Dalton's Final Gift

The Tragedy of golden youth cut off in its prime has inspired great literature from Milton to Tennyson. In his new book, Life Lines, Forrest Church, '70, recalls the death of a sophomore friend, and transmutes the despair of his loss into a mediation on the triumphant nature of love.

November/December 1996

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Better two than one by himself.", Ecclesiastes 4:9

I learned this lesson first from Dalton Denton. Denton was my closest friend at Stanford. During the middle of our sophomore year, he died of pneumonia while on a skiing vacation at Vail, Colo. He had been out on the slopes just the day before. That morning, he felt a little tired and somewhat congested, so he stayed in the cabin while his friends skied. When they returned home later in the afternoon, Dalton was dead.

Dalton was a blithe spirit, serious about life but not at all somber. He was tremendous fun to be with, and we spent almost all our free time together. He introduced me to scotch and Beethoven, two habits he had picked up at Exeter. I suppose that he was the closest thing to a sophisticate I had ever encountered. We were dorm-mates in our freshman year. Together we pursued--he successfully, I not--two striking girls, both actresses, who were themselves best friends. More than once after an all-night conversation, Dalton and I saw in the dawn.

At the beginning of our sophomore year, Dalton, five other friends of ours and I moved into the Theta Xi fraternity house. The previous spring we had rushed as a group. The rules we set up for ourselves were clearly stated from the outset. If any one of us was not acceptable, none of us would accept the fraternity's bid. To ensure the success of this enterprise, we chose the weakest fraternity on campus. I scorned the fraternity system almost as much as other people in the system scorned Theta Xi. The plan that my friends and I concocted was simple. We would move in and quickly take over the house. The price was right, and being located on campus, it would serve as a convenient commune. The seven of us did constitute a majority of the fall pledge class that year at Theta Xi. But taking over was not as simple a matter as I imagined it would be.

One night, after a particularly raucous party, we pledges were awakened from our beds and lined up downstairs in our underwear. I had not even considered the possibility, but we were about to be hazed. The first act of obedience that was required of us was the first of many I refused to perform. It was 3 o'clock in the morning, and I was not about to put a piece of liver down my shorts. As I look back on it, the two most surprising things about the following 24 hours were, first, that no one forced me to do anything, and second, that all of my friends were perfectly happy to go along with whatever games they were told to play.

At the end of what was surely the mildest hell-week in fraternity history, my friends and I were taught the secret handshake and inducted into the brotherhood. Two weeks later, having found an apartment underneath a house nestled in the foothills above Stanford, I left Theta Xi. Dalton was hurt and angry. He accused me of petulance and unwarranted pride. I accused him of succumbing to a foolish, childish set of rules and rites. For almost two months, we did not speak to one another. During this same period, I almost left Stanford. I went home to Idaho for Thanksgiving break. My courses were not going well, and I compounded the problem by staying away for three weeks. My father prevailed upon me to return to school at least to finish the year. I dropped one course and salvaged the three others. Nevertheless, I remained alone, distant from my friends and wholly without bearings.

A week before Dalton died, he surprised me one morning by arriving at my burrow in the woods, and we went on a long drive together. All day long, we drove back and forth along the highway between Stanford and the sea. We talked about friendship, meaning and death.

This meeting of hearts and minds was surely less profound than memory suggests. As often with true friendship, we passed a good part of that time, I am sure, simply enjoying one another's company: exchanging insults with the immunity that love bestows, delighting in word-games and frivolous repartee, talking a private language that only the two of us could fully understand.

Yet, there were serious moments. These were the moments I remember. I told Dalton that I did not expect to live past the age of 25. This was part of a romantic, melodramatic attempt to feel life deeply at a time when I was struggling to feel anything at all. Dalton was sympathetic, but unimpressed. It was enough, he told me, to live and love as best we could.

What a blessing that day was. It resulted in a total reconciliation. And his love that day was not the final gift Dalton gave me. That gift came in self-renewing and ever-increasing installments after he died. It is the gift of memory. I had lost someone I loved. Each time I remember him, our last day together, the twinkle in his eye, I awaken again to how fragile life is, and how precious.

Both before he died and as a consequence of his death, Dalton also taught me how much courage it takes to love. Whenever we give our hearts in love, the burden of our vulnerability grows. We risk being rebuffed or embarrassed or inadequate. Beyond these things, we risk the enormous pain of loss. When those we love die, a part of us dies with them. When those we love are sick, in body or spirit, we too feel the pain.

All of this is worth it. Especially the pain. If we insulate our hearts from suffering, we shall only subdue the very thing that makes life worth living. We cannot protect ourselves from loss. We can only protect ourselves from the death of love. And without love, there is no meaning. Without love, we are left only with the aching hollow of regret, that haunting emptiness where love might have been.

Forrest Church, '70, is the senior minister at the Unitarian Church of All Souls in New York City.

Reprinted from
Life Lines: Holding On (And Letting Go)
by Forrest Church.
©1996 by Forrest Church.
By permission of Beacon Press.

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