As Martha entered seventh grade, she became miserable, the beginning of a year of emotional problems. Looking back on her life later, she reflected that she had always had a melancholy temperament, but that it fully began to express itself on the first day of seventh grade, when she cried during her first orchestra class of the year.
Martha at fourteen in 2008
Her companions couldn’t understand why she cried. But it was fitting, she later reflected, that her violin was present when she cried, because the violin was almost unmatched in its ability to bring her joy and pain.
Music gave her a sense of meaning, but the meaning didn’t always feel good. Promoted to first violin, and with a new violin to replace the smaller one of her childhood, she often felt rapture playing her instrument, especially when playing Bach’s Gavotte in G Minor. At some point she composed a violin sonata that was sad and beautiful. But the rapture of the violin was often followed by depression, especially if she thought her playing was arid.
Religion gave her meaning too. At the beginning of the year, she found purpose by thinking of herself as a missionary to her classmates, but that dissipated quickly. She developed a way to be religious that didn’t exclude non-Christians. She made a close friend that year, a younger girl named Minoo, who was a Shiite Muslim from Iran and wore a head scarf. Martha also tutored Minoo and her brother in English at Cabrini Immigrant Services, where Martha was a volunteer. The devoutness of the two girls drew them together, even though they prayed to different versions of God.
Martha rewatched Titanic and was briefly obsessed with the movie, especially Leonardo DiCaprio as the lead. Like the rapture of music, romantic feelings, such as those spurred by Titanic, were often followed by depression.
Writing remained an important part of her life. Martha wrote aphorisms, such as, “To write down jokes is to bottle fireflies,” and prayers, such as, “Cleanse me. Save me. Help me. Lead me.” At an even younger age, she had come up with the aphorism “As long as I can love, I can rejoice.” Now she also meditated on issues such as suffering, writing:
Suffering is like rain. It has no immediate benefit, but is instead harmful at first. Yet life would not exist without it; so we need suffering for spiritual life. Suffering is essential as rain is essential.
She wrote about death. On the night of December 8, 2006, she dreamt that she and her friend Yuna stood at a seashore at night, and she knew that Yuna was about to step into the sea, and when she did Yuna would die. Yet Martha wasn’t sad. She peacefully said goodbye, because she knew Yuna would be happy with God, and that Martha would see her again when it was Martha’s turn to die. In her diary, Martha wrote:
Maybe death isn’t at all terrible. Maybe the ancient Taínos weren’t so wrong when they said the dead marched into the sea. Maybe death is like that, stepping from the land into the sea, into another, better world. Maybe being at a death is like saying a brief goodbye, for the two who know when they meet again, it will be in Heaven, in perfect happiness, a peace found through faith that God will save us.
This is the first moment on record when Martha, at twelve, seemed to think death wasn’t so bad. She wasn’t suicidal, but she was thinking of death, and the way she thought of it made it sound at least tolerable, maybe even better than life. Perfect happiness for the dead person; a brief goodbye for the living person. Perhaps her deathwish can be dated from here.
An exquisitely happy day soon followed. Martha would often look back on December 19, 2006, as the best day of her life. What made it so good was nothing an outside observer could see, but something inside her. She played her violin in the orchestra in a winter concert at school—the kids in rows in white and black, working their instruments in harmony before the auditorium packed with parents—and felt unspeakable joy, rapture, ecstasy. It was literally unspeakable—words couldn’t express how glorious it was. The glory, however, was brief. A depression followed that lasted over a month. During that time, playing the violin left her with nothing but aridity.
After her depression, in early 2007, she had nearly two months of joy. Sure enough, another depression followed. She talked about it with her music teacher, but the talk didn’t make her feel better. From March to November, Martha suffered troubled thoughts and what seemed almost worse than depression—apathy, a lack of feeling. For the first time in her life, she didn’t have a party to celebrate her birthday, at which she turned thirteen. She didn’t want one.
I knew little about Martha’s turbulent feelings in seventh grade because she told me little about them. I interacted with her less than I used to, and knew less about what was happening with her. It seemed to me that she was doing fine in school, and I didn’t need to worry about her.
By the time she turned thirteen, I still did the bedtime ritual with her, but it was pretty streamlined. She got into her nightgown herself and did all her own business (brushing and flossing teeth, etc.). Then I did a ten-minute part with her where we often played imaginative games, such as Projects, in which we lay in my bed under the covers and each pretended to teach a classroom full of animals or other organisms, such as tigers, horses, or L. acidophilus. Alternatively, we might sit on her bed and have her stuffed animals talk to each other, a game we called Talking and Discussing amongst Our Nubbies. Or we might not play at all, just read independently, which we called Reading Corner.
In May, at her mother’s prompting and accompanied by her mother, Martha saw the new musical Spring Awakening on Broadway and fell in love with it. She saw it five more times before it closed and was obsessed with it all summer. She had a crush on the male lead, Jonathan Groff; played the music on her violin; and was fascinated with the themes of teenage love and death, including suicide.
In July 2007, Martha attended her first sleepaway camp, a camp for smart kids run by the Center for Talented Youth, or CTY, at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. In intensive three-week courses, the campers studied an abstruse subject of their choice (Martha’s was Latin) while mingling with other bright kids and enjoying a taste of college campus life. We drove her the 220 miles there and picked her up after three weeks.
Martha missed us and cried over the separation, but she stuck it out for the sake of the knowledge she would gain and the chance to make smart friends. I missed her greatly too, enough to fall into depression for the first couple of weeks of her stay.
Martha liked the intellectual stimulation of learning Latin. She translated her old aphorism, “As long as I can love, I can rejoice,” into Latin: “Tam diu quam possum amare, possum gaudere.” But she found that most of the kids at CTY, like kids in general, were not intellectuals. She slow-danced with a boy, Clive, for the first time. It made her feel dirty at first, but she kept slow-dancing with him at other dances at camp. In the end she decided she didn’t love him.
By studying Latin at CTY, Martha continued to immerse herself increasingly in intellectual and artistic pursuits—learning languages, reading classics, researching history, writing poetry, playing her violin. No more Disney Channel for her (that had petered out in the sixth grade). But despite her scholarly interests, emotionally life was bleak. She suffered all summer from what she called aestival apathy—summer apathy.
Martha regarded eighth grade as the year of her intellectual awakening. To an outsider, she had been an intellectual all her life, but she found this year more intellectually intense than any. She memorized the periodic table of elements in order, with symbols, names, and atomic numbers. She played violin at church as well as in two orchestras, school and county. She drew self-portraits and studied astronomy. She wrote stories with tragic heroines. She read my favorite work of fiction, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and loved it, identifying with the Intended, the fiancée of Kurtz who remains devoted to him even after he dies.
By that time, she had gotten interested in current popular music. This was my doing. In 2007, I decided for the first time in years that I wanted to hear new music, music I’d never heard and that kids were listening to, so I started listening to local radio station Z100. I became a fan of Avril Lavigne, Katy Perry, Paramore, the Plain White T’s, and Rihanna, and bought their CDs. Martha liked the music I was playing and started listening to Z100 too, especially from 4:30 to 6:00 p.m., when they played nonstop, commercial-free music for drive time, and at 9:00 p.m., when they played the top Nine at Nine. She remained a pop music fan to the end of her life, even though I lost interest in it after four years.
At first, the songs Martha and I liked were often from the same artists, such as Lavigne’s “Girlfriend” and the Plain White T’s’ “Hey There Delilah.” Later she developed somewhat different tastes, especially Evanescence, the band that recorded her favorite song, “My Immortal.” We got her an iPod for Christmas 2007 and she learned to use iTunes to buy and organize her music. From then until the end of her life, she usually wore earbuds when relaxing, strung to her iPod, which played a mix of classical and pop tunes.
Despite her increasing sophistication, Martha was in some ways still a child. She still played with childhood toys like Melanie’s Mall and Polly Pocket. We still did a bedtime ritual, though it had now dwindled to a relatively short part for each of her parents. My part with her was usually ten minutes of Reading Corner followed by my singing a lullabye to her in her bed—“Rock-a-bye Baby” on Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday; “Tura-Lura-Lura” on Monday and Wednesday; and “Hush Little Baby” on Friday and Saturday. While I sang, we each made one of her animals dance (selected from a group of bed characters that now numbered sixty-four). After the song, we each said prayers—even though I was officially an atheist, she liked having me pray, so I did—and then we pretended to give one of her animals a ride on the rocking horse in her room, unless it was after midnight or a holy day of obligation (when the rocking horse was closed). Then I got Martha a drink of water, and we each said, “Good night, I love you.”
Melinda had her own part with Martha, with its own arcane rules. Often in this period Melinda would join Martha in bed in the course of the night, fleeing my snoring. I had recently put on a lot of weight because of my meds (especially Zyprexa, which the doctor put me back on for a while), and this probably caused obstructive sleep apnea, which made me snore like an unmuffled truck until I lost some of the weight later.
Religiously, eighth grade was significant. Martha turned fourteen and received the sacrament of confirmation. She gave herself the confirmation name Cecilia, for the patron saint of music.
At fourteen, Martha was lonely. She wanted to date but didn’t know how to talk to the boys at school. The smart girls at school were dominated by a smart mean clique of which she was not a part. Her own clique, if she had one, seemed like a bunch of outsiders, excluded from the other groups. When friends called her or came over, they mainly wanted help with homework. “School is all one big circle I’m not part of,” she wrote.
Martha was too old for us to set up playdates for her. I had tried during middle school, with the mother of a member of the smart mean clique, and she snapped, “Millie sets up her own playdates. I don’t arrange them for her.”
Instead of hanging around with friends, Martha stayed at home and played violin, which she found gave her more companionship than friends. In those days and to the end of her life, I would often hear Martha playing her violin in the playroom, beautifully, passionately, everything from classical music to Broadway hits to Frank Sinatra to rock songs.
I was worried about Martha. She had to get through four more years with basically this same group of kids, who had already deemed her socially unworthy. Melinda and I had been the same in high school—academically stellar, socially backward. Neither of us had much of a dating life until after we graduated. So we had no tips to give Martha, no advice on how to increase popularity. I only hoped that once she went to an elite college she would meet friends and a mate worthy of her.
It turned out Martha didn’t wait that long. In May of her last year of middle school she met Aleksei.
Copyright 2020 George Ochoa.
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Bruce Shand (Monday, 11 April 2022 22:25)
I wish I could've known Martha in high school. We might've taken Art together. I was routinely the only boy in the class. I know how she felt about being lonely. I never went to dances since I would've been going alone. We also had Latin in common. It was more of a curiosity, but I took it instead of Phys Ed which I wasn't any good at. Whenever they divided the class to pick teams, nobody ever wanted me.
Eventually joining the Drama Club gave me something of a refuge. I kinda think that might've connected me with Martha somehow. I did well as an actor at that level (even winning a regional award). I tried to take it further in college, but I had my own issues with mental health. I'd always been creatively inclined, and I opted for the relative safety of a camera and Photographic Arts.
After reading of Martha's death, I found I wanted to know more about her. Her energies and enthusiasms went off in so many different directions. If we ever could've sat down together or gone for a walk and talked, it might've been good for both of us.
Thanks so much for sharing Martha, George!
George Ochoa (Tuesday, 12 April 2022 18:45)
Bruce, Thank you for your reflections. You sound like you might have been a kindred spirit for Martha. Best, George