I waited to take more notes.

From my seat, I watched as she ran her left hand along the back of her head, pushing the ends of her short hair flat against the top of her neck. She still held the small piece of chalk and watched as we all finished copying down her impromptu lesson.

I’ve told this story a few times in the years since Dad died, and each time I’m met with horrified faces and outrage on my behalf.

“I can’t believe you had to sit through that,” or “What the fuck?” or, most commonly, “Oh my god.”

But I was never horrified. It had only been ten days since he died, and four since his funeral.

I wanted to shout it at everyone who looked at me for a second too long while I walked across campus. I wanted to introduce myself with the information. I wanted my pain to be everyone’s pain because how could this type of awful pain not be felt by everyone who came into contact with me. How could they not sense how debilitating this was? Or did they, and they didn’t care? No, of course they didn’t know, otherwise they too would have become figments of themselves.

I was still shocked that he was dead and was incapable of being newly shocked by her unplanned lesson, at the potential invasion of my privacy, even though I’d offered it up on a platter. My grief was so new and raw it didn’t occur to me to make something up, and I couldn’t muster the energy to care. I didn’t care who knew, and at the same time I wanted everyone to know.

As Professor Kun diagrammed the sentence, I kept wondering, How could she not have known? Why had she not been told? The dean said he was going to notify my professors. I doubt yмер was in today’s lesson plan. Why did I have to say it out loud? Рак. Cancer. Fuck, I can’t believe this. Will I have to tell all of them? I hope I don’t have to tell the rest. He’s dead. And I’m here. He’s dead. Maybe this was a mistake. Genitive case. Right. He died of cancer. What if I just left?

A few weeks after I returned to campus, Professor Kun emailed me late at night to see how she could help. I was surprised and touched she was thinking of me when most people would be sleeping. And then I started sobbing at my desk.

She wrote that she could see how difficult it was for me to be in class, and she was ready to help me get back on track. She was willing to meet me where I was, to give me concrete help and merely required me to say, Yes, I’d like your help, professor. And I took it. Hesitantly, at first. I wrote back promising to actually attend class. Admittedly, my new habit of staying in bed instead of going to class wasn’t doing me any favors.

In my grief, my only interests were sleeping and eating Raisin Bran at odd hours in the dining hall in the basement of my dorm. Grieving has always felt like falling asleep, only to wake suddenly for no apparent reason. The knowledge of my dad’s death would jolt me awake repeatedly throughout that semester and seemingly out of nowhere. I knew I needed help to get through my classes but the part of my brain that was puppeteering me wasn’t capable of asking for it. School was keeping me minimally present, but I needed someone who could do the heavy lifting of caring that I was present.

Professor Kun realized I was in autopilot, and instead of telling me, “Let me know if there’s anything I can do,” she gave me something to do. From the start, with that unexpected grammar lesson, through emails and many office-hour visits, she kept showing up for me—always putting in the time and effort to help me, until I was ready to show up for and help myself.

For the rest of the semester, I trudged up the marble steps to the seventh floor to spend more time learning Russian grammar and reviewing homework and tests and trying to make more sense in the one place I could. I felt pathetic visiting her office regularly, especially when it didn’t seem like anyone else in my four-person class needed so much extra help. But Professor Kun was dogged in her determination. She forced me to care about her class and in turn I began to care, a feeling I hadn’t regained in my other classes. In her quiet and patient way, she taught me how to show up for someone and how to ask others to show up for me.

With her unconventional grammar lesson, Professor Kun gave me a small, logical way to explore my dad’s death. I was given something new I could go back to again and again, and I do, often, turning the phrase over, its sounds softer than the harsh consonants of my first language.

I had a way to speak a truth I wasn’t yet ready to say out loud to most people. She gave me a sense of order and logic at a time when I was unrecognizable to myself. All I’d wanted since Dad died was for someone to tell me what to do, to give me directions and a guide for how to navigate a life without him. I wanted to feel in control of something, but I didn’t know how to say that. I craved it more than anything.

Well, almost anything.

As the years separating my dad and I grow, I still find myself succumbing to frightening moments of grief so raw and unexpected I can feel my body retreating into itself. I can feel my body giving into my grief, when my shoulders bunch together and my breathing becomes shallow, when my throat tightens, when I bite my lip to illicit a different pain, I think to myself, “Oн yмер oт рaka.” He died of cancer.

Oн yмер oт рaka.

Oн умер oт рaka.

Oн умер oт рaka.

Like a mantra. It refocuses me, pulls me out of autopilot, and reminds me he didn’t just disappear one day. No, it was so much worse than that. There was a process to it, and he disappeared slowly. He lived with cancer until it took up so much room in his body that his body couldn’t keep up its end of the bargain.

I’ve thought a lot about the grammar behind the English version, too. Of cancer modifies how he died.

Now when I think of how he died, I realize how drawn out it was. How for almost four years he was in constant pain. How he underwent chemotherapy, then radiation, and then more chemo. How his entire left femur was replaced by a cadaver bone with a titanium rod down the middle of it. I think of how I was so close to his pain that I couldn’t see how much it ravaged him until he was in hospice in our living room and really not even then, not until he took one last ragged breath while I held his hand. Cancer didn’t just kill him, it killed him slowly.

There’s less agency in a death belonging to a disease, and if his death belonged to cancer, as Russian grammar told me it did, then it wasn’t just his death that cancer owned. It owned the health problems my grandparents faced after watching their first born die a month after he turned fifty-one. It assumed responsibility for making me his caregiver before I could vote, for making me part of the Dead Dad Club before I could order a drink.

It’s a small distinction, how someone died versus a death belonging to a disease. The outcome is the same either way, but the feeling has always been very different to me.

The English sentence’s grammar always brings me back to the beginning of the end, when cancer first entered his life. If I give it too much thought, too much energy, I find myself fighting tears because I can pinpoint, nearly six years out, the exact moments when maybe things could have been different and then when they turned for the worse and I didn’t realize. The English grammar focuses on the process of his death, and if I let it, when the grief is strong, that process makes me feel like a failure because I witnessed his body prepare for death, for years, without knowing where we were headed. I had no idea that he would die feet from where he stood when he first told me he had cancer. The entire time he was sick, I thought he would get better. I get so angry, thinking of the English grammar, because it reminds me of how foolish and young and hopeful I was. And then that anger turns to frustration because why did no one tell me what I couldn’t see? That tiny little prepositional phrase can turn me into a rage monster if I let it, which I’m wont to do more often than not. But it’s then that the Russian grammar quiets me and says, Hет, he was claimed and there was nothing you could do. It doesn’t absolve me, not quite. Instead, the Russian construction separates me from his death, and I can see more clearly what I could not before I watched my dad, my best friend, die of cancer. Sometimes things don’t get better.

I know both grammars have truth to them. I also know I push their boundaries to fit my needs—my grief. Cancer is just a mutation that spreads. It doesn’t have an agenda.

And yet, Oн yмер oт рaka.

***

Rumpus original art by Carl Dimitri.


Alison Macke is a writer originally from the suburban sprawl between Chicago and Milwaukee. She currently lives in New York City, where she is working on a memoir. More from this author →