Tara and Stephen

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How We Met

Stephen and I met in 2011 at a summer camp we both attended as high school students. The camp attracted students from all over the country, so being friends from different states was normal. Stephen first introduced himself – or should I say, interrupted me from taking pictures – under twinkling lights at what was called, “coffeehouse.” Coffeehouse was a time each evening of camp that was full of sipping coffee, eating too many cookies, and listening to chill music.

Initially, I wasn’t too keen on being friends, let alone good friends with him. I could be cordial but no extra effort would be needed. But when we both were accepted to the same traveling intern team and scheduled to lead several youth camps together, I knew that I would at least have to tolerate him. What followed in the coming months was surprising to us both. On one of the camps we were leading the following year, Stephen and I got into a four-wheeling accident.

It was dark and the headlights only penetrated so far. Before we knew it, a chain stretched across the road in front of us. There wasn’t time to stop or do anything except to brace ourselves. Stephen was clotheslined by the chain – taking the brunt of the injuries. From my perspective, he saved my life. From his? He put my life in danger and had no concern for his black & blue bruising, he was worried about me. In that moment, when you think someone might be dead, you reconsider what’s important. And that night we became friends.

By the end of our traveling internship, I considered him my best friend and cried when we had to say goodbye. As fate would have it, however, the next year and half saw us skyping at least once a month (for 3 hours at a time), meeting up across the states for my birthday & new years eve parties, and even job opportunities put us back in the same places at the same time.

He asked me to be his girlfriend over coffee on New Years Day 2014. We both cried. We both knew that it would be a long-distance relationship. And yet, that’s all we had ever known. Stephen and I were so relieved & ecstatic that we couldn’t eat for a week. For the past two and half years, we’ve been long-distance from Kansas City, MO to Richmond, VA. That’s about 1100 miles. It’s been challenging. But as they say, distance makes the heart grow fonder.

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how they asked – his side

“I paced. Adrenaline caused a tremor to run through my frame as I dried my palms for the 10th time in 10 minutes. I knew her answer, but nerves and excitement rattled my system like a kid walking into junior high on the first day of 7th grade.

I spent more than a month planning and visualizing this moment, but there would be no do-overs. Tara wanted her proposal to be a surprise, which, after spending 2 ½ years with someone, is complicated. To that point, Tara reads me like a book – which is probably why we are getting married. Suffice it to say, I knew pulling off a surprise would have additional challenges. The only favorable aspect in the situation is that we live in completely different cities.

People often become inquisitive when they hear Tara and I are in a “long-distance relationship.” It’s almost as if they doubt it really works. “You’ve been together for how long?” “How did you even meet?” “How often do you actually see each other?” It is not easy – that part is true.

Frequently I found myself obsessing over school or work just to distract my mind from the ache tugging at my heart.

But, through all this time I held on to advice from a friend that had walked the same path before me, “Always remember that distance doesn’t change the person or whether or not she’s worth it.” And, as I continued to retrace my steps, I couldn’t help but reflect on how right this friend had been… and how oblivious Tara was about what was going to happen in just a matter of minutes.

My plan was simple. Ok, actually it was kinda involved.

It all started over a year ago on one of my visits to Richmond during spring break. Tara told me about an “enchanted” island in the James River. I was skeptical about the enchanted part, but its name, Belle Isle, certainly suited her fairytale narrative.

As women often are, she was right.

Disregarding its recent history, the island has become my favorite place in Richmond. Trees and ivy cover the island, its ruins, and winding paths as if Mark Twain had penned it into existence. I knew then that if Tara were “The One,” the proposal would take place here, on Belle Isle.

About a year later, I acquired the ring and began to scheme. Conceptually, the blueprint was a treasure hunt (with a particular treasure at the end). Tara does not geocache nor does she spend much time tromping through a forest (unless she is chasing me – because as those of us who are enlightened know, paths are optional). So then, why a treasure hunt? She wouldn’t see it coming.

Two weeks before my trip to Richmond, I started laying the groundwork. Offhandedly, I mentioned to Tara that Vince, a friend from Atlanta, might come to St. Louis two weeks later. For some, a last minute trip might seem unusual – but not for Vince. A week later, I told Tara that Vince had bought a plane ticket and that we would be busy all weekend.

Vince did purchase a plane ticket last minute that week. But, not for St. Louis.

On Friday, Vince sent me his Snapchat account access and I spent part of the evening uploading St. Louis videos and pictures to his Snapchat story. We also uploaded pictures to Instagram. Whether Tara would see these efforts was unclear. On the other hand, if she did see them, well…

Saturday, I left for Richmond still apprehensive about my plan. But, in one moment, my worry dissipated.

While sitting in the Atlanta airport on my way to Richmond, a familiar face sat down right next to me. Immediately, my senses heightened. I knew him. Frantically, I googled his name for a facial verification and then, as non-awkwardly as possible, assessed the situation. His guitar case had one of those Delta tags resting upside-down and tethered to his handle.

I strained to read the inverted letters. I could only make out seven. B. E. N. R. E. C. T.

Typically, I try to act normal around famous people. At least, that’s always my game plan. But, to put things in perspective, the only way this situation could have possibly ben better is if Ed Sheeran was sitting right next to me – and even then, I don’t know.

So, I made a move. “Excuse me, are you Ben Rector?”

It was then that I knew nothing could possibly go wrong the next day. God was obviously on my side.

And yet, from the moment I woke on Sunday to the moment on stepped on Belle Isle my head was calm but my body shook like a middle-aged woman jacked on 10 cups of Starbucks coffee. (Ok, not that bad, but you get the point).

After what seemed like forever, she was finally there.

Still hidden, I peeked around the wall and saw her facing the opposite direction. She had followed every clue. Light shown through the trees as though God purposefully placed a spotlight directly over her. She was reading my letter.

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Carefully, I stepped around the corner, crept forward, and dropped to a knee.

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And then, she turned….

how they asked – her side

My heart was raw.

The week had been particularly hard. I knew that I had to find peace, to not give into worry. I braced myself for another six months of unknowns, clinging to what I did have: A best friend who loved me. Time just wasn’t on our side…yet.

My friend, Serena picked me up at 2:15pm for an afternoon of coffee & dreaming. We dressed up – which was actually my idea (I guess I made it easy for her). I wore new pants and felt hip with my high ponytail. As we talked about big, lofty life-goals over coffee I tried to suppress a nagging thought, “She’s going to Bolivia. It’s only 6 weeks…but life is changing. For both of us.”

A group text interrupted my thoughts: “Hey. Anna and I (Johnny) are hanging out at Belle Isle. Want to join us?” I ignored it and kept up the conversation. But then. Then Johnny called 3 times in a row. And that equals our well-known mayday code. Read: Hey. Don’t be dumb and come to Belle Isle. But we put up a fight. We invited him to our coffee date. Iced coffee. WHY would you say no to that? As men sometimes do, however, his idea was better and packaged with the guilt trip of, “this is a once in a lifetime opportunity.” It was our group’s motto. How could we refuse?

But, Serena remained skeptical. And this is where Serena deserves a lot of credit. Somehow, Serena got ME to coax HER into going. To an island. In 97 degree heat. Even though I was the one who said no in the first place! To make it less ridiculous, I suggested ice water to go, with lemon, and a straw.

Stephen? I knew where he was. He was in St. Louis with our good friend, Vince, too.
I knew this because I received St. Louis Snapchats from Vince. Vince posted on Instagram (I checked this multiple times throughout the weekend). He snapped me pics of Stephen saying, “hanging out with your boy…” So, yeah, I knew where Stephen was.

Serena and I got a bit lost trying to find Johnny. He just kept sending us pictures of trails saying, “find the bridge.” Serena seemed upset. But something seemed off. Before long, I narrowed my gaze and drilled her: Are you in on something?! She responded with the same sentiment and intensity, “Are YOU in on something? Is this some going away thing for me? Tara. You know I hate surprises! I have to pee. I’m scared.”

Immediately, I was ecstatic. That is exactly what this must be!!! So I, with my ice water in hand, decided to make this fun & Snapchat everything.

The pace quickened with each new clue. Serena and I were separated. Apparently, we were competing against each other. And I was onto this game. I had to beat her.

In the blink of an eye, however, the world around me shifted. My heart choked in my throat. My vision blurred with sudden tears and my mind went a thousand directions. I stopped dead in my tracks and the conversation, that once flowed rapidly just seconds prior, ceased. Vince stepped out of nowhere.

“Hi Tara. Here’s your next clue.”

I started shaking my head and began backing away. I felt Johnny’s hand on my back stopping me.

“No. No. Nooooo. Whhhhhat are you doing here?!
Where is HE?
Is HE here?
No. No. No.”

My water cup was taken out of my hands. There was no more Snap chatting. Time slowed and everything blurred like a dream.

Vince and Johnny turned on their heels leaving me with a final instruction, “Keep walking!” My feet stuck to the ground. My knees shook and I felt my stomach churn. Then Serena’s head poked out from behind a tree. I found my voice and all I could say was, “You lied to me!” She motioned me forward. Our eyes were misting over and my trembling hands gripped hers. She moved me into position and I knew…

Serena gave me all the envelopes that I had collected throughout the afternoon and told not to open…But now was the time. One by one photos spilled out. All from Stephen’s iPhone – Enoing on Belle Isle. Goofing off on the rocks. Standing together under the city lights in Washington DC. Then an unfamiliar one: the view from his seat on a plane.

One last effort to save myself escaped me, “Serena. If this is a joke it’s the meanest thing you’ve ever done!”
She smiled and said, “Tara. Do you trust me? It’s okay…here. Now open this.”

A letter rolled up like a scroll. That’s how he delivers all of his letters. The edges were burned. That’s what he did with his very first letter to me.

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I heard a camera clicking.

“A note to the reader: Face away from the doorway as you read me and do not look up.”
Serena was gone. The birds chirped. It was golden hour.
I heard something, SOMEONE, behind me and I knew.

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It had been four weeks since I last saw him. And then. Then he was there hugging me. Choosing me. For forever…

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“I’m gonna love you, forever I do.
I’m gonna spend all my days with you.
I’ll carry your burdens and be the wind at your back.
I’m gonna spend my forever – forever like that.”
– Ben Rector

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Special Thanks

Tori Watson
 | Photographer
Serena (Bride's best friend), Johnny, Vince, Quin & Kelsey, and Anna
 | Friends/Collaborators