In late 2012, a man whom I admired very much passed away. I recalled something one of his students once said to me, long before death shadowed our teacher’s life. “It only takes one word, true or not, to ruin a man’s reputation,” he warned.

The student was at a party when some of his friends stumbled on the topic of our teacher. They began innocently discussing some of the hushed questions surrounding the man’s character, and the student interrupted: “It only takes one word, true or not, to ruin a man’s reputation. I suggest you all find something else to talk about.” The conversation ended.

This man, the teacher, introduced me to someone who wrote words that some say caused death’s defeat. Anna Akhmatova chose to stay in Stalinist Russia, where she had no place as a banned poet, to chronicle its death under that tyrant’s hand. Her dedication to her country never wavered. Her words carried the lives of those who died with her through time and space, and each time I read one of her poems, I sense the odd way in which she overcame death by being its witness. For, as Hannah Arendt taught me long ago, the principle accomplishment of totalitarianism’s project on dehumanization was not death, but anonymous death. It’s not enough, but for those who have died, it’s all we have.

Recently, a man I knew only to be kind, courageous, and wonderfully weird passed away, and all I can do is desperately scrape my mind for words.