September 14th, 2013; the day Brian and I met on a blind date in the Lower East Side of New York City. Brace yourself, this is a long one.
About month earlier, I remember sitting in my shared co-working space on the edge of China Town surrounded by mounds of editorial print-outs and sample shoe boxes from Verily's latest print issue. We were in the throes of wrapping up the third print edition, and I had just returned from a trip for a feature photo shoot. As I was sipping my second cup of burnt coffee and squinting at my laptop screen, I felt a buzz from my cell phone. One of my dearest friends in South Bend had texted me, "Hey, this is super random, but would you be up for a blind date?"
I let out a loud guffaw and felt my face turn red. Would I be? Just four months before, my engagement had been called off by my then fiance. It was a turn of events that rocked me to my core and left me in the murkiest emotional and spiritual fog. With a numb head and heart, I threw myself into work and crawled through each day, barely uttering a prayer save for a bitter acknowledgement that Our Lord must have an idea of what He's doing. As an act of will I would murmur, "Jesus, I trust in You,"and just kept moving forward. I was hardly primed to meet my future husband.
"What? Uh, I guess so? When?" I nervously texted back. After deliberating a few minutes, I had decided it would be an opportunity to "practice" being normal around another guy. I wrung my hands anxiously as I waited her answer. He wouldn't be in town for another month, and I wasn't to know his name so we couldn't Facebook stalk one another before meeting. It was to be "old-fashioned-like."
Little did I know that the mastermind behind this blind date was Brian’s sister. Earlier that year, she had seen me at a conference at Notre Dame and said,
“My brother is going to marry that girl.”
But, at the time I had an engagement ring on my finger. Miraculously, she still stowed me away as a possibility. A few months later, she brought my friend a postpartum meal and their “small talk” at the door turned into finding a wife for Brian as well as finding out I was newly single. That was it. The blind date was in progress.
A few weeks after I received that life-altering text, I found a hilarious follow-up email from my friend which included a message from Brian’s sister, “since it's the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, I think the reservation should be in the name "Helena" since St. Helena discovered the True Cross. My brother will be there waiting for Janet and he can tell the restaurant host person that he is waiting for Helena. She can give that name when she arrives.”
Ok... I thought. So, I need to say my name is Helena to the hostess? Is his sister forcing him to go on this date? Is this way more intense than I originally planned? Furthermore, what in the world was I going to wear?
I remember it perfectly, and it’s still hanging in my closet; a sheer, long-sleeved, dark floral Old Navy Dress with a dark slip underneath. In my little closet of a room, I quickly got ready and stepped out of my apartment into a strangely brisk evening for September. I hastily began the 10 minute walk to the Lower East Side, but slowed my pace as I approached the restaurant. I tried to take a deep breath. This was it, and I felt like I was in some surreal romcom.
It was an underground spot, so I walked down the narrow, steep steps to a casual yet intimate candlelit restaurant. My mouth was dry as I prepared to say “Helena” to the hostess, but praise the Lord she wasn’t there. My eyes surveyed the small, busy room and landed on a lone fellow wearing a jacket and sitting at a table that was much too small for him. That’s got to be my date.
I feigned confidence, walked right over and said, “Hi, I’m Janet.” He gave me a big smile, shook my hand, and pulled the chair out for me. I’m amazed he continued with the evening after apparently thinking my name was “Jannon” for the following three hours. The place was buzzing with loud guests and my voice doesn’t carry well, so I’m not sure exactly what he heard me say over the course of our dinner.
What I heard though, was that he lived in Pittsburgh (I had to later Google image search just to know what Pittsburgh looked like and where it was on the map) and that he was an engineer. As a past English major at a liberal arts school, I didn’t even know what an engineer was. Maybe he fixed AC units? That’s about as far as my creative brain could stretch. All I can remember is that we started with a beet and goat cheese salad plus a bottle of Syrah, and he wound up explaining to me that the natural gas midstream plants he builds run at 16,000 horsepower - or literally the strength of 16,000 galloping horses, which he had to explain to me because I had no idea what horsepower was.
Dinner came to an end and we capped off the night outside an ice cream shop in the East Village. I remember sitting on the bench next to him, smiling and nodding sleepily as he recounted how just the week before he was stranded in the middle of a lake at midnight because his friend's jet ski gas gauge was broken. He had to swim a half a mile dragging a jet ski behind him in the dark and then hike barefoot for an hour...I was so tired (Verily's third issue had just gone to the printers and I had just come off of a slew of team meetings and Fashion Week) I could barely follow his dramatic rendition and abruptly said, "I'm sorry, I've got to go home."
He looked disappointed, but hopped right up and began escorting me the six blocks home. When we got to my apartment's front door he balked. "What's the matter?" I said,
"Nothing, nothing at all," he replied, still looking incredulously up and down my building. [Brian's follow-up story to this To Be Continued]
"Do you, uh, would you like to go to mass together tomorrow morning?"
"Oh, OK sure," I deliriously responded. This is turning out to be the longest date ever. At the time I thought he was nice enough and he seemed like a normal, good ol' Midwestern kind of guy; a total anomaly in NYC. But, all I could think about was falling asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow.
The next morning, I slept in as long as I could, skipped a shower, threw on a sweater and midi skirt, and met him down on the street. We made our way to the subway and headed uptown to St. Patrick's Cathedral for Mass with Cardinal Dolan. I didn't realize you had to have a reservation to sit in the congregation because seats were so limited. When security guards blocked our entry, I turned to Brian and motioned to, "follow me." We skipped around the ropes and ran as fast as we could up the nave just as altar servers were swinging incense in our direction. I jumped out of the way into the crowd and miraculously there were two empty fold out chairs waiting for us.
Mass was beautiful. I remember thinking, "Wow, this guy is really participating and he's actually singing." The only tricky part for me was that it happened to be the final day of my Total Consecration to Our Lady, and my palms sweated as I geared up to ask Brian if he wouldn't mind waiting a bit after mass while I did this thing. "Poor guy," I thought, "I'm about to subject him to something he's going to think is way too intense and eccentric."
I didn't look him in the eye when I asked if he wouldn't mind waiting while I said the prayers. But, I remember he said, "Of course," and we made our way around to Our Lady's Chapel behind the main alter of the church; one of my favorite places in the whole world.
It wasn't until that moment that I realized how wonderfully strange and providential the timing of these events was.
Three years before I had sat in the same spot, in the same chapel before the Blessed Mother on my very first date with my ex-fiance. We had completed the 33 days of consecration together and placed our relationship in her hands, and we continued to renew the consecration every year since. When the engagement was called off I was thrown into such dark confusion. I was angry. I thought I was supposed to marry this guy, that I was called to this vocation specifically with him, and that I really felt it in prayer. In a sense, I felt tricked by God and was angry that He would lead me through such heartbreak for seemingly no reason.
Yet, despite my hardness of heart and distrust, and as a random act of my will ( but looking back, totally an inspiration of the Spirit) I thought, "You know what? I guess I should pick a different Marian feast day to renew the consecration on this year." So, I chose the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows, September 15th, which seemed fitting for the general mood I was in those days.
And there I was, September 15, 2013, kneeling before the tabernacle and silently reading my final act of consecration next to a different guy who was pretty much still a stranger at this point. And then...I started to sob.
The tears flowed partly out of pure emotion for all that had happened that year leading me to this moment and partly for the strange coincidence of having a pledged my life, heart and soul to Jesus through Mary alongside a different man. I almost laughed as I gazed at my favorite statue of Our Lady because I knew down to my depths that she had arranged all of this.
My life was in Her hands and she has been arranging it ever so quietly and beautifully like a little bouquet to offer to Her Son.
As I marveled at Her work and continued to cry, I had totally forgotten Brian was kneeling next to me. After a few minutes, he grasped my hand and said, "You are the loveliest person I have ever met."
Embarrassed and ever self-deprecating, I brushed him off and said, "I bet you weren't expecting to deal with a crazy crying girl on the first date." He laughed, looked back down and just shook his head, still smiling.
I can't remember how long we knelt there, but afterward we took our time leaving St. Patrick's, pausing before different relics to say a few prayers. We stepped out through the enormous doors into the bright morning light and made our way back downtown to the Lower East Side for brunch. I learned what an "apertif" was and he told stories about his Irish grandma, which left me crying yet again, but in tears of laughter.
Afterwards we moseyed around Nolita and Greenwich Village for hours killing time before his flight. We landed in Washington Square Park and sat on the grass together. "I'm going to call you," he stated. "Ok?" I replied. It annoyed me that he didn't ask if he could call me, he just confidently said he would. We hugged and he left for the airport.
I remember being ruffled by his statement, thinking I needed to be more on guard and stronger as woman so I wouldn't be pulled down the same road again. I couldn't shake what he said all day. But, I would later fall in love with that quality of his.
Brian's open and decisive manner, that didn't leave room for ambiguity, brought so much healing to my heart.
I didn't know then I had just met my future husband. It took some time for me to open my heart, but once I did I was all in. Seven months later we were engaged, five months later we were married, four months later we were pregnant with Gemma... and it's been a wonderful, challenging, totally worth it school of love ever since.