March 21, 2020

SULLIVAN BAKER | To Hear Remembered Chimes: Love Beyond Cornell

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As the rapids roared below us and the suspension bridge swayed in a Fall Creek February gale, she laughed with me (and at me) the way she’d done countless times before. She reminded me of the legend that says you’ll die if you kiss on the bridge. She made some crack about the smell of the Thai bubble tea on my breath. And she said something about how I shouldn’t hate her for not liking boba.

Though I don’t remember her exact words, I vividly remember mine. “No,” I told her without thinking, “I love you.”

Uh oh, I thought as I braced myself for her response, I just went really far.  Our fledgling relationship, like the virus that would soon challenge it, had overwhelmed us in the course of just a couple short weeks, so my four words were nothing if not premature. As a senior, I’ve spent enough time playing the commitment-free Cornell game, but she’s a sophomore who only recently found her stride on East Hill and did not expect to face down an “I love you” midway through her college career.

She stopped and stared at me. “What? What did you just say? Did you mean that? What did you mean?”

Having expected this reaction, I mumbled a few excuses, grabbed my bubble tea and told her we should just keep walking; I wanted to get off the swaying bridge. And though I tried to act like nothing was wrong, she knew her response had hurt me. She tried to hug me, and she assured me she’d get to where I was one day But she didn’t say, “I love you too.”

So I worried that my risky words would be too much, that they’d make her pull back and slow our relationship’s pace. But nearly four years at this place have taught me that caution is often unwise. What is Cornell without risk? What is life in the ivory tower without bold leaps into the unknown? What is college without the shocking satisfaction that accompanies the triumphs you never thought you’d create for yourself?

In the following days, I pushed past my initial embarrassment and fear, and I continued to tell her I loved her — even though she didn’t say it back. I hoped my leap would end in triumph for us both.  But would she get to where I was?

I thought I would have until May to deepen our bonds above Cayuga’s waters. But little did I know, my relationship with her, and my relationship with the campus that has served as our foundation, would soon be tested by an even more profound uncertainty.

Two weeks later, I would take her to the airport, where she struggled to hold back tears before I left her in a terrifyingly-sterile terminal ruled by faceless, mask-clad agents. The following day, I would depart Cornell for the last time as a student, not knowing when I would see her or my treasured campus again.

But I would soon find some comfort in a message left by Cornellians before us. As I walked the Slope — reeling from her departure but absorbing one final stunning sunset — I glanced at the base of the clock tower to find ten haunting words from an old Cornell song that’s drifted into obscurity:

I wake at night and think I hear remembered chimes.

The song continues,

And mem’ry brings in visions clear Enchanted times.

Beneath green elms with branches bowed,

In springtime suns,

Or touching elbows in a crowd

Of eager ones.

Again, I’m hurrying past the tow’rs

Or with the teams,

Or spending precious idling hours in golden dreams.


O Cornell,

Of the kindly heart,

The friendly hand,

My love burns clear for you in distant land!

O fates that shape the lives of men,

Vouchsafe that I,

Before I die,

May tread “The Hill” again!

The song is a painful read from quarantine. Collegetown’s crowds of “eager ones” have all but fled. We seniors expected two more months of “golden dreams.” We planned to let ourselves down slowly, taking in the final “springtime suns” as we steeled ourselves for the leap to true adulthood. Now that the virus has erased those plans, which we’ve shared with nearly every other class of Cornellians before us, our love must “burn clear in distant land,” even if we’re woefully unprepared for this long distance relationship.

But “The Hill” is a powerful testament to the indelibly transformative nature of the Cornell experience. Our time here will live on as long as we do. We’ll hang on to the treasured memories the song so eloquently captures; we’ll feel this place’s imprint on our character and identity, and, if we’re determined, we’ll “tread ‘The Hill’ again.” In times like these, it’s hard to remember that we can still hang on, that our bond with this place, and to the people who have made it home, will endure.

Just as Cornell will always remain with us, we will always remain with Cornell. Fellow Cornell Daily Sun columnist Michael Johns ’20, with whom I’ve been lucky to share many of the highs and lows of my Ithacan odyssey, noted in a heart-wrenching recent column that “all of life’s acts are simultaneously permanent and irrevocable, echoing through time as small contributions to the history of this great institution.”

With the woman I love, I listen intently to the echoes of Cornell past.

The first night she kissed me, she said we needed to walk the Beebe Lake trail just as Ruth Bader ’54 and Marty Ginsburg ’53 had done in their time. Initially, we put off our walk, thinking we’d find time before my departure from campus in May — which seemed eons away as we pushed through a frigid Ithaca February. But when we learned, just on the edge of spring, that my time at Cornell would end far sooner than we could have ever expected, I knew what we had to do.

That night, we stumbled to the edge of the Slope to what we know as The Bench — bequeathed in 1892 to the future generations that would tread the crest of the hill. Its inscription, anchored in space yet broadcast across time, is known by countless Cornellians who have strived, suffered and triumphed against the arch of heaven:

To those who shall sit here rejoicing,

To those who shall sit here mourning,

Sympathy and greeting;

So have we done in our time.

These words at our backs, we mourned alongside a faceless multitude of Cornellians who, in Michael’s words, still are, and will forever be, finding solace in its sympathy and greeting, and after a few minutes of intergenerational solidarity, we gathered the strength to follow in the footsteps of the Ginsburgs.

At the edge of the lake, where she made us sit facing the bright lights of the midnight campus, we wallowed in each other’s grief. We reaffirmed our commitment to our relationship beyond the quarantine, and we took in the solemn beauty of a campus from which we’d soon be ripped. We never made it all the way around the lake, as the Ginsburgs surely did.

Like Marty, I’ll leave the Cornellian I love behind for law school hundreds of miles away. Like Ruth, she will remain in Ithaca, and so many of the uniquely-Cornell experiences I had hoped to share with her will be packed into hurried weekend visits.

And when I think about what this place has in store for the person I’m leaving behind, I feel a sense of jealousy, since I wish I could have two more years on East Hill. But my jealousy is drowned out by my excitement for her future. For two more years, she’ll be awestruck by the power of the waterfalls that wend their way to placid Cayuga Lake. For two more years, she’ll stop to admire golden sunsets over the bustling town. For two more years, she’ll learn to lead, to endure, and to fail with grace. For two more years, she’ll experience the thrill of Ithaca’s first snowfall. For two more years, she’ll embrace the delirium of neverending Collegetown nights. For two more years, God will find her between Sage Chapel’s sturdy brick walls. For two more years, A.D. White’s majestic library will inspire her to seize — in her trademark style — all that she seeks from this place.

Early this semester, before we’d taken the leap beyond friendship, I decided a relationship with her was the last thing I wanted from Cornell. A mutual friend nearly laughed me off when I told him, remarking that I’d find plenty of women if I attended a law school I’d been admitted to in New York. He didn’t get that I was looking for someone who had also, in the words of the famous poem, “set out for Ithaka.” He didn’t realize I sought someone who shared the experience of life between Fall Creek and Cascadilla. He didn’t understand that I wanted to weave this campus into the fabric of a relationship.

Maybe I’m being overly sentimental, since my feelings for this place might fade with distance. Or maybe I’m being too optimistic in the face of our indefinite separation. But I am thrilled to have had this fragment of a semester to build something exceptional, and I want Cornell to serve as a foundation for our future in the same way it’s been a foundation for so much else in my life. We have quickly learned that when you fall in love here, Ithaca’s majesty magnifies your emotions, which color dreamlike memories you replay over and over.

Late one night, at some point between the moment on the suspension bridge and the haze of our final week, she looked at me and said, “I think I love you.” Since then, she hasn’t hesitated to say the words that once took her by surprise. And as I think about what’s to come,  it comforts me to know the Ginsburgs made it with one foot planted in Ithaca and another in a faraway law library. Though we lack their brilliance, we hope we share their grit and we hope we can sustain the sort of ironclad commitment they forged in Ithaca.

Cornell’s first set of chimes, bequeathed to our institution by wealthy heiress Jenny McGraw Fiske, were inscribed with verses from Canto 106 of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s wistfully mournful poem “In Memoriam,” and when the Victorian poet laureate learned that his words had been “wrought upon” the young university’s bells, he wrote McGraw Fiske a short letter. He said he “thought that possibley [sic] it might not be ungrateful to you to receive these lines from the author in his autograph.” So he transcribed a stanza.

Ring in the valiant man and free,

   The larger heart, the kindlier hand;

   Ring out the darkness of the land,

Ring in the Christ that is to be.

Over our years as alumni–and certainly over the next few trying months — my love and I will wake at night and think we hear remembered chimes, ringing out the darkness and ringing in the Christ that is to be.

John Sullivan Baker is a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at [email protected]Regards to Davy runs every other Wednesday this semester.