I am a hopeless romantic - it's one of the reasons I love what I do! I am a sucker for Turner Classic Movies; I listen to the musical "standards" like Sinatra, Martin, Bennett and Buble; and I believe in love and in soulmates. I've heard some people say that soulmates don't exist - and, they're entitled to their opinions - but, speaking for myself alone, I believe they do, and knew the moment I met my husband, Jimmy, that God had been working in our lives to bring us together. He is an especially loving and caring person. He makes everyday feel like Valentine's day - even if it's just a warm smile or loving words of appreciation.
Jimmy and I started our relationship with three children each. From the moment we began dating, our days have been packed with the activity and energy of our six children. There has been little time to ourselves as a couple. We never had the alone time most couples have when first dating. We accepted this as part of the deal when we decided to begin a relationship, understanding that we wouldn't have the luxury of a typical courtship the way new couples without kids might have. We'd get creative, often making a "date" out of running to the store at night together to grab a gallon of milk, and would sometimes steal away to share dessert and coffee at the restaurant around the corner.
But, after nearly five years together, it was time to do something beyond the usual. We decided to arrange a trip to France for the spring of 2014. It was in conjunction with an educational tour I was coordinating through the school I was affiliated with at the time, and it was the perfect opportunity for us to plan a vacation together. The trip would involve nine days in France: traveling to Paris, the Loire Valley, and the coast of Normandy.
I could hardly contain my excitement - we'd have a full week together without the responsibilities of "life", in one of the most romantic places on earth. We even recruited our close family friends, Kathy and Bob, whom I've known since childhood, to join us.
But, with about five months until departure, Jimmy discovered that his youngest son's confirmation and First Communion were scheduled for the same time we would be in France. Since our trip was all-inclusive and pre-arranged by the travel company, we had no flexibility to adjust his flight or itinerary. Sadly, Jimmy decided he would have to forfeit his spot and stay home.
In addition to the anticipation of making new memories together, I had been looking forward to showing Jimmy some of my favorite places, having traveled to France as a teenager, and after studying the language and culture through college. However, this trip together just wasn't meant to be, and, I had learned by this point that it's best to let life take its natural course and find peace with circumstances that can't be changed.
Focusing on the silver lining, we were able to transfer Jimmy's nonrefundable ticket to my eldest son, Jake. It became his 17th birthday gift since the trip was scheduled for a few weeks after his birthday. And, France was on Jake's bucket list, so it was wonderful that he'd get to cross that one off the list already!
Jake is a very easy-going, adventurous and fun kid; I knew it was going to be wonderful to have him come along. But, I'd be lying if I didn't admit I was disappointed that Jimmy wouldn't be joining us - especially since we had also convinced Kathy and Bob to come along as sort of a "couples" trip. But, just like Audrey Hepburn said in her 1954 role in the movie Sabrina, "Paris is always a good idea." So, how could anyone lucky enough to go possibly complain?!
The next few months passed quickly. The night before we left, I finished packing and tried my best to not sulk about leaving Jimmy behind. After all, there were a lot of exciting things to look forward to in the coming week. And, we both knew he was doing the right thing by staying home in order to support one of the kids' important milestones. It would undoubtedly be a wonderful trip with Jake, Kathy and Bob. Keeping things in perspective, what might have been an "excellent" trip with Jimmy was still bound to be every bit of "great."
We left for the airport in the wee hours of the morning. Jimmy was on his way to work at the firehouse for his next shift, so our goodbyes were sweet but brief. Once he got to the firehouse, Jimmy called to wish us a safe trip and to tell me once more that he loved me before we'd be out of phone contact for the next nine days. I was really going to miss him - things are just better when we're together and it didn't feel good to leave him behind.
At the airport, while waiting at our gate, Kathy handed me a small, heavy gift box tied with ribbon and said, "This is for our trip, from Alison. She gave me one, too." I opened it to find a padlock with the words "Carey & Jimmy" written on it. I immediately teared up because I knew exactly what it meant. Alison, Kathy's son's girlfriend, (also a hopeless romantic), had given us this lock to leave on the Pont de l'Archeveche, a bridge in Paris colloquially referred to as "The Love Bridge." A romantic yet controversial tradition, (read more about it here), Jimmy and I were supposed to attach the padlock on the chain-link rail of the bridge and throw the key into the Seine as a symbol of our everlasting love.
Though this was the sweetest gift ever, I couldn't help but feel sad at this reminder of how Jimmy and I were missing out on this opportunity as a couple. Nonetheless, I pulled myself together, and told Kathy that Jimmy would be with me in spirit and that we'd just have to take a ton of pictures so he'd feel like he was there, too.
It was morning when we landed in Paris. We spent the day walking around the city and taking in all the sights. It was surreal to be there again, it was as if no time had passed since my childhood visit. We walked along the Seine, toured inside the Notre Dame Cathedral, and people-watched from a table at a sidewalk cafe. The weather was perfect and so was the company. I was grateful to be back in this beautiful city with some of my favorite people.
After several hours walking around the city, we ended our first day with dinner in a quaint little restaurant (aren't they ALL?!) With my stomach full and jet lag setting in, I was comfortably ready to head back to the hotel for a good night's sleep. While walking out of the restaurant, Kathy and Bob recommended we make our way back to the Notre Dame Cathedral to see it in all its illuminated glory. Kathy suggested it might be the perfect time to leave our padlocks on the bridge since we'd be leaving Paris the next day for the Loire Valley, and wouldn't be returning for a few days.
Despite my feeling tired, I agreed to return to Notre Dame Cathedral because, after all, we were in Paris for such a short time and nothing compares to seeing it at night. Sleep could wait! We checked in with our tour guide and he gave us the green light to make our way back into the city.
At night, Paris becomes a magical place. There are no words to describe what it's like to stand on the Pont de l'Archeveche, overlooking the Seine, listening to the street musicians play and smelling the goodness wafting from the nearby cafes, with the illuminated flying buttresses of the Notre Dame Cathedral towering from above.
As Jake, Kathy, Bob and I approached the bridge, our breath was taken away by the absolute beauty of it all. I began taking pictures of everything; I wanted Jimmy to see what I was seeing, so I could share with him every moment of this favorite place. After reaching the bridge, Jake began videotaping a 360-degree view, and the rest of us were snapping pictures, trying in vain to capture this multidimensional explosion of the senses in a photo.
Each of us stood there in silence and awe. Then, almost as if on cue, a street musician began playing his guitar. He played "Here Comes the Sun", a favorite of our family's. It especially reminded me of Jimmy's son because it's one he always loved to hear us play in the car. I don't know if it was because of my surroundings, or because the song reminded me of my family, but my eyes filled with tears. I can't really say whether they were happy or sad tears - this place can make a person's heart overflow!
As my eyes welled up, the guitarist transitioned from "Here Comes the Sun" to my favorite song of all time: "Blackbird". This song affects me on a normal day - not to mention what it could do in this place at a time when my heart was already full with so much emotion! I tried my best to play it off, and act casual. After all, only Jimmy would really understand and appreciate how incredible this moment really was to me. I'm such an emotional person anyway - I cry at commercials, You Tube videos, poems, and basically anything. Hearing this song made me miss him more. I wished he was there with me to take it all in. Especially the line in the song, "all your life, you were only waiting for this moment to arrive..." If only Jimmy were there, to be with me in this moment.
To distract myself and help me keep it together, I continued taking pictures and, at Kathy's suggestion, stood near the guitarist for a photograph. I wasn't super-thrilled about getting my picture taken, but I couldn't turn down the chance to preserve the moment.
While I posed for the picture, I noticed from the corner of my eye that someone had walked up to the guitarist from the other side. I was slightly annoyed that this person was about to intrude upon my picture at this emotional moment, and one that I was sharing (at least in my mind) with Jimmy. Bob was waiting to snap the picture, I assumed because he, too, was giving the person a chance to clear from the frame. A few seconds after the person approached, I sensed from my peripheral vision that he was bending down - I assumed to drop some coins in the guitarist's case that was in front of him. I was sure that he would leave in just a moment, so I held my frozen smile and waited awkwardly for Bob to take the picture. Did I already mention how much I hate taking pictures? This was turning into a bad idea, I thought.
Try to picture the scene: The guitarist was playing my song, I was standing to his right, waiting to take a picture, Bob was holding the camera, poised to snap my picture, Jake was standing in the background, continuing to video the sights, Kathy stood behind Bob, coaching me on the best pose for the photo, and a strange guy was on the other side of the guitarist, bending down toward the guitar case. While I stood for what felt like 3 minutes with an awkward smile while waiting for the random guy to move, I finally decided to turn and look at him, thinking maybe he needed help with something before he'd leave. I realize that doesn't make much sense as I retell the story, but this is what I was honestly thinking in that moment.
As I turned my head, I noticed the guy wasn't bending down to drop money in the case, he was kneeling down, facing me. Wait - what?! At that moment, my brain couldn't process it all. Taking another look in that split second, I couldn't believe how much the guy looked like Jimmy. Then, I realized it was Jimmy! He was kneeling beside me, holding a ring! Wait - what?! The realization actually caused me to jump back, startled. (You'll see in the pictures below the blurry image of me in motion at the very moment I realized what was happening.) Jimmy was home in Maryland. But no, he's here in Paris, on this bridge! But, if Jimmy is here in Paris, where are the kids? How did he get here? How did he know we would be here, at this moment? What is happening? What about the First Communion? I can't exactly recall what I said or how I reacted. I just remember being so shocked, and so happy, and so confused, and so....overcome with emotion. It was a moment of beautifully poetic contradictions - nothing was making sense, but, at the same time, that very moment made more sense than anything ever had in my life. There I was, in this breathtakingly beautiful place, on a perfect night, with my favorite song playing, and with my soulmate there, by my side, promising me forever.
After gathering my composure and actually hearing Jimmy propose, I said "yes" without hesitation. Curiously, the guitarist pulled out a bottle of champagne and a pair of glasses from his bag. (At that time, I still hadn't realized Jimmy had arranged for the guitarist to be there in the first place, and that the champagne was part of the plan.) Jimmy and I celebrated the moment with champagne and more rounds of laughter, tears and pictures, this time with no random kneeling guy in my peripheral vision!
We left the bridge and found a table at a nearby cafe. There, Kathy, Bob, Jake, Jimmy and I recounted our own versions of how we experienced the moment on the bridge. But first, I had so many questions!! Turns out, Jimmy had begun planning this surprise a few weeks after discovering he wouldn't be able to go on our trip. Since our itinerary conflicted with the First Communion, Jimmy decided to make separate arrangements that would bring him home a day sooner than me so he could still get home in time for his son. He had decided he'd surprise me, with the help of Bob and Kathy, but didn't tell Jake, to spare him from the worry of accidentally spilling the beans.
Jimmy coordinated with his sister, Jenna, to take care of all the kids while he was gone. (She's amazing that way!) And, he scheduled his flight to France for the same day as ours in order to arrive in Paris in time to propose before we left the city the next day. He revamped his schedule so that he could remain with us in France for most of the week. His morning call "from work" the day we left for France, was actually a smokescreen to throw me off the trail if I had become suspicious of anything. He took the time to stop at work on the way to the airport and called from the station phone. He parked his car at the station and had a friend drive him to the airport. Jimmy told me later that he worried we'd run into each other while at the airport. Apparently our flights were only an hour apart, and our departing gates were just a few yards away from each other!
Jimmy had found the guitarist online. They emailed back and forth, making plans to meet at the bridge at the appointed time. Using my trip's itinerary, Jimmy estimated a time that we'd be in the city. It was Kathy's and Bob's mission to make sure we made it to the designated spot at the required time. This detail still impresses me because Jimmy, Kathy and Bob had no way of contacting each other once arriving in Paris earlier that morning. They could each only hope that the plan was still in place as scheduled. It astounds me because the restaurant where we had dinner was arranged by the tour guide and its location wasn't known to us until shortly before dinner was scheduled. It was outside the heart of the city, requiring us to take the subway back into town and walk quite a distance before arriving to the bridge. To think that we made it exactly when we were supposed to, and that the guitarist was able to coordinate with Jimmy on the day of the proposal without a phone amazes me. Kathy and Bob admit that, once at the restaurant, they shared the secret plan with our guide, who helped point them in the right direction to find our way back into the city. And, they said they had been nervous the entire day, worrying whether the plan was still in place, and wondering exactly how they were going to pull it off. I had no clue, and am amazed they hid it so well!
As if the plan itself wasn't already incredibly romantic, I was equally impressed that, without understanding a word of French, and after navigating the airport and finding his way into the city by subway, Jimmy hid in a cafe all day near the Notre Dame Cathedral waiting for us to show up at the time he'd arranged for the guitarist to be there. I can only imagine what his waiter thought about him sitting at the cafe table for almost 12 hours, waiting for us to show up!
Perhaps one of my favorite stories from that night involved Jake. I mentioned earlier that he had been videotaping a panoramic view from the bridge. Later, at the cafe when we were all talking about Jimmy's surprise, Jake shared his video with us. He hadn't realized it at the time, but he managed to capture Jimmy in the video. Since Jake hadn't known to expect him, he wasn't focused on the people walking around. Jake was panning across the bridge just as Jimmy was walking up , so, in the video, Jake captured Jimmy's entire walk onto and across the bridge as he approached the guitarist. However, at the moment where Jimmy reached the guitarist and began to kneel down, Jake continued to pan past Jimmy. You see a brief glimpse of me, standing awkwardly on the other side of the guitarist waiting for the "guy" kneeling down to leave my frame so Bob could snap the picture...and then the video continues with Jake panning past me to finish his 360-degree shot. So, we almost had the proposal on video! But, like most other aspects of our lives, it was perfectly imperfect. Isn't that the way? We wouldn't be able to laugh at how Jake accidentally "almost" filmed the entire thing. And, that kind of thing is typical of what happens in our family. So close, yet not quite on the mark! So many things in our lives don't turn out to be picture-perfect versions of what we originally envision, Yet, the end result is so much richer than we could ever have imagined. That is exactly how the video turned out - not quite the video we would have intentionally coordinated, but it gives us a much funnier story to tell. And, the trip was not the neat little pretty picture I had originally envisioned, yet, everything unfolded in a way that far exceeded my hopes or expectations. I couldn't have dreamed up a more romantic surprise!
We had an incredible week together; it was truly the trip of a lifetime. Below are a few pictures from that night and some favorites from the trip - please overlook the grainy quality of the proposal photos, they are amateur shots taken in very dim light at a very emotionally-intense time. And, while they're not the most flattering pictures, I don't mind; they captured us exactly as we were in that vulnerable, intimate moment. Those are memories I wouldn't trade for posed, magazine-quality pictures!
Jimmy and I will celebrate our second wedding anniversary in August 2016. Like most parents. we work everyday on achieving balance. And, when things get especially busy, we are lucky to have the memories of our time in France. We look forward to creating more memories together as the years unfold.
In the meantime, until our next big adventure, like Humphrey Bogart said to Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca, "We'll Always Have Paris."