I wasn't looking for love, or even for a relationship, when I met my husband. It was the end of 2007 and I was part of an organization called Soldiers’ Angels. I had been writing letters to soldiers for a few years as a part of the Letter Writing Team. I had spent over a decade on the Internet, as I was in the I.T. industry, so I had friends all over the world, including New York on that fateful day back in September. I wanted to do what I could to help, so I chose the Soldiers' Angels Foundation as my means of contributing.
I had been single and quite content on my own when I wrote to a young specialist in the U.S. Army, as part of my list of names to write to, in June 2007. Later, he told me that it reached him around his birthday, when he was at his lowest moment emotionally, on his first deployment to Iraq. He said that my letter saved his life. He was intrigued; he didn't know anyone from Africa, much less South Africa. So, he was awake and alert and full of curiosity and couldn't wait to get back from his dangerous mission to read it.
He wrote me a sweet email six months later when he finally returned to Hawaii, thanking me for the letter and asking me questions about photography and cameras — I was (still am) a professional photographer, earning my living mostly doing equestrian events and commissions. We continued with our lives, until early 2008. After he'd had a rough time at the end of a relationship, he saw me online and decided to talk to me.
It went well! We had a lovely, easy conversation about lots of things. The next day, we did it again. My time zone was 12 hours ahead of him at that time, so his morning was my evening and vice versa. We spoke for a few days in a row, and then once again, life continued on either side of the world, and we carried on with our daily life. In March 2008, he once again saw me online and we chatted again. It went well, once more, and from that moment on, we talked every single day. I was a busy person and still not looking for a relationship, but we don't choose who sneaks into our hearts.
Months and months went by until the L word appeared in our conversations — online and via Skype. We spoke about everything and found so much in common, but also so much interesting contrast between us. There was also our age difference — 10 years — and our cultural differences from living in different countries and on different continents. It was fascinating, discovering so much about each other. We became the best of friends. I told him things that I'd never told anyone, and he felt he could be himself with me as well.
Then he got the news: He was being sent to Germany to be stationed there. Initially, he thought that he would be working at the hospital, but quite literally as he walked down the stairs from the plane, he was told he was also going to redeploy to Iraq in just a few months time. That was when I knew that I had to go meet him, face to face, before he deployed.
It might be our only chance to ever meet. War is war, and you cannot guess what will happen next. I didn't want to take that chance. I sold everything except my trusty camera and my car and took out a loan from an amazing, long-time friend of mine. It was barely enough, with the exchange rate for my currency, but it got me a ticket to Germany, a Schengen visa and a tiny bit of spending money. My mum was wary, but I was determined, and I knew he needed me — war is not something sane people generally look forward to.
I flew to Germany and we spent two amazing weeks together. We clicked instantly. There was a strong connection between us, and our friendship cemented it all. We had a blast together. When it was time to leave, I was physically ill at the thought of leaving him. He felt it too but tried not to show it. I managed to hold back the sobs until I was alone in the airport terminal, cold and sick and heart-sore. I truly understood the meaning of heartache then.
I went home, he deployed, once again we were out of touch for weeks at a time, and life went on. I got back to work to try and make up for the lost income. When we finally managed to get back in touch, he said that for his mid-tour leave, he was not allowed to come visit me in Africa, as my country was on the watch list. He said that he was going home, as he had no choice. I accepted this, and quite honestly I thought that he would forget me and get on with his life.
I was sad, but I was also ready to let him go. We'd seen how we were together, but if we thought about the real logistics of a long distance relationship like ours, we really didn't stand a chance. It was too expensive, and complicated (visas and paperwork) for me to visit him in Europe or even in the United States. It was too complicated for him to come see me (or so I thought!) in Africa. So, I really thought that this was it. It was over. I thought nothing more of it, as I didn’t hear much more from him after that conversation.
Little did I know that the whole time he had been planning, secretly, with my very good friend to come surprise me in June 2009. One cold, dark evening, while I was house and pet sitting for a friend of mine, he and my friend showed up on my doorstep. My friend, Gavin, strolled in through the darkened garage, patted the dogs and gave me a hug; and from out of the darkness stepped this gorgeous, dark-haired young man. It took me a full minute to understand who it was standing there. My knees went weak, and I nearly collapsed in shock. He grabbed me and we hugged. I clung to him like a limpet. Gavin just laughed and said he'd never seen that kind of shock in his life.
He stayed two weeks, and it was a grand time. We got to know each other even better; and I knew for sure that he was mine, I was his and nothing could stand between us. Then, he went back to Iraq. The distance was difficult, the time away emotionally draining, but we did it. We were so close and had such a strong bond by this time that nothing could stop us. He returned to Germany when his deployment was up, and we had a rough time of it. There were many moments when I thought that it would end, that the distance would be too much for even us.
He suffered from PTSD and was struggling to control his mood and temper. Online chats were not helpful as you cannot understand tone or nuance, and things are said that are taken in the wrong way — by both parties. Thankfully, he got help — a special program in the military for PTSD sufferers. He found answers, release and ways to cope. It was slow, but it happened, and that's when we had a very frank and reasonable conversation about the logistics of our relationship. We weighed up the pros and cons, and discussed options.
In August 2010, he asked me to marry him. He decided that he could not live without me, and he was so tired of being alone over there. He wanted to share the beauty of Europe and life with me. He wanted to have a little home, get some dogs and make a life with me. I readily accepted. I needed him; and I wanted a fresh start; and I loved Europe; and I loved him.
In November 2010, we set a date for December 2010. My friends helped me arrange and sort out a very intimate wedding in the gorgeous little backyard of the place I was living at the time. It was a perfect December day — summery, but not too hot. It was a blur of laughter, feet in ice buckets, a giant roast, lots of food and amazing desserts. It was a good day.
Two days after our wedding, he had to return to Germany. Then came the long, intricate, confusing months of paperwork and red tape and flaming hoops. First, trying to get the right documents from my country, then the incredibly frustrating time fighting with the U.S. military about where I was from, and what was needed for me to join him as his wife. Once that was finally sorted out, we got to work on the U.S. immigration paperwork (not as confusing, but just as intricate).
It took 11 months after our wedding, for me to finally join him in Germany. For our entire first year of marriage, we were apart. For the next four years, he had been back and forth between training missions and deployments. We moved as a couple, but we spent many holidays apart. All in all, he's been gone three years of the five years we've been married.
We're strong though. Some people are not made for long distance relationships — they require a lot of work, effort and thought. Mostly, they require a lot of trust, and people don't have much of that these days. We do. We trust each other implicitly. The work comes, just like in any other relationship, keeping the interest alive — trying not to get into ruts, routines, boring mundane life. We try and make things interesting.
You have to be an independent person though, I think. That's what got me through it. I am not needy, or needing validation all the time, and that's one of the many things he loves about me. As our vows said: We are two people, heading in the same direction, together. We are not one. We grow, we change, we adapt. Perhaps, one day, our paths might diverge, but we don't think that far ahead. We live in the now. That's also another bonus for long distance love: You don't think too far ahead so you won't scare yourself with "what ifs" and "why?"
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