Oatmeal, Weddings, & Other Symbols of Love

Type: Article 

Just as a picture is worth a thousand words, a package of dinosaur egg oatmeal can be worth so much more than it seems. At least, it was for Rachel Carpenter* when she received it in the mail more than four years ago. Perhaps who it’s from matters more than what it is. It came from Jimmy Wiley*, a guy she’d met once during a weeklong church camp in Idaho. He sent it after hearing that she could no longer find her beloved breakfast, a side-effect of moving to North Carolina.

In the coming years, she would receive more packages from him, sent through the mail as evidence of their long-distance relationship, but perhaps none of them held much meaning as the ring he gave her in person.

Now, almost five years later, Carpenter prepares to walk down the aisle, the last stretch for couples. But for those with long-distance experience, the wait breezes by in comparison to the distance already endured. For Carpenter and Wiley, nearly five years of one such relationship makes the walk down the aisle the shortest wait of their relationship.

Beginnings

8:30 a.m. A light mist rolls over the sleeping venue, the pond behind the house as still as the sleeping bride within. As the maid-of-honor opens the door, the creaking does nothing to disturb her motionless form. When Carpenter finally wakes up, she says behind closed eyes, “I want to take a fifteen-minute nap.” As she drifts off again, the peaceful morning sets the tone for the rest of the day, much needed after the journey that the couple took to get here.

They met at a church camp in Idaho, 2,000 miles away from their North Carolina wedding. Amidst extreme sports and soul-searching sermons, Steve Smith*,  now one of the groomsmen, introduced the two. Just as the relationship forged one summer turned into the love of a lifetime, Carpenter and Wiley’s friendships from camp persevered through their own kind of long-distance trial: three of their camp friends stand next to them at the end of the aisle, young teens, now grown up.   

Baby Steps

9:50 a.m. The bridesmaids gather around with bagels and coffee, sitting on the front porch in anticipation. The famous concept of a Bridezilla feels foreign as Carpenter can’t seem to keep a goofy smile off her face. Some of the bridesmaids eye the hovering clouds nervously, but the impending weather doesn’t dampen Carpenter’s excitement. After all, it’s her wedding day. Later on, when the rainfall picks up, she even says, “if rain means good luck on a wedding day, I’ll take it.” When she and Wiley have been waiting this long, a couple of raindrops hardly pose a threat. 

Just as Carpenter looks back on her time at church camp as a magical week, the return to reality put Carpenter and Wiley’s relationship into perspective. No longer lighthearted teens at camp, Carpenter returned to life back in her new home of North Carolina, and Wiley enlisted in the Navy, which brought him to Virginia. Fortunately, the cross country change for both of them gave Wiley a nearby place to visit during the holidays.

It didn’t take long for them to develop another reason for visiting.

As they would find out, though, the geographical distance would challenge their relationship, their long-distance friendship turning into a long-distance romance. Still, the distance would stretch them, from a couple of hours’ distance in Virginia to a couple of time zones in Hawaii, where the Navy took Wiley.  

They knew it wouldn’t be easy. After all, who hears about the wonders of a long-distance relationship? Watching her daughter’s relationship from the beginning, Carpenter’s mother says, “It’s hard to encourage somebody about being in a long-distance [relationship] because of the ache when you can’t be with the person you want to.” Still, Carpenter’s mother remembers that the difficulty didn’t dominate her daughter’s life. “She surprised me,” she says, describing how the distance actually gave them both freedom, to “not be so tied up in each other that they lost their friends.”

The Long Haul

12:30 p.m. Bodies move around setting up chairs, preparing a set for celebration. Indoors, bridesmaids take turns curling hair and putting on make-up. The family begins to arrive, filling the house with conversation as they meet new faces.

While Carpenter’s mother empathized with the difficulty of separation, she says, “I really respected the fact that she [Carpenter] still went out with friends, and that she lived her life, did things she wanted to do, and that she didn’t just sit home and wallow in her pity.”

Kevin Neale*, groomsman and fiancé to the bride’s sister, speaks from experience about a long-distance relationship. He says, “You must be careful and just remember that the other one is not your ‘everything.’ If you input the other one as your ‘everything,’ this can be a danger because you stop to live because you are not with each other.”

And when Carpenter and Wiley did reunite at home in the early stages of their relationship, Carpenter’s mother says, “it was just really cool just to watch them grow in their relationship as he would come home and I could see how much they’ve grown in the in-between times, individually and together.” Recognizing the complexity, Carpenter’s mother believes that this kind of relationship actually benefited the couple.

1:45 p.m.  As the photographer maneuvers around the room, the lens captures both the finishing touches and the glistening tears of everyone in the room. Carpenter’s sisters and mother all lean in to help. The bride is ready, but the wait is not over yet.

Having watched her sister go through years of a long-distance relationship, the bride’s sister Kassie Carpenter* now faces her a long-distance period as she counts down to her own wedding. Now understanding the difficulty her sister faced, she describes both the positive and negative. “I appreciate being in a long-distance relationship,” she says, “because it really established a foundation of communication and friendship. The only thing you can do while apart is talk and get to know each other.” It becomes a drawback when it keeps her and Neale from experiencing “the everyday things.”

While Carpenter and Wiley depended on Skype and FaceTime, they both kept busy. After graduating, Carpenter plunged straight into the rigors of nursing school while Wiley continued his service with the Navy. Their spurts of visitation gave them an excuse to make every moment spent together an epic memory. Perhaps a goofy photoshoot or bowling doesn’t constitute epic, but for a couple who talks only through technology, any time spent together feels right.

Neale also says, “It’s difficult because…affection must be words or gifts that you can send, so you develop more different love than if you normally do if you’re together. You must be creative I think more with long-distance than with every day.”

And creative they became. It didn’t take long before Wiley’s service in the Navy did have them doing some incredible things. Starting with the sending off of Wiley’s ship in New York City, Carpenter would then meet him to Hawaii many times and even venture over to South Korea for a part of Wiley’s travels over there. Along the way, they would attend a wedding, a ball, go skydiving, go horseback riding, but most importantly, do everything together.

2:15 p.m. Make-up and hair done, the bride and bridesmaids venture into the mist for pictures. An occasional call fills the air: 

“Bride coming!”

“Groom coming!”

The wedding party keeps an eye out to keep the bride and groom from seeing each other. While he takes pictures with his groomsmen by the archway in the front, she poses with her bridesmaids in front of the gazebo at the back. 

Years passed, and even with a promise ring, the assurance of one with diamonds was still too far off. Carpenter still had to focus on college; Wiley still had to focus on his contract with the Navy. As time went on, friends got married around them, and though life kept them both busy, they began anticipating the day that would mean an end to time spent apart.

“It’s not for the fainthearted,” Carpenter’s sister says with a laugh, “Long-distance relationships are only going to work, I think if it ends in marriage. It’s not worth the time and effort if it’s not going to result in anything.” Amid their adventures and waiting, she’s confident that “They knew that they were going to marry each other.” Even as they both thrived in their pursuits, one in Hawaii, one in North Carolina, they waited for the time they could live life together.

End in Sight

3:50 p.m. That time has come. From the screened-in porch at the back of the house, the bridal party can watch guests trickle down the aisle to their seats as a preview to their own coming trek. Bridesmaids stuff tissues down their dresses even as sniffling already begins. As they line up along the porch, Carpenter stands alone behind the screen, haloed within her white dress. Excitement mingles with the mist in the air.

Another day, in another state, water blew through the air again while Carpenter wore another dress, this one’s floral pattern reflecting Hawaii’s tropical nature. By this time, Carpenter had lost count of the number of visits she’d made to Hawaii. As the waves crashed around them, they paused every once in a while on the rocky beach to take pictures. The photoshoot was a favor for their photographer friend. Or so Carpenter thought. She remembers feeling suspicious after taking some 20 jumping photos, the amount feeling like overkill. But this time as she landed, Wiley was down on the ground. He didn’t fall. He simply landed on one knee. What he held in his hand was more than a ring; it was a promise, an end to the long-distance that separated them for so long.

4:10 p.m. As guests settle into their seats and bridesmaids line up, the gentle thrumming of a cello plays upon emotions. Already sniffling, each bridesmaid joins a groomsman for the trek down the aisle, walking to the steady beat. From the balcony to the gazebo at the water’s edge, the walk builds up anticipation as guests can just barely make out the bride’s still hidden figure tucked away inside.

After living apart from her sister during her relationship with Wiley, Carpenter’s sister finally got to see the couple interact in the time leading up to and during the wedding. She says, ““To see Caleb in his environment, not just with Lex, but with his family and his friends, to see him as Caleb was encouraging and affirming that they were the right ones for each other, that he’s a good man.”

4:15 p.m.  As the flower girl and ring bearer giggle their way to the end of the aisle, the music fades. All anticipation is laid to rest as a single piano begins, joined by a cello for the rhythmic waves of “A Thousand Years” by The Piano Guys.

As Carpenter begins her long walk from the house, her journey becomes the shortest and final waiting time, just a stretch of grass in between them now. The people standing on either side witness the culmination of the couples’ waiting. Family and friends on both sides, they have encouraged Carpenter and Wiley through their difficulty of separation, and they now cheer Carpenter on as she makes her way to her groom. Knowing the patience, strength, and endurance they built up over five years makes the moment sweeter, tears welling in more than one pair of eyes.

When guests rise, some peek back to get a look at Wiley. He remains turned away until she comes closer, his chin quivering though he has yet to catch a glimpse of his bride. And as she approaches, tears slide down his face. Years after that first meeting at camp, that first package of dino egg oatmeal, they no longer have to focus on bridging the gap between them. From Idaho to Hawaii to South Korea to North Carolina, from one end of the aisle to the other, Carpenter finishes their separation, finally joining Wiley forever.

*Names changed.