On one of the few days left lingering between my high school graduation and freshman year of college, Death Cab for Cutie released their fifth studio album, Plans, and I’d like to think the album’s drop was timed just for me. When I hear the hit singles that first tickled my eardrums in August of 2005—”Soul Meets Body,” “Crooked Teeth,” “I Will Follow You into the Dark”—framing the album with the nostalgia, wistfulness, and ache that Death Cab conjures up in the hearts of listeners like no other, I’m transported back to that end of summer and taken on a journey into the months and years that followed.
If you graduated from high school just before Plans released like I did, or if you have a single memory associated with their music, my hunch is that you have the same connection. Death Cab’s songs are the kind that burrow deep inside you. At the time, you thought you were just listening, the music washing over you, and then years later you hear “Someday You Will Be Loved” in a coffee shop and look around to find yourself inside a memory you’d thought was long gone.
The songs hadn’t merely washed over you at all; they had taken root inside, been there with you all this time.The nostalgia, wistfulness, and ache that Death Cab conjures up in the hearts of listeners is like no other, and I’m transported back to that end of summer and taken on a journey into the months and years that followed.
There is no richer example of this for me than “Summer Skin,” song number three on Plans, its drumbeat strong, reminiscent of time marching forward, Ben Gibbard’s voice and the lyrics just inches from uncertainty. This combination evokes the tension that memories seem to so often be made of—is this the same feeling I had in that moment? Do I remember this the way it actually happened? Is the accuracy of the memory what’s important, or is the meaning in the story the memory tells?
Squeaky swings and tall grass
I worked at a summer camp for the few months between high school and college. I was 17 years old and delighted to leave behind the familiarity of home where I had grown up as the oldest of three girls, was homeschooled, and came from a small group of friends that was finding its bonds to be fragile beneath the weight of differing futures. At camp, I was the youngest staffer, mentored daily by a host of men and women, and forming friendships rooted in serving together, in hoping for something beyond ourselves.
The waters warm and children swim
That summer rendered me loved yet free, needed yet unencumbered, clothed in the summer skin of 17-year-old strength and uncertainty, hopefulness and naivety. It offered me a blissful version of near-adulthood—manageable responsibilities, space to grow, belonging that did not squelch independence. I got to know myself in ways I never had before, a new environment bearing witness to a fresh understanding of who I was. A childhood precious but no longer mine to claim gave way to a layer of teenage summer skin, dreams plentiful, opinions strong, plans for my life that seemed right and righteous, though they remained untested, untried.
I came home from camp and told my mom that I’d never loved a season of life so much, that I could see myself being single for decades, maybe forever, serving in full-time ministry in the company of deep friendships.
And the day before my 18th birthday, trembling with nerves on a bus full of fellow incoming university freshmen, I met the boy who would become my husband.
I don’t recall a single care
Just greenery and humid air
Though the exact date is vague now, it’s possible that I moved onto the Texas A&M campus the week that Plans released. I remember little from that season clearly. I remember the boy from the bus, his blue eyes and red hair, his smile that would become my totem, my certainty, for good and for bad, in the years to come. I remember making panicked, sobbing phone calls to my mom from the confines of my dorm room as I longed to go back to camp and leave school behind, as my shoulders burned with the shedding of that summer skin I felt was so newly familiar, as they ached beneath the weight of my first months of partial adulthood. I remember hurting people I loved and being hurt by people I loved.
I remember teenage strength giving way to near-adult uncertainty, hopefulness giving way to naivety.
Then Labor Day came and went
And we shed what was left of our summer skin
The sting of shedding my summer skin had eased some by the early months of the new year, less acute, more a constant tenderness. The boy from the bus was orbiting closely, though my naivety still reigned supreme, convincing my heart and mind that he was merely befriending me.
They say that there are days that mark the beginnings of the seasons, consistently pre-circled dates on calendars that guide us all collectively away from the old and into the new. But our recollections of the seasons are rarely correlated to a predetermined month and day. Rather, the first evening by the fireplace signals to us that it is winter, the first dive into the swimming pool that it is summer. We define our seasons by moments, by the sensation in the air, by the shifts in wardrobe, activity, perspective.
I mark the beginning of spring of that year by the memory of the redheaded boy bringing me dinner while I studied. He asked if we could go on a walk, then turned to look me and stared directly into my girlish eyes. His face close to mine, he told me that he wanted this to be more than a friendship.
I was 18, falling harder and faster than I could process, anxiety pulsing within me as time hurried forward like the drum beat’s march. I found notes of calm in the boy whose affections were slowly drawing me into the tiniest sliver of comfort with being inches from uncertainty, of being unsure which keys would play next, and in what order.
The seasons change was a conduit
I returned to camp that first college summer, six weeks into my relationship with the redheaded boy. I learned then that summer skin not only refused to cloak me in its comfort when the fall came, but that each summer’s skin was different. Camp strained my heart and body, fueling a cognitive dissonance that bred guilt and confusion—I loved this last year, why can’t I now? I think I am in love with this boy. Am I losing myself? If so, is he the reason why?
I had left my love for the rigor of camp in the prior year’s summer skin. At 18, I couldn’t yet see that part of the brutal beauty of life is its relentless shedding of comforts from us, over, over, over again, leaving us raw and tender, asking ourselves why we cannot bring our own hearts along the way we want, catch ourselves up to wherever it is we think we should be. I couldn’t see that tenderness and rawness could be a gift to myself and to others. All I wanted was to be with the boy, and all I wanted was to be the summer skinned version of myself from the year before, and all I wanted was to convince my heart to do whatever would help me not feel this way anymore.
Our brand new coats so flushed and pink
And I knew your heart I couldn’t win
Midway through that summer, the boy told me that he was falling in love with me. I whispered the news to a few girls on my arrival back to camp, and they whispered it to a few more, and suddenly the community bathroom was filled with giddiness, a love song serenade, toothbrushes as microphones.
“This is okay?” I thought. “They are celebrating this with me?”
I let the songs they sang soothe my shoulders that were pulsing with the reminder of how different this summer’s skin was than in years past. For a brief moment, I reveled in the rejoicing.
We frolicked about in our summer skin
Summer turned to fall the moment I pulled up to Jared’s parents’ home just a few weeks before the semester began. I stepped out of the car, and he met me in the yard before I could reach the front door, pulling me close to him.
“I love you.”
“I love you. You don’t have to say it back. I just couldn’t wait another minute to tell you. I love you. I love you, and I want to marry you.”
I had turned 19 just days before, yet I knew deep in the core of my being that I was beholding my future in this transfixed and transfixing boy. But ever stubborn, not giving myself the pleasure of being overcome by emotion, I tried to conjure up the old skin that cloaked me in a fraudulent strength and certainty, the skin that told me not to bask in the joy of loving and being loved, of falling into the inches between surety and uncertainty.
Two hours later, I smiled and said, “I love you too. I want to marry you too.”
The longest shadows ever cast
That moment of summer turning to fall would become an anchor for me as the following year threatened to convince me that our love had been left behind. We were young, selfish, overcommitted, wanting from each other what was not ours to have, some things good, some things bad. We longed for each other and loathed each other, turning in toward each other, turning on each other.
We never broke up, but we inched close to it over and over again, arguing over nothing, arguing over everything. The year was marked by the longing to go back, and the stark reality that there was no direction but forward, together or apart.
I would leave the boy’s apartment and drive home in a daze, forcing myself to pray, asking God what had happened to us, why I had fallen out of grace in the boy’s eyes. The Spirit would testify to my heart, no uncertainty about it, this was my husband. I found a veritable strength and certainty, dug my heels in, come what may.
I know now that this was our first encounter of shedding a layer of skin together, of leaving the summer’s path to falling in love for the reality that we were claiming we belonged together, but didn’t know how to do that. I stung him and stung for him, he stung me and stung for me, we stung our naive love and stung for our naive love.
We peeled the freckles from our shoulders
Spring turned to summer in the boy’s living room one afternoon, his face turning to look at mine, everything about his countenance shifting from the misery of the past year.
“I haven’t seen you in so long. I just stopped seeing you. I’m so sorry.”
We did not find perfection, but we found peace, shedding our calloused skin for one that was tender, together.
On the night you left I came over
I spent a month of the summer overseas while the boy worked in our college town. And then summer turned to fall, a skin shed no sooner than it had been gained, when the boy pulled a ring out of his pocket, asked me to be his forever, and I said yes.
I don’t recall a single care
Just greenery and humid air
We vowed our covenant as spring turned to summer, that last night of May, as sacred as a moment has ever been. I was 20 years old, a college student, a wife. Our first duplex held more wedding gifts than any other items the two of us had brought into the marriage; our evenings were filled with board games, with trying to keep our duplex cool in the oppressive Texas heat, with each other.
Not quite two years later, during the boy’s first year of seminary, winter descended late upon us. It was February and snow had fallen on Dallas, a rare surprise. There’s a picture of us standing under a tree, my white coat as bright as the flakes on the ground, in the air. After that picture, I walked to our car and drove a few blocks away to the hospital.
I remember walking through the doors of the exam room, shedding my clothes for a hospital gown. We would find out soon that I had shed yet another layer of that elusive, youthful skin that day, leaving it behind with the crumpled gown. A tumor, malignant, likely aggressive was attacking me.
Winter reigned longer than it ever had. Spring was marked by the sharp contrast of the birds singing outside as I slept and ached and worked and studied, as we shed another layer of young love, of the bliss of perceived invincibility.
We peeled the freckles from our shoulders
I stood in front of the mirror that hung on the hospital wall, my hand rising to meet the bandage that covered the fresh incision made in my throat. My tired eyes found the boy in the mirror’s reflection. His face was like mine, ever shifting from the joy that the surgery was over to the sadness that this was a moment we never would have chosen. Just a week later, during the boy’s spring break, I underwent a second surgery. The same incision was opened up yet again, cancer and an organ removed. I longed for unmarked physical skin; we longed for the unscathed skin of our pre-cancer love.
In the months of treatment and exhaustion that followed, we discovered the brutal and beautiful truth that our young love, the dating and the fighting and the spring turning summer wedding, the shedding tears and the shedding skin, was evolving into a grownup love. The boy from the bus was now the man who saw no needs but mine, who wrapped his arms around me as I leaned against him, the surety of his presence and love steadying my heart and body that were faltering under fatigue. The girl who had ever quivered at the notes of uncertainty our song was playing was slowly becoming a woman who did not fear the yet-sung melody.
The summer skin we had known before cancer emerged was not to be found again, just as the skin I had shed at camp each summer did not return for the next. But as I slowly healed and strengthened, as the relentlessness of the spring gradually gave way to summer, we found ourselves cloaked anew. We had left our young love in our summer skin, but what we had now was a skin wholly ours—thicker yet more tender, scarred yet softer.
The seasons change was a conduit
And we’d left our love in our summer skin