I’ve always had this memory association thing with music. I don’t claim to have the best memory in the world, but I can remember certain events / periods in my life based on the music I was listening to at the time. With the Grammys set to begin in a few hours, I want to begin a new series on some of my favorite songs and the memories associated with them.
In the fall of 1996, I was a sophomore at Lipscomb. Sunny and I had been dating a little over a year but we still hadn’t said those three important words: “I” and “love” and “you” (to borrow from the Avett Brothers). Our relationship developed so organically; while I was a freshman at Lipscomb, Sunny was finishing up her Senior year of high school. I credit this is one of the reasons our relationship endured. We didn’t do the silly high school / college relationship thing where you begin dating someone and you start smothering each other instantly. We talked on the phone a lot and we saw each other on the weekends, but we were also able to retain our friendships by refusing to lose our identities in our newfound dating relationship.
After Sunny graduated, she accepted a scholarship to Freed-Hardeman University in Henderson, Tennessee. Freed is a great school, but it became pretty obvious to both of us that our relationship was really going somewhere and we were both bummed that we’d have to continue the long-distance thing. Sunny didn’t have a car at the time, so if we were going to see each other, I’d have to drive my little Honda Accord back and forth between Nashville and Henderson. Of course, I didn’t mind at all. (In those pre-cell phone days, I amassed quite a long distance bill that semester, too, which I also didn’t mind.)
Looking back, I’m sure most people thought we were a little antiquated by not saying “I love you” sooner than we did. But we both took those things seriously and neither of us had any desire to play games with each other by preemptively going there. Besides, ours was more of an old-fashioned courtship anyway. So we were content to see each other when we could & talk on the phone every day. But we both knew something was about to change.
I can’t remember exactly when I knew I loved Sunny. The same thing is true of the other great loves of my life, too. I can’t remember “falling in love” with baseball or God or church…it just sort of happened. Same thing is true of my love for Sunny. I rode with her whole family to Henderson to move her in for her first semester. I remember Sunny fighting back the tears as the moment came for us to say goodbye. The car ride home was like driving home from a funeral. I remember we stopped at Cracker Barrel on the way home. We were seated at a table, Sunny’s grandparents on one end, her parents in the middle, and me down on the end. When Sunny’s grandmother looked down and saw the empty chair across from me, she reflexively said, “Oh, look! That’s where Sunny would be sitting if she were here with us!” Everyone started bawling their eyes out.
A few weekends later, I was back in Henderson. All week long, Sunny kept telling me she had something she wanted to tell me. At first, I was worried. What, did she meet some other guy? I know how upperclassmen are when the freshmen girls show up on campus. But she kept insisting that it was something good, so my fears were put to rest. I showed up and met her in her dorm lobby. I can still remember what she was wearing and the HUGE grin that was on her face when I came in the door. At that moment, she never looked more beautiful to me.
I don’t remember what we did that night or where we went. It never really mattered to us, as long as we were together. I just remember the end of the night when it was time for me to drop her off and drive back to Nashville. We’d been avoiding the “thing she needed to tell me” all night, so I decided to press her on it. She said she wanted to tell me something, but she wanted to know if I had anything I wanted to tell her first. When it came to the moment of vulnerability, she wasn’t going to let me off the hook without going first.
The Beatles’ “Let It Be” was playing on my CD player in that moment. It’s always been one of my favorite songs. Supposedly, McCartney wrote it after a dream about his deceased mother. The line about “Mother Mary” is a reference to his mother’s presence in this dream and her message to her son was the genesis of the song: “It will be all right; just let it be.” I’d always found comfort in this, having lost my own mother just a few years earlier. The thought of communing with her again was balm for my pain.
But looking back, I can trace the ways Sunny’s presence has made up for the loss of my own mother. I’ve told my story many times, but after Mom died, I was a lost and angry young man. I’m not proud to say I gave up on love — the love of God, the love of others — and, consequently, I was withdrawn and emotionally distant. It was just easier that way, less risky. Maybe that’s the reason I didn’t tell Sunny how I felt sooner; I really don’t know. But sitting there in that car, as much as maybe I’d resisted it, I knew that I loved this girl. And it was time to tell her as much.
I went first. Sunny later said she’d never seen me so nervous. But I cleared my throat and told her I loved her. And she smiled that beautiful smile and received my love. And she loved me, too.
And every day since, I’ve been waking up to the sound of her music as she sings that same song, over and over again.
Happy Valentine’s Day, Sunny.