By the time I boarded the bus, a year ago yesterday, I was already crying. I knew a freshman boy in Davenport, in my own year and residential college, had committed suicide, but I did not yet know who it was. As we slowly neared campus, I pleaded and bargained with some higher power, begging that the student in question not be one of my nine suitemates. It wasn’t. It was Zach, our gregarious, curly-haired next-door neighbor whom we had dubbed an honorary member of our suite, the 11th member of Welch Hall’s 10-pack.
I walked back through campus on one of those idyllic spring days when the weather, more than anything else, mocks you. Shell-shocked and spilling tears, I drifted past spring’s many co-conspirators — the Frisbee-playing, sunbathing Yale students, painfully unaware of what had happened, and everything was deteriorating as they lazed on the grass. In the following weeks, I came to view each individual student that I walked past as a tiny sliver of my many freshman-year selves: too caught up playing games to anticipate the imminent sorrow, blissfully ignorant of the fucked-up conclusion that lurked around the corner.
Like a pebble dropped in water, death triggers a proverbial ripple effect on the lives of those who were connected to the deceased. In the days after Zach’s death, I observed the outpouring of emotional support from the Yale community and from Zach’s friends and family all over the U.S. In life, he had influenced a wide variety of individuals. In dying, he had done the same. After the initial period of shock, I anticipated my own ripple from Zach’s death, a small change in my life that would forever remind me of him and the relatively short time that we spent together. But the shock never fully subsided, and my own tiny ripple revealed itself as an inundating tidal wave, an overwhelming emotional response that, I believe, has altered the entire trajectory of my life.
I cried for Zach. I cried for his friends from home. I cried for his relatives, his teary-eyed parents who barely mustered the strength to utter a few cautionary words at the candlelight vigil. But, most of all, I cried for myself. And weeks later, months later, when it seemed that my friends had moved on, I was still crying.
As I grappled with Zach’s death, I imagined a point in the future when I would undergo an all-encompassing, Joycean epiphany in which I would accept and understand Zach’s death, and quite possibly, in the process, explain human life and death in their entireties. In my state, the potential emotional detachment available to the fatalists, to those who surrendered to the inevitability of life, appealed to me. Most likely, I figured I would embrace the philosophy that Billy Pilgrim adopts from the Tralfamadorians in Slaughterhouse-Five: “When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in a bad condition in that particular moment, but the same person is fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is “so it goes.”
In a case of life imitating art, I, like Billy Pilgrim, would become unstuck in time, or at least would understand life as more than a linear progression with a finite beginning and end. With this understanding, I would free myself from the intense tangles of human emotion, from the burden of my own self-absorption. This form of existential fatalism to which I would subscribe would not only ensure that I would never feel the way I once did, but would also, with its accompanying ability to transcend time, heal the emotional suffering of my past. I would, most likely, even tattoo “so it goes,” my new personal credo, somewhere on my body, perhaps, logically, over my beating heart. That way, when my time came, whoever was left of my family and friends, when observing my lifeless corpse, would read the words aloud, off my still body, over and over again, until they too believed them to be true.
A year has passed — an event-filled, emotion-laden, life-altering year — and I still do not find solace in repeating “so it goes” to myself, no matter how often I say it in my mind.
During a particularly low point, I passed a week in a psych ward, struggling with my own questions of life and death. Before I left, a doctor asked me to explain what bound me to this earth. I struggled to answer the question at the time, but I think I might be closer to answering it now.
There is no escaping what happened, no literal or metaphorical alternative reality into which I may slip to avoid the truth: Zach lived, and Zach died. I must accept that. But I do not have to shrug at death; I do not need to — nor do I have the ability to — render myself unfeeling. Because disconnecting and succumbing to numbness is not the right answer to feeling too much for too long.
That’s what links me to those around me, what roots me to the earth, what keeps me stuck in time.
For me, that’s how it really goes.