The Love I’ll Never Forget

The Love I’ll Never Forget

From Chicken Soup for the College Soul

The Love I’ll Never Forget

The moment you have in your heart this extraordinary thing called love and feel the depth, the delight, the ecstasy of it, you will discover that the world is transformed.

J. Krishnamurti

My Minnesota hometown is a farming community of eight thousand people, tucked into the northwest corner of the state. Not a lot that is extraordinary passes through. Gretchen was an exception.

Gretchen was an Eickhof, a member of one of the town’s wealthiest families. They lived in a sprawling brick place on the banks of the Red Lake River and spent summers at their vacation home on Union Lake, thirty miles away.

But there was nothing snooty about Gretchen. In sixth grade, she broke both legs skiing and for months had to be carried around by her father. After that, she taught herself to walk again. In high school, she tutored students less able than herself and was among the first to befriend new kids at school. Years later, she told me she had also been the “guardian angel” who left cookies and inspirational notes at my locker before my hockey games. She moved through the various elements of high-school society—farm kids, jocks and geeks—dispensing goodwill to all. Gretchen, the Central High Homecoming Queen of 1975, was clearly going places.

I knew her only well enough to exchange greetings when we passed in the halls. I was a good athlete and, in the parlance of the time, kind of cute. But I was insecure, especially around females. Girls were mysterious creatures, more intimidating than fastballs hurled high and tight, which may explain my bewilderment one midsummer night in 1977 when I bumped into Gretchen at a local hangout. I had just finished my freshman year at the University of North Dakota in nearby Grand Forks. Gretchen, whose horizons were much broader, was home from California after her first year at Stanford.

She greeted me happily. I remember the feel of her hand, rough as leather from hours in the waters of Union Lake, as she pulled me toward the dance floor. She was nearly as tall as I, with perfect almond skin, soft features and almost fluorescent white teeth. Honey-blond hair hung in strands past her shoulders. Her sleeveless white shirt glowed in the strobe lights, setting off arms that were brown and strong from swimming, horseback riding and canoeing.

Though not much of a dancer, Gretchen moved to the music enthusiastically, smiling dreamily. After a few dances we stood and talked, yelling to each other over the music. By the time I walked her to her car, Main Street was deserted. The traffic light blinked yellow. We held hands as we walked. When we arrived at her car, she invited me to kiss her. I was glad to oblige.

But where hometown boys were concerned, Gretchen was as elusive as mercury. As passionately as she returned some of my kisses that summer and the next, for her, I was part of the interlude between childhood and the more serious endeavors to come. I, however, was dizzy for her and had the bad habit of saying so. Each time I did, she pulled away from me. These were college summers, not the time for moony eyes and vows of undying devotion.

One night in 1978 when Gretchen and I were together, out of nowhere she spoke the words that guys in my situation dread above all.

“Tim,” she said, “I think we should just be friends.”

I told her I was tired of her games and was not as much of a fool as she thought. I stormed away. By morning, I had cooled off. I sent her some roses that day, with a note offering an apology and my friendship.

Gretchen and I started dating again about a month later. But this time I had learned my lesson. No more moony eyes. I could be as detached and aloof as the next guy. It worked beautifully, except that after a few weeks Gretchen asked, “What’s wrong with you?”

“What do you mean, what’s wrong?”

“You’re not yourself,” she said. “You haven’t been for a long time.”

“I know,” I said, and let her in on my ruse. For the only time I remember, she became angry. Then she proposed a deal.

“You be who you are,” she said, “and I won’t go anywhere, at least for the rest of the summer.”

It was a bargain I quickly accepted. She was as good as her word.

Those weeks seemed golden, a bit unreal. One time as we said good night, I discarded the final wisp of my caution and told Gretchen that I loved her. She only smiled.

I came back from college to see her off to Stanford in mid-September. While Gretchen packed, I absently shot pool at her father’s table. When she finished, we took a last walk around her family’s horse pasture in the gathering September chill. I thought how dramatically our lives were about to diverge and was saddened. But more than anything, I was thankful for the fine, fun times we had spent over the last two summers.

Gretchen planned to find work in California next summer. For her, the serious part of life beckoned, and I knew what that meant.

“Good-bye,” I said as we stood at her front door.

“Don’t say ‘good-bye,’” she replied. “Say ‘see you later.’”

A month later, the last of the autumn leaves were falling, but the sky was a cloudless blue, the air crisp and invigorating. Classes were done for the day.

The telephone rang the second I stepped into my dorm room. I recognized Gretchen’s friend Julie’s voice on the other end of the line, and my heart soared. Julie was to be married the following month, and maybe Gretchen would be returning home for the wedding after all. But hearing the uncharacteristically quiet scratch of Julie’s voice, I knew before she told me that Gretchen was dead.

The previous morning Gretchen had collected one of her birthday presents from a college friend: a ride in a small plane. Shortly after takeoff, the craft lurched out of control and pitched into a marsh. Gretchen and her friend were killed instantly.

“Gretchen’s parents wondered if you would be a pallbearer,” Julie said.

“I’d be honored,” I heard myself reply. The word sounded strange even as it left my mouth. Honored? Is that what I felt?

I left my dormitory and walked aimlessly. I am told I sought out a campus priest, but eighteen years later I have no memory of that. How does a person grieve? I wondered, unable to cry.

The night after the funeral, I sat with my high-school buddy Joel in his Chevy Vega outside the restaurant where Gretchen’s mourning friends planned to congregate. Seeing him was the beginning of both my pain and my consolation, for as Joel spoke of Gretchen, his voice briefly failed. That tiny catch in my old friend’s voice dissolved whatever stood between my sorrow and me. My torrents of grief were unleashed.

The next morning, Joel and I joined a procession from the Eickhofs’ lakeside summer house into the nearby woods. Gretchen’s sisters took turns carrying a small urn that contained her ashes. It was cool and sunny, and the fallen leaves crackled underfoot.

We came to a lone birch tree, its magnificent white bark standing out among the surrounding maples. Scratched into the trunk were the names of Gretchen, her father and her younger sister, as well as a date many years before.

Someone said a prayer. Gretchen’s father placed the urn in the ground below the birch. Above us, wind rustled through newly barren branches.

I was among the last to leave. I emerged from the woods that day into a different world, where memories of first love linger but summers always end.

Tim Madigan

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