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He was my first love. Grief over his sudden death haunted me for decades

·9 min read

One month can forever change a life. I never believed that before it was my story.

On May 27, 1991, I graduated from a small liberal arts college in Ohio. It started raining, so some people donned garbage bags as last-minute raincoats as they waited to cross the stage. My friend Jason was an anomaly as well. He wore a white shirt and floral tie —but ditched dress pants in favor of … shorts. He flashed a mischievous grin to the crowd as he collected his honors diploma in biochemistry.

Jason and I had been close for years. We had a tight group of friends and he was beloved by all for his charisma, loyalty and for being the best hug-giver. In those final spring months of senior year, we became a couple. We spent much of our free time together, whether it was him coming to my tennis matches or me visiting his lab where he did research mating fruit flies.

Jason, getting his college diploma in ... shorts.  (Courtesy Kavita Varma-White)
Jason, getting his college diploma in ... shorts. (Courtesy Kavita Varma-White)

The night after graduation, we were lying in my bed on the musty second floor of my off-campus house. He presented me with two gifts. One was a frisbee (a soccer player, he also dabbled on the college Ultimate team); the other was a beautifully composed mix cassette tape. (He was also a DJ at our college dance place.)  The tape was labeled “K Songs,” and told the story of our relationship through songs. They ranged from Aztec Camera’s “Do I Love You?” to Aretha Franklin’s “I Say A Little Prayer” to Johnny Clegg and Savuka’s “It’s A Cruel, Crazy, Beautiful World.”

“It’s a cruel, crazy, beautiful world

Every time you wake up I hope it’s under a blue sky

It’s a cruel, crazy, beautiful world

One day when you wake up I will have to say goodbye…”

Part of my graduation present from Jason was a thoughtfully curated mixtape that told the story of our relationship through songs. (I still have it even though I don't have a cassette recorder to play it.)  (Courtesy Kavita Varma-White)
Part of my graduation present from Jason was a thoughtfully curated mixtape that told the story of our relationship through songs. (I still have it even though I don't have a cassette recorder to play it.) (Courtesy Kavita Varma-White)

That night, Jason broke up with me. We were both going to graduate school, but he was off to the East Coast and I would be in Chicago. It was time to move on.

We both wept but agreed that, as sad as it was, “we” were done.

"Would I find love again?"

Back home in Oklahoma, I had three weeks to get ready for my journalism master’s program. Feeling the excruciating sadness of being done with college life and having left so many dear friends, I found solace at the local college library, with its high ceilings, sunlight pouring into etched windows. I’d try to focus on my required reading but spent lots of time worrying about my future. Did I choose the right career? Would I find love again? It was there, at a long wood table, that I opened a letter from Jason. It was postmarked June 3, 1991, from his hometown in Illinois.

In perfect penmanship (he always wrote in tiny all-caps letters) he chronicled his last day at home before leaving for a summer internship. Fun with his brother on the golf course. Bonding with his dad washing cars. Going to a party with friends. He wrote that he missed me fiercely. I wondered: Did he have regrets about splitting?

"I’m scared to be without you"

Another letter arrived, this one postmarked June 11 from Delaware, his home for the summer. I waited to open it at the library table. On the envelope, he had drawn a smiley face and written: “It’s here: the eagerly awaited one!!”

On four pages of lined loose-leaf notebook paper — complete with doodles and words scratched out and parentheticals — he analyzed our relationship, what it meant to him and why it ended. And then: “After leaving, it’s become clearer for me. I love you. They say it takes separation to truly discover what you feel … I’m scared to be without you.”

I dropped my head to the table and burst into happy tears.

My parents were away on a trip, so I did what any desperate romantic would do: I used their credit card to buy a plane ticket to visit Jason.

I arrived at Dulles airport and had butterflies as I searched for him — a 6-foot-tall redhead — in the terminal. I saw a guy reading a newspaper and, all of a sudden, his face — with those gorgeous, smiling blue eyes — peeked around it. We embraced and it was as intense of joy that I’ve ever felt.

That weekend was hot, and not just because it was June. We were insatiable with each other. We drove by Johns Hopkins University, his future school. I made him buy new sheets for his futon and a better pot to make pasta in. We mapped out our short-term future of being “together but apart,” with plans to visit over the next several months. We even discussed where we would spend Thanksgiving together.

I have a blurry memory of saying goodbye at the airport. I remember waving to him. He had that flirty smile on his face.

"I never, ever thought I could want to be with someone so much"

Back at home, I had to shop for professional clothes for grad school. I went to Dillard’s and bought a Liz Claiborne skirt and jacket in a blue checked pattern. I liked it. Something about it looked familiar.

I packed up my Subaru hatchback and drove the 794 miles to Evanston, outside of Chicago, where I moved into an apartment with another journalism student. We had nothing in common. An aspiring broadcaster, she had pictures of Peter Jennings on her wall. I had pictures of my college friends — and Jason — on my wall.

Another letter arrived, dated June 24. It was the first I received at my new address and was a recap of our great weekend together, along with some “go get ‘em” encouragement as I began my new program.

A few days later, I came home to a delivery of a dozen red roses with the card: “Good luck in your first week. Love, Jason.” I immediately wrote back on new stationery I had bought for our long-distance correspondence.

“So many of the things that I experience I want so badly to share with you. I never, ever thought I could want to be with someone so much. What have you done to me?” I addressed the pink envelope and put a stamp on it but never mailed it.

“I have this horrible feeling”

The next day, on Saturday, June 29, I watched Jason’s favorite baseball team, the Cubs, at Wrigley Field. They beat the Cardinals 6-4 and I couldn’t wait to get home that night to call and tell him all about it.

My phone answering machine light was blinking. Considering I had only recently moved, I wondered who would be calling me.

I pressed play and listened to message after message from distraught friends, crying, saying they were "sorry about Jason" and would see me tomorrow. Panic and dread filled me as I considered every possible scenario. I called my home phone number and my Dad answered. My voice breaking, I said the words out loud: “I have this horrible feeling Jason has died.” He paused a bit too long and finally answered, “Yes, that’s what I hear.”

I threw the phone, screamed and banged my head against the door. Then I called my friend Jina, the only person I knew in Chicago. She came immediately. I am forever thankful for her presence as I don’t know what I would have done on my own.

Jason had gone that weekend to visit friends in upstate New York. While on a hike, he climbed up a steep incline and when he got to the top, the rocks broke away. He fell several feet, hitting his head. The closest hospital was 4 hours away. He never regained consciousness.

I spent the whole next day at the airport, receiving friends and my brother, who came to take care of me. The 25 of us drove in a caravan two hours to Jason’s family home. His mother and father were wonderful to us. Neighbors housed and fed us. We cried and laughed a lot, much like we had at graduation the month before.

He was Catholic, so there was a viewing, with hundreds of people waiting in line. It was surreal to see his red hair from afar and as we got closer,  I gasped when I saw him in the casket, dressed in a blue suit. There’s a photo of us from a night in college where we had dressed up for a dinner and he’s wearing that jacket. I was wearing the suit I had bought for school and it matched. Liz Claiborne, in a blue checked pattern.

At the funeral, I found the courage to speak. I read the inscription from “The Little Prince.” It’s what he had written on the back of the mixtape he gave me on graduation night.

“You alone will have the stars as no one else has them. … In one of the stars I shall be living. In one of them I shall be laughing. … You — only you — will have stars that can laugh.”

31 years later …

After Jason’s death, I carried on with the support of friends and family. I finished school and got a job at a newspaper. It was in Delaware, and my first apartment was a few blocks from his last one. Grief made relationships tough. I struggled with commitment and sometimes behaved in ways I’m not proud of. I never went to therapy but probably still should.

For a long time, I allowed myself to think that Jason, my first love, was the guy I would have married. Of course, who knows what may have happened? He easily could have met some brilliant scientist in a grad school lab, flirted with her and moved along. My 53-year-old self — having been through the vicissitudes of life — no longer reconciles with his youthful, boisterous, eternally 21-year-old self.

I was lucky to eventually find love again. I have been married to my husband, Brian, for 24 years and we have raised two amazing children. Our daughter is 22 years old, the same age I was when Jason died. We have a dear relationship with Jason’s family. I’m grateful that Brian has always let Jason’s memory remain a part of my life.

After 24 years of marriage, my husband, Brian, and I have raised two amazing kids.  (Courtesy Kavita Varma-White)
After 24 years of marriage, my husband, Brian, and I have raised two amazing kids. (Courtesy Kavita Varma-White)

I know now that life can all change just like that. And, sadly, I wait for it.

In that final month of Jason and me, I went from the pinnacle of graduation, a euphoric time of feeling invincible and optimistic, to the depths of loss, despair and hopelessness. In 32 days. After such a fall to darkness, it’s an arduous, fight-like-hell climb to see light again.

But I also know — although it took much of my adult life to realize — that I have light all around: in my family, my friends, my work, in sunshine, in laughter, in memories. And that is what I cling to.