‘I just got followed on Instagram by my high school sweetheart.’ I always thought if we were meant to be, we’d come back to each other.’: Widow reconnects with first love, ‘Love found a way to win’

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“It was a beautiful summer evening and my girlfriend Hillary and I were having dinner on the patio at our favorite local pizzeria. It was a perfect night. The kind that made me feel, whole again. After 3 long years of widowhood (and sudden single-parenthood), I was starting to feel somewhat human. Gone were the days loss felt so heavy I could barely breathe. In its place, for the first time in years, I had allowed myself to hope for what my future could be. Sounds silly to some, but when your life implodes all around you after losing a spouse to cancer, it takes a very long time before you begin to see some sort of light at the end of the tunnel. I was enjoying this moment in time, because it had been so incredibly long since I felt hopeful.

My girlfriend went to the restroom while I picked up my phone. It had pinged awhile back, so I wanted to make sure it wasn’t anything serious. Turns out it was just an Instagram notice of a ‘follow.’ I looked to see who it was. My heart stopped. Time stood still. And from this moment forward, everything changed.

You see, it wasn’t just anybody who followed me that beautiful summer evening. It was my high school sweetheart. My first love. The ONE guy who took up residence in my heart and somehow never left.

I met DeAngelo when I was 14 years old. He was 15 and one grade above me, a sophomore. He was the new kid in our small, private school. A transfer, and a much hyped one, considering all his athletic capabilities. The school was a buzz at his arrival, but I felt unaffected. He was a grade above me so I doubted our paths would cross. Except they did. The first day of school. He told me later he saw me and knew in an instant he’d met his future wife. He came up, said hello on the first day of school, and that was that.

We were two little peas in a pod from then on. Nothing could keep us apart. Always just wanting to be together, much to the dismay of every other girl in the school. But for us, it wasn’t just a casual relationship. We had deep feelings from the instant we first met. What was even cooler, we became true best friends. If we hadn’t dated, we still would’ve been this for each other. He was the first person who truly understood me. During our breaks, we would run to each other’s lockers, even for just a quick hello. At lunch we would sit and talk to each other about life. We bonded over many things. I told him I believed he was destined for greater things than just what he could do with a ball. He told me I was one of the first people to see and believe that of him. He believed the same of me. Together, we were a force.

Courtesy of Sarah Rhodes

Our love was deep and lasted the entire time we were in school together and beyond. But after his graduation, I got a little antsy. A big part of me wanted to experience my senior year being something other than ‘DeAngelo’s girlfriend.’ I wanted change and more life experiences. I wanted to leave town and go to college, while he wanted to stay home. But most of all, I wanted him to experience even more life and freedom. If he was going to be with me, I wanted him to choose me above everything else out there, not just because it was the natural high school relationship progression. I always thought if we were meant to be we would come back to each other. In my mind, I somehow just knew it would happen this way.

We went our separate ways for a few years, but never forgot each other. We would check in, send birthday cards, and phone calls (on something called a land line, ha!!) Every time we would talk the same initial spark was there. Instant comfort, love and chemistry, no matter how long it had been since our last conversation.

Each time this happened I would try to gage where he was at in life, and every time, I could tell he was still in his ‘party-boy’ phase. This meant no matter how much I loved him, he wasn’t ready for me. I told him as much and I would hang up the phone wishing it could be different, all while knowing it couldn’t be.

A random check-in with him in my 20’s left me reeling. I found out he had accidentally gotten a girl he’d been dating pregnant. That was the one mistake he could’ve made I knew would be the nail in the coffin for any chance of us. I was furious at him for letting it happen. He told me he loved me and always would. I told him goodbye and to never call me again. It broke my heart, but I knew it had to be done. In the back of my mind I knew he’d probably end up marrying this girl since it was the ‘right the thing to do.’ I also knew it would never last between the two of them.

For all intents and purposes, I thought I would never talk to him again. I packed up and left my home state of Oklahoma, since there was no tie there, and on a whim moved to NYC (a long time dream of mine). While living in New York, I met my future husband Joel. We stayed in NYC for a few years, but eventually the low-cost of living swayed us to return to Oklahoma. This is where everything fell apart.

For years, we struggled with just about everything. Including infertility and eventually Joel’s unexpected cancer diagnosis. We fought with all we had, but sadly Joel lost his 3-year battle with Ewing Sarcoma cancer. Suddenly I was a 32-year-old single mom, having to begin life again completely on my own.

Magnolia Adams Photography

While all this was happening, DeAngelo would keep up with me online through a blog I wrote. He said he just felt this pull to check in and make sure I was ok. To pray for me from afar. The day Joel died he found out from my blog. His heart was breaking for me, not even knowing it would soon intertwine with mine once again.

Which brings me back to the night on the patio. I had heard through the grapevine, not long after Joel’s death, DeAngelo’s divorce was finalized. We went to a small school and have the same friends. Of course this news would make its way to me. When it eventually did, I didn’t really think much of it. I certainly never thought it would mean anything for he and I. Except now here I was sitting at a table with a ‘follow’ request from the very first man who ever held my heart.

My friend came back to the table. She could immediately tell by my face something was off.

‘Everything ok?’ She asked.

‘I just got followed on Instagram from my high school sweetheart,’ I blurted out.

‘Oh, that’s sweet,’ she said.

‘No,’ I said in return. ‘You don’t get it. This is not just any guy – this is THE guy.’

I spent the rest of dinner telling her about our history. Of course we’re now in the 21st century, so the question of the night was clear – would I follow him back? A huge decision to make. Somehow my heart knew, if I did this it would not be casual. Was I ready for it?

I took 24 hours to respond to his request with a follow back. Less than 5 minutes later another ‘ping.’ This time it was in my messages.

‘How are you doing? You and the kids look great; I would love to talk sometime. Here’s my number.’

I immediately felt like I wanted to puke. I pushed him away. Told him I was great. Life was wonderful. I wasn’t interested in talking, or getting together. I was fine how I was.

He knew better. In my heart, so did I. In just those few moments it felt, yet again, like our connection hadn’t changed at all, even though it had been 12 years. How could this be?

He told me how he felt about me that very first day. How he’d felt all along. And he begged me for another chance. This time would be different because we were both different. He knew I’d been through hell and back. He would guard and protect my heart with all he had. He was ready this time – was I?

I thought about all the reasons why I wasn’t interested. He had an ex I knew would most likely try to make my life difficult. Together we had 5 kids (3 for him, 2 for me) we had to somehow blend together as one family. One of my children had special needs and requires extra care. He would have to step in and be full-time dad and husband to 3 people who’ve been through the ringer. It was daunting. Too much, I told him over and over again.

I’d always told anyone who would listen I’d never do any of the above. Heck, I said I’d never be with anyone again because guys my age had too much baggage I wanted NO part of. I also had fear and trauma from losing a spouse. So much of it. My heart was afraid to love and lose again, but somehow here we were. This time, even though it felt terrifying, it felt right.

I made him simply talk to me on the phone for 6 weeks straight. No meeting until I felt ready for it. One night out of the blue, around 3:00 p.m. I called him and said, ‘Dinner tonight? I’m ready.’

‘I’ll see you at 8,’ he said without hesitation.

That first date he took me to a tiny, romantic Italian restaurant. Then we walked around the botanical gardens in downtown Oklahoma City. Our first hug, after so many years apart, had me weak in the knees. I hadn’t dated anyone in so long, or even been touched by any man. Now, here he was…

Before our date the one rule I told him was: I wanted to take a kiss off the table for the first date. I just didn’t want the pressure hanging over my head of will we or won’t we. I wanted to vibe in other ways and not worry about the physical.

Yet, as we were walking around those gardens, I felt something change. I looked him in the eye. The only words I could get out were, ‘On the table.’ It took him exactly .5 seconds to lean in for the first kiss. Fireworks. Different because it was now, but also those same familiar lips I’d kissed one hundred times before. From this moment forward, we were never apart.

One year later, we had another kiss in those very same gardens. As we joined, with our kids by our side, to finally become husband and wife.

Magnolia Adams Photography
Magnolia Adams Photography

Yes, the journey of love after widowhood wasn’t easy. The past rearing its head, on both our ends, has been tough at times. Trauma continues to come when I least expect it, and he’s quickly figured out how to be tender when I need it most. But I wouldn’t change a thing. For every time I’ve gotten scared and wanted to push away, he’s ran after me with all he has. Always respectful of my loss, never phased or afraid. Every time I was scared, he would hold me tighter and tell me, ‘It’s going to be ok.’ He was right – it all has been ok.

We’ve now been back together for 4 years, married for 3. We welcomed our first child, a son named Porter, 2 years to the exact day of our wedding ceremony. Our family is happy, whole, and filled with so much love and endless amounts of joy.

Kaylee Nelson Photography
Courtesy of Sarah Rhodes

None of our time apart was wasted. All the bitter was made sweet. We both had 5 incredible children who have become the large, rambunctious family I never knew I needed. My 3 bonus kiddos are one of my life’s greatest gifts. I wouldn’t trade them for anything. Spending our 20’s apart helped us to grow into the best versions of ourselves we could ever be. And it made us ready for each other, this time…forever. For in the very moments it felt as if my life was over, it was truly just beginning. Love found a way to win, just like it always does.”

Kaylee Nelson Photography
Courtesy of Sarah Rhodes

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Sarah Rhodes of Norman, Oklahoma. You can follow her journey on Instagram, Facebook, and her blog. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

Read more from Sarah:

‘I gave birth to this gorgeous, healthy baby a year after her father’s death.’: Widow gets pregnant with late husband’s baby from saved embryos, ‘now, after his death, it seemed possible’

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