My first experience with death came when I was two or three years old. I stood in my parents’ bedroom, watching my mom weep, folded into my dad. I demanded to know what was going on, and my dad told me that her paternal grandmother had died. Unsure of the situational protocol, I attached myself to my mom’s leg, figuring that since my parents held me when I cried, it would probably work the other way. The next morning, everything was back to normal, and the event receded into memory.
The second time death brushed past me was the summer after sixth grade. My parents generously took me to see Stevie Wonder in concert, after a week or two of blasting his greatest hits on the car radio. When we got back home, we found our thirteen-year-old dog sprawled out on the living room floor, unable to rise. My dad took her to the vet to see what was wrong, and when I awoke the next morning, she’d passed away. Later that day, my mom took me mini-golfing with my friend Ted as a form of consolation. It was too hot, and I found the golfing miserable, but I still got pissed at Ted for complaining about it.
But it was the third time that stuck.
I was a freshman at a boarding school called Loomis Chaffee, though I was not, in fact, a boarder. The day: Monday, the ninth of May, the day after Mother’s Day. Even before I got to school, the day had an ominous cast, mainly due to a triptych of omens: first, a dream wherein I stood in a field playing Ultimate Frisbee until a passing plane split apart in mid-air, bodies of the passengers raining down; next, a dead mouse in the garage, caught in a mousetrap, staring at me with its glassy eyes as I loaded my school supplies into the car; finally, the topic of the day’s history reading, which I read while my dad drove me to school: the Holocaust.
Upon pulling into school, though, I saw that everyone was heading towards the gym. As far as I knew, there was no all-school meeting scheduled for that morning. Unbidden, the idea arose that the school had been struck by a plague straight out of Stephen King’s The Stand, and they (a vague sort of They comprising of the faculty and possibly some government officials) were rounding us up either to quarantine us or to provide us with vaccines against the new deadly disease. I fell into step with my classmate Pete “The Stallion” DeLalio, with whom I shared an English class.
“What’s going on?” I asked him.
He cleared his throat. “A sophomore died.”
“Oh,” I said, my mind running through the faces of the ten or twenty sophomores who I knew. Strangely, my first feeling was one of relief, the odd tension of the morning resolving into a single solid fact: the worst had happened. A student had died. “Do you know who it was?”
“Yeah, Ger,” said Pete.
Ger? Was that even a name? It sounded like half a word at most. Maybe a full name bitten off midway through. I wasn’t sure if I’d heard him right, or if he’d stumbled mid-word, or what had happened. It certainly wasn’t any of the sophomores I knew. Who was this “Ger”?
As it turns out, he was the president of the sophomore class. And captain of the boys J.V. lacrosse team. And R.A. of the freshman boys’ dorm. And, though unknown to me, one of the most beloved kids on campus.
We filed into the gymnasium, where the headmaster, Sheila Culbert, gave a pretty clearly heartbroken speech. Midway through, my attention drifted away from her and towards my classmate Jacob King, member of the Boy’s J.V. lacrosse team and typical class clown, who’d dissolved into tears. One unsettling thing from that day: seeing the usually unflappable guys from the J.V. lacrosse team inconsolable. The very guys you’d expect to raise campus spirits were the most gutted.
Classes, though optional for those too upset to attend, went on. In Latin, we spent the day outside, appropriately translating Ciceronian poems written in apostrophe to his dead brother. While walking from our classroom to the outdoors, one kid commented that he’d heard the song “Only The Good Die Young” on the radio on the way into school. Another kid replied that was fucked up.
The song that had been in my head all day wasn’t “Only The Good Die Young,” but Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence.” I don’t remember much else from the academic day, but I remember the silence of campus while passing between classes. It was a beautiful day, the air full of sunshine and pollen and birdsong, but no voices. Hundreds of students walked from class to class without speaking a word.
After classes ended, I sat in the student center with two of my sophomore friends, Mark and Alyssa. It was at this point that the question of the cause of death arose. Dr. Culbert’s earlier comment, to the effect of “We do not suspect there was any foul play involved,” did nothing but fan the flames of our suspicion.
“Well, I heard that he and his roommate were horsing around last weekend, and Ger got a concussion,” said Mark, sipping from a recently purchased Coke. Alyssa sat there, dazed. “Maybe he had an aneurysm later?”
“Sheila said there wasn’t any foul play involved,” said Alyssa, staring into the middle distance.
“Do you think maybe it was suicide?” asked Mark.
“No, Ger would never do that,” said Alyssa, shaking her head. “He was always smiling and happy. And he wore all those neon suits. Nobody who wears that much neon would ever kill himself.”
“Yeah, you’re right,” said Mark.
I stuck around that afternoon and evening for Ultimate Frisbee practice and choir rehearsal, and in the midst of these extracurricular activities, word got to me that the school was hosting a candlelit vigil that night, in honor of the departed Ger. I hadn’t known him, but figured a show of solidarity wouldn’t hurt.
While at the time I thought staying for the vigil was a nice gesture, this decision raises some uncomfortable questions in retrospect: Does it make me some kind of poser that I attended an intensely personal vigil for a guy I’d never met? Some kind of tragic tourist? Was I nothing more than a voyeur?
I don’t know.
The vigil convened in the quad, enclosed by upperclassman dorms. A throng of mourners crowded around a small, raised platform, upon which sat a student-made piece of art in memory of Ger, depicted above, which captured both his famous smile and his penchant for neon suits. In that image was captured perfectly the Ger that we saw: a radiant, joyful guy. That night, we played songs, read poems, and celebrated Ger’s life as we saw it: happy.
Two days later, we learned that he’d killed himself. On Mother’s Day, no less.
It turned out that happy kid we’d all mourned so deeply at the candlelit vigil hadn’t quite existed. The Ger in the picture was a product of how we, the school, had chosen to see him, trapping him inside a smiley face and a suit of neon while he suffered beneath. He’d been the ideal Loomis student, the poster child for the school. To borrow a line from Simon and Garfunkel, at the vigil, we bowed and prayed to the neon god we made. Goodbye, Gerhard Andlinger. We never knew you at all.
Fast-forward. Freshman year, again, but this time freshman year here, at Princeton. I was running late (I’d forgotten to buy school supplies until that day) to the first class of my college career, a HUM lecture, in East Pyne. I burst through the building’s doors, hauling it to class, and froze in my tracks. There, staring down at me from the nearest wall, was a plaque on which were engraved the words “This Plaque is Dedicated to Gerhard R. Andlinger.”
“Are you fucking kidding me?” I whispered to myself. Then I laughed, because I didn’t know what else to do. The exact name had followed me from Loomis to Princeton. The neon god reared his head again, in the form of a plaque dedicated to his grandfather. “And linger,” indeed.