CAMBRIDGE, MASS — I was reminded today of a funny story I heard at a news meeting in Zambia last year, after an embarrassing misspelling in the top front page headline of the competing newspaper caused the managing editor to shake his head and murmur, “The perils of English as a fifth language.”

The deputy news editor, sitting next to me, broke out in a grin, a reliable sign of entertainment to come. He was a serious young man, more dedicated to staying in journalism, and, according to the deputy managing editor, one of the three best writers on staff. For all of that, I could see him listening for irony, for the key that would turn a ludicrous story into a funny one, and I had learned to watch his face.

“I used to work for a man,” he said, “who really had never learned English, and so he often got words wrong. He thought the word “fantastic” was a curse word. So when an employee did something wrong he would tell them off. When he was finished telling them off, he would add “Fantastic!”

Maybe you had to be there, because he did add a lot to a story with his relish for the ridiculous, but it made me laugh all morning.

He was one of the people I have kept in mind when I stick to the notion that things could come together in Zambia at some point soon, when all the strengths of the people of that great country will save it from its perils.

So when I opened my email today to learn that he died “after a short illness,” at the age of 43, leaving two half-orphaned children and a widow, the words seemed to shake on the screen in front of me, as if my mind was sending them back, refusing to take them in.

Sometimes today I have imagined going back to the newspaper where his loss must be felt so terribly and shout at the top of my voice: “What happened?”

And then, when I get no reply, just an inscrutable look that speaks to the stigma we, ourselves, have cast on our own lives, I would like to shout, “FANTASTIC.”


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