“In three words I can sum up everything I know about life; it goes on.”
- Robert Frost
Leaving the station
“Dad! He’s been accepted!”
“That’s great, honey. Uh, who…and accepted to what?”
“Ryan’s been accepted at Madison!”
This was good news. Ryan was Rachel’s good friend in high school, and knowing that she would have support in her next stage in life was comforting for Dad. Rachel was a tough kid…sometimes…about some things. But Dad knew she had great anxiety over leaving home and entering one of the country’s largest universities. No matter how lost she’d feel in the blender of mass education, she’d always have Ryan.
“You don’t know a relief that is. He’s such a good guy, such a good friend. I feel so much better about everything.”
Parents know this. When your kid feels better, you feel better.
A home on a lake is like a kid magnet, so Dad had been introduced to many of his children’s friends over the years, and Ryan was his favorite. He was used to his son’s friends coming over, muttering “Hello, Mr. Marshall”, barely making eye contact, and then immediately disappearing into the basement or down to the lake. Rachel’s friends were different. They spent time with her parents! They would talk to Dad! The first time was a real shocker. Rachel and her friends were in the basement, and Dad was minding his own business, gently rocking himself in the direction of a near state of relaxation after another miserable day at work when this kid walked into the living room.
“Hey, Mr. Pete, what’s happening?”
Mr. Pete? Who is this kid? And why is he calling me Mr. Pete?
Dad would later learn that Ryan had nicknames for everyone. Rachel was “Raquel”, Rodger was “Dodger”, Dan was “Danny-Boy”, Ben was “Benji”, and so on. Affixing and remembering alternate names for everyone he ever met not only suggested a certain degree of creativity and mental acuity, but it also reflected an uncommon desire to put smiles on the faces of all he encountered. It added a personal touch that conveyed messages that varied depending on the recipient of the greeting: “You matter”; “You are somebody”; “I remember you”;” I think I’m your friend”; “I’d like to see you smile.”
Ryan was special. He was the nicest, funniest, friendliest, kid Dad had ever met. One evening when some of Rachel’s friends were over for a barbeque, Dad was proudly engaged in the manly art of flipping burgers on the grill. Dad noticed Ryan had already started eating in earnest.
“Hey, Ryan, do you think you could save some baked beans for the rest of us?”
As Ryan struggled hard not to laugh, his cheeks ballooned up like a chipmunk hoarding away food just after hearing Joseph’s prediction of seven years of famine. Dad moved to the side as he feared a massive explosion of half-chewed-up beans. Then Dad laughed, followed by Rachel and the other kids who were visiting that day. Joyful, uproarious laughter over a kid with a mouthful of beans. That’s how Dad remembers him, mouth shut, cheeks full of beans, and eyes closed tight. It was the funniest thing he had ever seen.
Nothing excites a young person more than embarking on the adventure known as college.
“Ryan, I’m moving into my dorm the Friday before school starts. That way I’ll be able to get everything set up and learn my way around town. You should think about it.”
“Raquel, brilliant and beautiful! Another good idea! I don’t know how I managed to get through life before I met you.”
“Very funny. Seriously, give it some thought. It would give us time to, you know, get organized, acclimated to our new surroundings.”
“I’ll talk to my folks. Benji is having some of the guys up to his parents’ cottage up north that last weekend of the summer, but I guess it might be good to get to Mad-Town a little early. I’ll let you know.”
“Ok, Raquel, my folks are picking up the trailer at nine. We’ll load up my stuff and then be at your house by noon. There’ll be plenty of room for your futon and the mini-fridge, but I don’t know if we’ll have space for your trunk full of makeup.”
“Very funny, Ryan. I just hope you have to leave all your stupid video games behind.”
“No way. I’d skip college before that would happen.”
Up North Track
It was an unusual group of young people. Dad had never seen friends like this, boys and girls hanging together since their freshman year. They knew each, liked each other, and cared about one another. He couldn’t remember Rachel doing anything during those four years that didn’t involve someone in that group. Going their separate ways would be difficult for all of them.
“This will be our last time together for quite a while.”
“It’s going to be a great weekend. Dan and I will ride up with my parents, and Fritz, Will, and Ryan will ride with Stevie.”
“Why does Ryan have to be in my car?”
“Shut up, Steverino.”
“You’ve got that luggage rack on top. Put him up there.”
“Good idea, Fritz.”
One might compare it to getting hit over the head with a shovel. You drop off your kid at their dorm and finally grasp the meaning of the words- “You raise your children.” You raise them, and then they leave. It’s a sad, empty ride back home as you realize your kid won’t be coming home that night, or the next, or the next.
For most kids, the sad part disappears before their parents’ cars are even out of site. Who can blame them? True freedom for the first time in their lives in a community of thousands of young people…half of them the opposite sex. There is no better status in life than that of a college student.
“I like your room, Ryan. It has sort of an Early American-chaos touch to it.”
“I appreciate that, Raquel.”
“What are you going to do if you and your roommate are both here at the same time? I don’t think there will be enough room for both of you in here with all this stuff. I can’t believe you brought all your fishing gear with you. You do know about the school stuff we’re supposed to be doing while we’re here?”
“All work and no play makes Jack…or Ryan…a dull boy.”
“You may be many things, Ryan, but dull will never be one of them.”
Up North Track
Ben’s dad had inherited a rustic cottage on a small lake near the Michigan border. Fishing, swimming, skiing, four-wheeling, and just sitting around talking stupid- it was all so perfect for the boys’ farewell bash.
“Jesus Christ, Ryan, that’s the biggest tackle box I’ve ever seen.”
“Maybe his lunch is in there.”
“Shut up, Benji. I just want to be ready for anything, from bluegill to muskie.”
“Muskie my butt. You never caught a muskie. My Granny catches more fish than you, and she can’t see for shit.”
“Ok, smart guy, fishing challenge. Ten bucks to the guy who catches the biggest fish while we’re here.”
Dad had gone to UW. He hardly recognized the place. It was all in his words, “ too nice”, at least a lot nicer than what he remembered. The commons area in the dorm made his living room look like the scratch-and-dent section at St. Vincent DePaul. State Street had been a hangout for college kids with no money- a taco joint, a small grocery store with a worn wood floor, and a few rundown bars with initials carved into the wood benches and faded, peeling linoleum floors. Today it looked more like an upscale shopping mall.
“Yes, Rachel and Ryan, I think you’ll like it here.”
With that, two couples, quietly absorbed in memories of their kids hitting a ball off a Tee, riding a bike, catching a fish, or being excited that Santa ate their cookies, got in their cars and left.
“Well, Ryan, here we are.”
“Think about that, Raquel. Everywhere you could possibly be is “here”. It’s like my Uncle Freddie would say, everyone has to be someplace, and you can only be in one place at a time. So, it only makes sense that we are “here”.
“Oh, my God. And I’ve got four more years of this? Did I tell you that your parents are paying me to hang out with you so everyone doesn’t think you’re such a loser?”
Ryan clutched his heart and feigned serious injury.
“Oh, stop it. Let’s go check out the Union.”
Up North Track
It looked like something Norman Rockwell came up with, the boys gathered around the fire, a stiff breeze coming off the lake, and a spectacular display of stars against the night sky. No one had ever been in a better setting with more favored company, but the mood was somber. It was hard to enjoy the moment as they knew they would soon be going their separate ways. They all spoke but to no one in particular. That isn’t necessary when everyone’s thoughts are the same.
“I can’t believe high school is over. It seems like so much happened in such a short time.”
“It was all so good. I never really thought about it ending. It’s going to be different not being with you guys every day.”
“Hey, it’s not like we’ll never see each other again. And we’ll be texting and emailing all the time. Who knows, we might even talk on the phone once in a while.”
Ryan’s last comment drew a laugh from the group as they had all been subjected to the frustration expressed by their parents for them having abandoned the spoken word as a means of communication with others.
“Will, how are you going to survive without Morgan? I don’t think you will be able to function without her telling you what to do.”
Boisterous laughter from all, save Will.
“Tell me about it, Ben. You’re the most pussy-whipped guy in the history of pussy-whipping.”
And so it went. Hours of talking stupid as only young boys can do, generously sprinkled with smiles, laughter, and just clowning around. Amidst it all, every so often Ryan took time to study their faces, to appreciate them, to imprint another special memory. He was already missing them.
Rachel and Ryan sat in two of the brightly colored chairs on the patio of the Student Union as the reflection of the bright full moon danced along the crests of the waves on Lake Mendota.
“I think I’m going to come here every night. This place is awesome.”
“How about winters?”
“Especially in the winter. No one will be here. That makes it even better.”
“I didn’t quite realize it, but I’ll be able to go fishing every day. I’m sure I can find a place to fish off the shore, and I’ve heard Mendota is great for ice fishing. I’ll have to get you out there sometime.”
“I don’t think so.”
“You’d love it, Raquel. There is nothing as peaceful as standing out on a frozen lake at night. It is so quiet and serene. Seeing the stars on a clear night, you feel so close to nature…and so close to God. Those are the times I feel the closest to Him. It’s the best time to think about things that matter.”
“If I were out on a frozen lake at night I’m pretty sure the only thing I’d be thinking about would be how freaking cold I was.”
“You don’t know how you’d feel until you try it.”
“Ok, I’ll give it a shot. I’ll go with you some night, but there’s no way I’m doing any of that stupid ice fishing stuff.”
“Ryan, we always kid around about you being such a religious guy, but I want you to know I really respect your faith. You’re a true believer, aren’t you?”
Ryan gazed out at the waves for a moment, and then he stood up.
“Here, I want to show you something.”
Ryan started to pull the right side of his shorts down.
“Ryan! What the hell are you doing?! Don’t be pulling your pants down!”
“I’m not pulling my pants down. I just want to show you my tattoo.”
The tattoo was solidly inside the safe zone, so Raquel took a peek. It read. “Psalm23.”
“Psalm 23. Do you know it?”
“I’m not sure.”
“You know it. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil…”
“Yes, I know it. When did you get it?”
“Just last week.”
“What made you do it?”
“Dunno. I just always liked the message.”
“That passage always sounded good, but I don’t know how a person wouldn’t fear death.”
“You believe, Raquel, that’s how. It’s not that complicated.”
Up North Track
The place was teenage boy heaven…well, minus the teenage girls. A 14’ Alumacraft fishing boat with a 10 HP Merc, a ski boat, a wave runner, a canoe, and two four-wheelers. The boys were up, it would be a good hour before pancakes and sausage, and the wonderful world of northern Wisconsin lake living was at their fingertips. They divvied up the recreational opportunities- Stevie took the waverunner out for a spin; Ben, Fritz, and Will toured the lake in the ski boat, and Dan and Ryan hopped on the four-wheelers.
“Ok, Raquel, first we hit the Bookstore to load up on Badger stuff, and then to the Fieldhouse to put in for football tickets. I can’t wait for my first Big Ten football weekend.”
“Uh…I think we can get books too.”
“Oh yeah, and books. Books are good.”
Up North Track
Just a quarter mile up the county highway from the cottage, the boys turned onto a fire lane that cut its way through the towering pines for a good two miles.
“I love this thing, Danny-Boy! This is awesome!”
“You should check out the dorm leagues, Raquel. I bet you could sign up for a soccer team.”
“I’ll check it out.”
“I saw a signup sheet for touch football in my dorm. That’ll be fun.”
Up North Track
The fire lane was overgrown with weeds and bore the deep tracks of many a Marlboro Man-wanna-be who had off-roaded to meet the challenge of taking their Ford 150’s anywhere at any time. It was a narrow path, so the boys cruised through the woods single file.
“I’ve never seen so many beautiful girls. It sure wasn’t like that back in high school.”
A simple look elicited a response.
“Oops, present company excluded. You’re going to have to start setting me up with some of the girls in your dorm.”
“Girls? Excuse me, who do you think I am, Match-Me-Dot-Rachel? You’ll do fine on your own, Ryan. It pains me to say it, but you really don’t look half bad, and you can be nice…sometimes.”
Up North Track
Fire lanes are always straight, well, almost always. The boys were coming up on a slight bend in the trail.
“Ryan, I had a lot of anxiety about leaving home and going off to college. It really helps to have you here.”
“I’m glad you’re here too, Raquel. We are going to have a great year.”
Up North Track
As Ryan reached the curve in the trail, he glanced back over his shoulder to make sure Dan was still following. The movement caused the wheels to turn just enough to hit a deep rut. The four-wheeler jerked to the left, careened off the trail, and slammed into a tree. Ryan fell from the vehicle and lay unconscious in a small depression next to the fire lane.
Dan saw it all.
Dan was an Eagle Scout and knew CPR. He frantically worked on Ryan, but there was no response. They didn’t have their cell phones on the ride, so the poor kid had to struggle with a decision none of us should ever have to face- does he continue his efforts to save his friend’s life, or does he race back to the cottage for help? Such moments can never be erased. None of it will ever be erased for any of them.
“Rachel, I’ll need your help with the futon.”
“Be right there, Dad, right after I take this call. Ben is calling me from up north.”
It hurts a Dad to see his kid feeling sad. It breaks him to see his daughter fall to her knees, smash her cell phone into the pavement, and then lie down on the sidewalk sobbing uncontrollably.
A memorial service was held that very night at Ryan’s church. More people were standing outside in the light rain than were able to get inside. The outdoor mourners may have gotten a little wet, but they were the only ones to see the double rainbow form above the church, an event that would be talked about at the workplace and in grocery stores for years.
The entire group of these very special kids, Rachel included, got a tattoo on their hip, “Psalm 23”. The same message, “Psalm 23” soon appeared on car bumpers and storefronts throughout this little town.
The times Rachel misses Ryan the most are when she is sitting on an upside-down bucket out on a frozen Lake Mendota, alone at night, ice fishing. That’s when she feels the closest to him.