Holding on..

We were standing next to each other in the lobby of the church. I was holding on to her, but she was clinging to me. Over and over she kept repeating the same words, “Please don’t go. I love you. I don’t want you to go.” We stayed in this embrace for longer than I had ever stayed in an embrace in my life. I was just a few months shy of sixteen, and nobody had ever hung on to me so tightly. Nobody had ever said they loved me over and over again. Nobody had ever begged me to stay. I had a great family. My parents had certainly made me feel loved since the day I was born. But this was different. I was a teenage boy. And she was a teenage girl. And she loved me. And she didn’t want me to go.

Her name was Sonja Jane Larson and she was beautiful. She was tender, her skin and spirit and words as soft and fragrant as rose petals. She was creative, an artist, a poet, a dreamer. I was nerdy, glasses set upon my nose and clothes that more than likely came from a discount establishment. I was awkward, unsure of myself, lacking confidence in who I was. We weren’t dating. I didn’t have a clue how to date a girl when I was fifteen. We were something better, something way deeper than an adolescent infatuation. Sometimes we’d hold hands as lovers often do, and I can still remember the way she would lean over and kiss my cheek for no particular reason. We were buddies, the best of friends, connected in a way that wasn’t necessarily romantic, but powerful in a way I still can’t quite explain. She just got me. And there are few people in life that really get you, you know?

And we stood there in the church lobby on a muggy south Florida summer night in June of 1987, surrounded by other teenagers, yet lost in our own little world, and she was clinging to me and I was holding on to her. And over and over she cried, “Please don’t go. I love you. I don’t want you to go.”

But I had to go.

My father took a job in another city, in another state, nearly 700 miles away. My family was moving. And I had to go.

We kept in touch throughout the rest of high school, though it was a lot more difficult and much different back then. There was no Facebook, no cell phones, no Skype. We stayed connected through occasional visits, land lines and letters. She wrote me letters that were so full of love and kindness. Everything she did for me was laced with beauty and thoughtfulness.

I made a visit to South Florida the summer after my senior year of high school. Sonja came back into town from college to see me, and we were able to re-connect briefly at church on Sunday morning. As I drove away from church, she was standing on the curb right outside the lobby where we shared that tearful farewell three summers earlier. She was smiling as she waved goodbye. I smiled and waved back.

It was the last time I ever saw her.

Had I known what was coming, I would have slammed on the brakes, put the car in reverse, jumped out, wrapped her in my arms and begged her “Please don’t go. I love you. I don’t want you to go.”  But there was no way I could have known.

Just over three years after that muggy South Florida night when she begged me not to go, and less than a month after I waved goodbye to her while she was standing on the curb, Sonja Jane Larson went to heaven.

The days and weeks and months that followed were blurry and barren, filled with alternating bouts of the sharpest pain I’ve ever felt and a numbness that I can’t describe. It was an extremely difficult time, for all of us who knew her. It’s still difficult today. The sadness never really goes away.

I’ve come to the place where, in spite of the pain, I can feel immense gratitude. Gratitude for having the opportunity to have known her at all, even for the briefest of earthly moments. And gratitude for all she taught me in such a short period of time.

She taught me that saying how you feel is a really good way to live, even if it costs you emotionally in the short term. Saying the words “I love you” to the people you love is just as important as showing them you love them. There’s power in the words. Power to encourage, to comfort, to infuse the heart with warmth and security and confidence. When we hear the words “I love you” it does something deep inside of us. What we hope for and want most as human beings is true. We are loved. We are worthy of being loved. We matter.

I learned you have to hold on to the ones you care about. Figuratively and literally. This life is so short, we must cling to the people who mean the most to us or they’ll slip away before we even realize it. Treasure the moments, cherish the people you love. Hold them in your arms, hold them in your mind, hold them in your heart. We’re not guaranteed another second with them. Even if we all live to be 102, life changes, seasons come and go, and so do those we love. You may never have another chance to wrap someone in your arms, but you have the chance right now. Don’t miss it.

I learned the difference one person can make in the life of another. This realization has guided me my whole life and career. One of the reasons I have worked with teenagers this many years is because I know the power of just one loving relationship. Sonja didn’t just bring some feeling of love into my life for a little while and then disappear. She loved me, really loved me, and as a result she not only affected me those few years, she changed my life in very real ways. There are things I say and things I do, still to this day, because of her. Those things have made my relationships, and my life, better than it ever could have been had I not known her. This is the reason I’m so grateful.

There’s a little girl who lives in my house. And she’s beautiful. The most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. And she’s tender and sweet and she says to me the most wonderful and magical and loving things. She’s creative. An artist, a poet, a free-spirit, a dreamer. And she’s changing my life all over again. A lot of times when I’m leaving the house, for a trip, or the evening, or just for work, she wraps her arms around me and she squeezes as tight as she can, and she begs me not to go. “Please don’t go. I love you. I don’t want you to go.”

And her name is Sonja.

And I’m holding on.

About the Author

Mark Paul


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