The Final Chapter in a Promising Young Life

The Final Chapter in a Promising Young Life August 10, 2012

I was driving when it occurred to me that it has been twenty years since my old friend Geoff Sanders was murdered.

I was headed home from work, public radio blasting even though I really wasn’t listening, the rosy beginnings of sunset blooming over the abandoned warehouses of gritty New York Avenue, the route I take every day.

Then a piece came on the radio—I’ve tried in vain to find it since. How my memory fails me—about a mentoring program for young inner city men set in the context of a wave of gang violence that spread across Chicago this summer.

Even if you can’t save everybody, the director was saying, and I’m paraphrasing here, it’s worth it if you just save one.

Around me the summery light glinted off the asphalt and chrome, and suddenly I thought about Geoff. Geoff was a young black man from Dorchester in Boston, and nobody, it seemed, could be less at risk than he.

When we met at boarding school in the mid-80s, he’d already been a scholarship student at another fancy private feeder school, was a classical choral musician, and had mastered all the sprezzatura and adolescent gestures of confidence to signal belonging in such a rarified environment, things I was just beginning to learn.

He was tall and handsome, wore big Polo glasses, and he was constantly walking around campus with his good friend Ian—a blond preppie whose whole family had been in an Electronic Battleship game commercial—both clad in long wool overcoats, like twins.

At some point we discovered that both sides of his family were from Mississippi, and that was when we became friends. His people were from Duck Hill and Winona. Right up the road from my hometown, Yazoo City.

It could be a stark winter night, the portent of snow over the academy’s long line of elms, and Geoff and I would be talking about hot summers, church, honeysuckle, and the heavenly food. Our voices would become dreamy, high—for he was a fine tenor—and wistful.

Unlike just about everyone else at school, for whom the very word Mississippi was a signal for injustice, Geoff had spent vacations at his grandparents in the country, and loved it, despite all.

Yes: Despite all. Who knows what the state of Mississippi is like today, but when I left in 1982, even among the relative progressives there were few interracial friendships.

My own mother, when deep in her volcanic weltschmerz, could espouse the worst of racist stereotypes: In a letter dated September 15,1982 that my brother recently forwarded to me, she decries the forced integration law in Mississippi and at the same time urges me not to try to change things up there.

Unlike those Yankees who came down here, was her unspoken coda.

Oh, Mama, I was already changed. I could look at Geoff and experience the grace of his being and the miracle—and I mean this literally—that I had finally landed in a place where we could know one another without pretense.

Sadly, though, what becomes normal is too often taken for granted. We lost touch when Geoff (who was a year or two older) went off to the University of Pennsylvania. I saw him again only when once he and Ian swept into the dining hall for a visit, with the knowing savoir-faire of returning graduates.

Then I, too, was graduated and gone—and six years later, the copy of the Boston Herald announcing his murder, sent by a school friend, landed in my mailbox like a bomb.

The folded, yellowing article is still in my possession, swimming in a box downstairs in my dusty basement. I tried in vain to find the hard copy to hold in my hands.

Yet through the grace of technology, I am able to call it up again. In the photo accompanying the hard copy article, I remembered him pictured at boarding school graduation, in a sharp navy coat and the Polo glasses, flanked by proud parents.

The photograph is missing from the sterile electronic archive file.

Here is what happened: Geoff had gone to U Penn, distinguished himself, taken a couple of corporate jobs, and a position with the Boston mayor’s office after his 1988 graduation.

Then when he was laid off, as many were, during the 1990-91 recession—a marker for many of my Gen X cohort—and his mind began to trouble him.

Perhaps it was the early adult onset of schizophrenia, something entirely typical, but he began to be severely depressed, and developed, as the Herald article puts it, “an intolerance for noise.”

In the spring of 1992, he packed his belongings and fled from his mother’s house. He lived, homeless, in Dorchester’s Franklin Park, where he was found stabbed a few months later.

The Boston Herald article by one Beverly Ford reads:

Tomorrow, at Concord Baptist Church in the South End—the same church where years before his choral group performed Bach cantatas in German—the final chapter in Geoffrey Sanders’ promising young life will come to a close.

Twenty years after his death (almost to the day), driving down New York Avenue, I remembered Geoffrey.

How little I knew him, in the end. But how much I love him still.

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  • Helen

    What a beautiful tribute, Caroline. Sadly, some of the friends we cherish so in our earlier years drift away and we don’t know what has happened to them until something tragic calls us to attention. I’m sure he treasured your friendship as much as you did his.

    • Caroline

      Thank you, Helen- I think you are right. He was so kind and so loving…

  • Lola LB

    Its really strange what you remember from the past. Reading this, I started thinking of someone who went to the same deaf church I did when I was a teenager. We were just acquaintances, but I still remember his name because I remember what had happened to him while I was in college – he went swimming in the Potomac River and drowned. I don’t think they ever recovered his body. That was the first real death I experienced when it came to people in my generation.

    • Caroline

      May his memory be eternal, dear Lola. I think that remembering these events, and these people, even as tangential and random as they sometimes seem, is an opportunity to hold them in prayer and to connect yourself to God and His transcendance…

  • Beth McCracken-Harness

    What a sad end, Caroline. Mental illness can destroy people–as we have recently seen in mass killings. We need a better way to treat mental illness in this country. Insurance needs to cover psychologist/psychiatrist visits just like it would doctor’s visits. I have been playing cards with homeless guys at the Refuge, a ministry of NW Community Church of God. There is some mental illness among people who attend. There are also a lot of stories of poverty and unemployment. Here is the link to the program.

  • Caroline

    Beth- I would like to check this program out. You are certainly right. And maybe you would like to write a blog post about your experiences sometime…