James FitzGerald looks back on how his first love's early death shaped him and another man
Originally published on Jan. 21, 2019.
In the summer of 1968, James FitzGerald was 17, exploring Europe and falling in love. Sally Wodehouse was a lively 18-year-old who embodied the freedom and optimism that James craved, an antidote to his own uptight upperclass family. But Sally had a boyfriend back in Toronto. His name was George Orr and George was counting the days until she returned and they could get married. Everything changed for James and George when Sally was killed in a freak accident. Both boys were overtaken by grief and guilt.
In the book Dreaming Sally, FitzGerald looks at how Sally's early death shaped the lives of the two men who loved her.
George's prophetic dream
"I didn't think there was a book in this until 1998, 30 years after Sally's death. I had been keeping in touch with George. It was only in that phone call that he told me this uncanny dream that he'd had in 1967. During Christmas, he was staying over at Sally's house and he woke up Boxing Day morning terrified. His dream said that Sally would die in Europe this summer and he was powerless to stop it. Most of us would have dismissed this as just a dream, but he was convinced this was gospel certainty. He told Sally. He told her parents, her friends, anyone who would listen. He begged her not to go on the trip. But Sally, being 18 and independent, said 'No, of course I'm going to go.' What we have to understand here is that George self-admittedly was the insanely jealous type. His intense possessiveness was starting to creep Sally out and it almost broke their bond. When he sees her off at Toronto airport in 1968, he sees her going up the escalator and says to himself with cold granite certainty, 'I'm never going to see you again.'"
James and Sally in Europe
"Here I am on the trip, falling in love with Sally, while she and George are writing love letters back and forth. By the sixth week of the trip, George cannot bear the tension any longer. He knows there's someone else — even though she's not writing about me in her letters. We're doing everything but 'going all the way' — there's a huge triangulated tension here. The romance of Europe in 1968, the Renaissance art and the rock 'n' roll was so heady and powerful for teenagers. He knows she's going to be home in two weeks, but he can't bear the pressure of this dream. We're in Rüdesheim am Rhein on Aug. 12, 1968, and he fires off a telegram. He says, 'I love you. Will you marry me?' Minutes after she got the telegram, I walk into her room thinking, 'Is this the night we go all the way?' And she's sitting on the bed solemnly clutching this telegram and she turns to me and says, 'I've just cabled George back in Toronto and I'm going to marry him.' I instantly burst into tears. Because of my family and school and class training, I was taught to kill every natural feeling in my body. Grieving and true feelings were not allowed and I didn't realize how severely that affected me.
"The next morning we boarded a boat up the Rhine and I was sitting beside Sally, doing my British best to repress every feeling. We got off at Koblenz and I watched as she descended down this spiral staircase in her flower power hippie dress and she was singing in a falsetto voice that pop song See You in September. The opening lyrics are 'There's danger in the summer moon above. Will I see you in September or lose you to a summer love? Bye bye. So long. Farewell.' I was trying to forgive her and I watched as she sprinted toward one of the waiting Volkswagen minibuses and that was the last I saw her because an hour later, she was killed in a freak accident."
James and George face their grief
"When I approached George in Vancouver about the book, I talked to him for three hours and as I was leaving we passed this cardboard box of letters. He took the top one off and said to me very dramatically, 'This is the last letter Sally wrote to me before she was killed. I never opened it. It was so painful. Take it with you.' Then he sent me all of their love letters. The voices are so real, it's remarkable. It's so intimate and here it is being made public in this book. George didn't have to do that, but he adopted this policy of full transparency. Being a journalist, he hated lying politicians. We had to set an example here.
"The book is a box of de-shaming detergent. The issue we were banging up against as men was we were taught implicitly that we were supposed to be ashamed of feelings — of talking openly about relationships or frailty or vulnerability. You're supposed to be heroic and manly and all that nonsense. In principle, we agreed [to be vulnerable], but in reality it was a challenge for both of us."
James FitzGerald's comments have been edited for length and clarity.