Editorial: Weeks after student death, friends mourn

By Cory Thompson – cthomps2@unca.edu – Features’ Editor | Nov. 12, 2014 |

IMG_0076The night was heavy. The trees looked like they were holding up the sky. Maple pallbearers cradled pregnant clouds of snow. Even the seasons dressed up this year. This Halloween would be special, memorable.

The air hung still – maybe out of respect.

Leaf litter formed a red carpet for guests, and the decorations on the side of the house seemed sufficiently spooky – cobwebs, jack-o-lanterns and other such bulls**t.

Talk of canceling the party had long since been laid to rest. Everything was here now – cheese plates, bottles of liquor, apple cider waited on the stove and music from the 1990s on a pink stereo. All his closest friends showed up.

Everyone but him.

He was there, in a way, his face trapped inside a picture frame. It was the one where he let Becca Spritz wear his glasses. He sat next to a hand-rolled cigarette and a 40 ounce bottle of malt liquor.

“He would have liked this,” says Spritz, 21, a sociology student from Burlington, North Carolina. “He should have seen this.”

He wasn’t really there though. He was somewhere else. Maybe he was still in town, lying on a cold slab in some hospital basement. Or he was hanging out in a casket somewhere, maybe, on the way back to his hometown in Alabama.

We didn’t know if he died accidentally, or if he killed himself. All we had was Vice Chancellor Bill Haggard’s day-late, dollar-short e-mail.

“Sad news,” it read.

But we all thought he killed himself. It made sense – he had his troubles. Besides, he went out on a Sunday. He was the kind of guy who would have wanted one more weekend.

I could say it doesn’t matter how he died. I could say it only matters how he lived. That’s not true though. It gnaws at you, the uncertainty.

“These are bitter words for my tongue,” says Ashleigh Hillen, 20, an environmental policy and management student from Mebane, North Carolina. “But I think he did it with pills. I can’t get the image out of my head.”

Spritz disagrees.

Nick was a literary soul with a flair for the dramatic. Spritz thinks he hung himself.

The conversation trails off. Someone coughs.

Spritz was right. He hung himself. Haggard let it slip to faculty, and I heard through the grapevine. A perk, if you could call it that, of my job at the newspaper.

I felt sick to my stomach.

What does that leave us with? A sense of finality. A haunting image. Nothing close to closure.

We’ve had no memorial. No open casket or opportunity to dress in all black. The school offers counseling, but that’s not mourning. We need to cry in public. We need to hold each other.

Hillen is the closest to being appropriately attired. She donned a nun costume for the party.

“God bless him,” the chain-smoking nun says.

Spritz is parked next to her and says she’s dressed as “50 shades of color.” She admits she was lazy – too sad and stressed to change out of the outfit she’s been wearing for days.

“Last time I saw him I was wearing this sweater, his sweater,” Spritz says. “I told him I needed it and he understood. I’m never taking it off.”

Hillen nods and passes her a cigarette.

Zoey Ponder, 22, an international studies student from Rockwall, Texas, hurts the eyes a little bit. Tonight, she’s a neon dragon with yellow horns and purple hair. Her painted-on fangs steal attention from the tears in her eyes.

“Nick was his own person,” Ponder says. “He would help me through my problems no matter how they were related to him. To me, he will always be the person that makes me want to struggle through the cold and be happy.”

We pass the bottle. They call us the Founder’s family – the people who lived in the same residence hall at the same time freshman year.

“I can still feel his presence, in a way,” Spritz says. “I don’t know what to feel. He always pops up. I feel like I might just see him again.”

She trails off.

More guests approach. Happy Halloween.

A voice from the street calls out to us – high and cheerful. A man sidles towards us. Brown hair, glasses, thin, with a beanie. It could have been his twin.

If this were a movie, it would have been him.

Nick.

But it wasn’t a movie.

It wasn’t even a funeral

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