14 years ago I was in a bad relationship...it was bad for both of us and on nearly every level, it wasn't a relationship at all and love, if it ever existed, had long vainshed. Life is all about choices, and even then it was my choice to stay. I have no regrets about that nor any of the circumstances surrounding that relationship. Everything happens for a reason. Looking back on my life since then, I believe God held me there in His hand and protected me until I was ready to move on to the next stage of my life. That stage started in a way I would've never imagined. Me and Matt have told the story of how we "met" so many times...my kids listened intently not too long ago when I told it over dinner one night. It seems fitting for me to tell it out loud today, the day that marks the anniversary of the day that we said "I do" to each other.
Valentine's Day 2004 -- Atkinson County Girl's basketball team was in a state playoff game in Pearson, GA. The guy I was "dating" at the time was that bad relationship, he had no intentions of any Valentine's plans, and rather than facing the day of "love" alone at home, I invited myself to join my best friend to cheer on her alma mater. Fast forward to the game and we cheered, and then watched the next two teams warm up to play...one was Seminole County High School - I don't recall the other. Sitting in the stands watching the Seminole team warm up, I kept looking at the coach on that side...so familiar...he looked so much like David Ward, a former principal and coach at my high school. We attended a small school - I graduated with about 120 classmates, so we all knew each other pretty well. Coach Ward's wife was my PE teacher in the third grade, their oldest son was my age. They moved away when we were in the 11th grade, and I had not seen them since. I watched him intently, but could not decide for sure if it was him. After all, I thought they moved to Florida, so I sort of dismissed it in my mind. Shortly after the game started, or while waiting on that second game to start, we decided to leave. As I was walking out of the gym that night, I said to my friend "I just really want to know if that is Coach Ward coaching that team. Is there a way to find out?" Her sister walked over and found one of the last programs around and sure enough it had "David Ward" listed as the coach. I was so excited! Their oldest son, Matt was a friend of mine throughout school. I wondered how he was, was he married, did he have kids...what about the other two kids, Allison and Josh...how old were they now? I thought out loud and said "If that's him, I wonder if Mrs. Maurine came too?". I walked over the to the closed double doors and peered through the window to see if I could find her in the stands. I can still picture exactly where she sat that night in the stands, that image of her chatting with friends, having barely changed in the eight years since I had seen her last. I walked in and down the aisle behind her and politely leaned down to say "Maurine Ward...I bet you don't remember who I am."
Slowly she turned with a surprised look on her face and exclaimed, in the Maurine voice I know so well now, "Julie Deen!". I sat down and we chatted for a few minutes, catching up on those lost years...Allison was engaged to be married in a few months, Josh was a senior in high school, and Matt had just taken a job near Asheville, NC as the assistant baseball coach at Mars Hill College. She asked if I was married and of course that was a no...she then asked if was dating anyone...before I could even think I responded, "It's not serious." Truth be told, I was in a long term relationship that died long ago...I don't have the reasons and answers as to why things happen the way they do, but it was a situation that had been difficult to get out of. I didn't answer that question with any intent, the answer just flowed out of my mouth. As a female in her mid-twenties at the time, I think it's easy to get discouraged about "good" men being left in the field, and I think lots of girls "settle" and accept less than they deserve. Staying with someone in hopes that they change doesn't usually end the way we want...I loved his family, but honestly, he wasn't changing any time soon. At that moment, none of that was a thought, but looking back, maybe I was surprised there may be good men still left out there. We talked for a few more moments and exchanged phone numbers with each other, and she gave me Matt's number so we could catch up sometime. I left the gym that night having no idea what the next few months had in store for me. Later the next day, I dialed that number...he picked up and my first words were "I bet you'll never guess who this is..." His response immediately was "Julie Deen...my mom already called me." We spent at least half-hour catching up...I was just accepted into graduate school at Emory in Atlanta, he had started a new job coaching and was recently out of a relationship. We decided we would try to meet in Atlanta sometime during MLB season for a Braves game and left it at that. Over the next week, I did lots of soul searching and decided to walk away from a toxic relationship...it took a lot of courage, but decided that I deserved something better...when I shut that door, it felt like a load of bricks from my shoulders.
A couple of days later, I called Matt back...still no definitive intentions...it went straight to voicemail. For those of you who have never been fortunate enough to get a voicemail from me...don't feel neglected...I. AM. TERRIBLE. at leaving messages. What a dork! But fifteen minutes later, my phone rang...it was Matt leaving a Lacrosse game to return the call. That call lasted a little longer than the first. Emails over the next few days that spilled a few more details of each of our lives were exchanged. It felt like we had known each other forever. We nearly did...from 3rd grade til 11th grade, he was a good friend...I watched him play more baseball games that you could count... I knew his family...it was just so comfortable. It had been 8 years since he moved but it was perfect timing. Three days after that second phone call, he called one morning. I had worked 3-11 shift in the hospital the night before...I woke up the phone ringing and when I answered and said "hello?"...He responded "Good morning sunshine!" There's never been a day we haven't talked since.
About 2 weeks later, I drove up to Due West, SC from Emory to see him coach a game...I saw him for maybe 10 minutes after the game - he gave me a Mars Hill sweatshirt...you'll still see me wearing it:) He was much taller than I remembered...slimmer and very handsome . A hug and goodbye and I was on my drive back home. The emails and phone calls continued and it was obvious this may be more. On March 7, I drove up to Mars Hill... stayed for about 3 days and had the time of my life...he surprised me with a John Mayer concert...we ate at Asheville Pizza and Brewing Co...we watched The Last Samurai. It was a good movie, but the connection between us was even better. I drove home on that last day and cried nearly all the way home...I knew my heart belonged there. It's frightening to be so sure about something so new, but I was...no reservations. I got home late...when I checked my answering machine (ok...that tells my age a bit)...there was a message from him...I still have it recorded on a mini-cassette tape..."Hey it's me...you just left. I miss you already. I had a great time and I can't wait to see you again." The tears I had dried were flowing again. How could it be that this human could change my whole being in the span of a month?
Several visits and less than three months later, I packed everything I owned, I had a NC nursing license and a job and moved to be with him. It was the best and most spontaneous decision I had ever made. We started planning a wedding...I visited a jeweler to design my ring...December 19, 2004 would be the day.
About 5 weeks after we said those "I dos" I had a positive pregnancy test...it wasn't planned, I was in Graduate school, I was a mess. 4 years later we had moved to another state, bought a house, I had finished grad school and we were welcoming the caboose to our family.
There were so many factors that could've been different...my stopping and really wanting to find out if that was his dad...his mom actually being there...the game was about 2 1/2 hours from their home at the time, and she didn't normally travel that far for games, but this one she attended...the circumstances surrounding both of our situations had been different and yet the same.
Our story is my very favorite of any I ever hear...but marriage is hard...REALLY hard, but nothing in life that's worth having is easy, right? My sweet Great-Aunt hand crocheted snowflakes for our wedding to give out to guests...she worked tirelessly on them and every year when I put some on my tree, I am so very thankful for them and what they stand for. Snowflakes are amazing in that they have no beginning, no end...they could go on forever tracing the lines...there are lots of twists and turns in the middle...some of those turns more graceful and beautiful than others, but when you look at the big picture, the snowflake is just one beautiful creation. Marriage is like that...ours has been far from perfect...there have been times that I'm sure walking away entered our minds, there has been yelling and fights and slamming doors, there has been nights of sleeping on the couch and days with minimal talking, but in the end the love we have for each other has won out, and I can remember very little reasons we've had any of those big fights. There were times in my life before Matt that were bad...times that I don't even really remember...I think God helps us not to remember some of the bad things to try and protect us...I'm thankful for that. Our beginning story is sweet, the middle has ups and downs, and that doesn't change just because we are 13 years in...we work at our marriage, some years we work better at it than others.
Today, 13 years later after marrying my soulmate, I am so thankful for our grade-school friendship...that bridge helped nurture a relationship we never knew would come our way. I'm thankful him mom traveled to that ballgame...I'm thankful I recognized his dad, thankful for that friend and her sister, and thankful for God protecting and holding me until all the pieces fell into place.
All love stories are beautiful...but ours is my favorite.