June 12, 2002
The guys in the dorm were giving me an incredibly hard time. It was the third night of Senior Camp, and I still hadn’t approached you to introduce myself. We had fleeting “sort-of” introductions in the past, but at the time, we were interested in other people. Somehow, I didn’t realize who it was standing in front of me. Just moments after nodding a greeting, we didn’t even remember each other’s names.
But now, things were different. We had locked eyes the week before during a church service at Junior Camp. There were plenty of pretty girls in the building, but there was only one that was that pretty. You were singing, and your blonde hair was arranged in these quirky squared sections that screamed quirky, individuality, and perhaps just a hint of danger. In other words, I was smitten. I was also terrified to approach you.
We asked mutual friends questions about each other. I knew I’d see you the next week at Senior Camp, and I started plotting my strategy. Throughout the week, we would again lock eyes. I’d try to muster the courage to walk up to you. I knew that you wanted to meet me, but for some reason, I didn’t see how the situation could end well. I was socially awkward and insecure, and I was paralyzed by the notion that you’d pick up on it.
My friends were relentless. “You’re going to blow your chance! Seriously, what’s stopping you? Somebody else is gonna step in!"
I just nodded and waved my hands, saying, “Settle down. I know what I’m doing. It’s driving her crazy.” I acted like my inaction was a tactic, but I’m pretty sure they picked up on it. They could sense the dread.
Wednesday night, we stood just a few feet apart. I was talking to the person standing right beside you. My mind was racing, trying to figure out how to be charming enough to acquire a date with this girl that went from being “that pretty girl who sings at everything” to “the girl standing in front of me, who for some reason wants to meet me.” I knew I’d mess it up.
In retrospect, I know how insane this was making you. You couldn’t take it. You waited for me to finish a sentence, took a big step forward, reached out your hand and said, “I’m Shari Braneff.”
You were so beautiful. Too beautiful.
Why were you smiling at me? Why on God’s green earth were you paying attention to me, with all these other people around?
I reached out, grabbed your hand, shook it slowly, and replied, “I’m Ryan.”
You gave me that look. I still love that look. You spoke again: "I know."
April 7, 2006
The Woodlands, Texas
I sat in a waiting area in a chapel in The Woodlands. I was writing my vows, thinking about all that had happened in just four short years. The photographer was circling, taking a few candids, and my friends and family were standing around making jokes. I couldn’t pay attention to them; I was remembering and drawn from every little thing that made me love you.
We’d learned so much about each other. You fed off of social situations, and I withdrew from them. You were prone to surprising honesty, and I withheld expressing my feelings for years at a time. You were decisive and slightly impatient, and I took forever with decisions and often procrastinated (actually, I should have written my vows days in advance).
Sometime during the course of our relationship, I realized that we were balancing each other out. The differences between us were enough to drive each other crazy at times, and we often had disagreements, but I believe they were also making us better people.
In some strange way, the ways in which you were different were also so much of what draw me towards you. You filled in the gaps in my life. I loved how expressive you were. I loved how you actually said the things that were on your mind. I loved how you were completely unaffected by the pressure of singing in front of 12,000 people in Toronto. I even loved how you planned...everything.
You were anointed. You loved God. You were called. You cared.
You also made sure I shared that same mindset. The night after our first “real” introduction, we sat alone at one of the picnic tables underneath the pavilion at the campground. You asked me, “So, are you called to be a preacher?”
Having recently turned my life back to God, coming to grips with the realization that yes, I did indeed feel called, I sheepishly told you, "Yeah, I didn't use to think so, but I do as of a few months ago."
You nodded and said, “Good. I’m called the to ministry too, so I didn’t want to waste my time if you didn’t have a calling on your life.” Even then, you were planning (but not on marriage — you claimed then that you wouldn't get married until 30).
I was smiling to myself as I processed all these memories. In a few minutes, someone gathered me and the guys to get ready for the ceremony. To be honest, I still remember so little of the ceremony itself. I remember you walking in. I remember Shannon making me cry. I remember speaking in tongues when the family prayed together (but I probably only remember because of the horror I felt when we watched the DVD later and realized the microphone on my suit had been left on, so I was practically shouting another language into the audio feed).
But honestly, what stands out the most for me from that day was when we pulled away from the chapel in my Honda Element. You finished waving to our friends and family, turned to me, grabbed my hand, and gave that same smile that kills me every time.
Then it hit me: this is my wife.
This beautiful, emotive, talented, hilarious woman is my wife. Every morning, I would wake up and see you there beside me. Every time I would be at a low moment, you’d be there for me. Every day that I’d have to spend away, you would be the one on my mind. Every time I’d lose my temper in traffic, you’d be the one to raise your eyebrows, give me that sidelong glance and say, “Whew...you need to get yourself under control, youth pastor.”
There you were, sitting beside me. Shari Dean. I just smiled.
I’m still smiling.
Bossier City, Louisiana
We sat in the living room of our house. I don’t remember what we were talking about. Our conversations invariably turn towards the same things: my nerdy hobbies, your shabby chic obsession, our two sons, our families, and of course, POBC.
We have routines that seem to be the same every week: work, dinner, church, Raylan’s therapy, walks around our neighborhood, giving the boys baths/medicine/milk, putting them to bed, then spending a few moments together, usually watching something like your current bedtime classic, The Andy Griffith Show.
Our routine is somewhat comforting. We are accustomed to it. The efficiency with which we dispense medicine, change clothes/diapers, prepare milks, and put the boys to bed is kind of amazing, if I’m honest.
We’ve been together for ten years. We know each other. We can read each other’s micro-expressions and figure out exactly what the other is about to say.
When I was young, I was ignorant of the predictability of day-to-day adulthood. I had all these grand notions of all the excitement that would greet us every day, but now they’re little more than distant memories, especially when we're telling Raylan for the 4,000th time, “Stop pushing your brother!"
We've settled into it. We met when we were practically children, but I can barely remember life before we were together. Our marriage hasn’t been perfect. We have fought. We still laugh about the first major fight of our marriage, which took place only within two weeks of returning from our honeymoon.
Just kidding. We still don’t laugh about that fight.
We’ve disagreed about things. We’ve angered one another. We’ve disappointed one another. We’ve been hurt by one another. But we never stopped loving one another.
People don’t always tell you about all the hardships of life, whether it be marriage, parenthood, or ministry. They don’t always prepare you for the difficulties and challenges ahead. A lot of this, we’ve had to figure out for ourselves with time, experience, and a whole lot of effort.
Which brings me to that random day in February. You were on the couch, drinking a cup of coffee. Raylan was on my left knee, and River was on my right. We were playing the “Giddyup horsie” game.
Raylan looked at his little brother and smiled, probably because he loves things done properly and in order. This game can’t be played alone — River had to be on the other leg for it to be done right. Our four-year-old boy loves his routine. We know that's part of the autism, and sometimes part of the challenge.
He’d spent the first three years of his life sick, whether with staph infections, ear infections, Scarlet fever, croup, or one of the other various ailments that seemed to attack our home at the worst times. I watched you develop more and more patience with him, treating his wounds, comforting him during meltdowns, and loving him to the point of obsession. You’re his perfect, passionate advocate.
River squealed, mostly excited that his brother was allowing him to get so close without pushing him away or saying, “YOU-GET-OUT-AH-HERE!” Our second-born pretty quickly established himself the little sanguine of the family. He’s so quick to grin, even at random strangers, demanding their attention with the little cough-growl from the Target buggy.
I remembered you holding him and crying in the hospital just one year earlier, wondering if you could take anything more. The doctor expressed that River had a 50/50 chance of making it after contracting a virus that led to severe pneumonia at 3 months. Somehow, despite the uncertainty, the pain, and several years of unrelenting sickness and stress, you managed to keep on going.
I have to say this: you aren’t just a dedicated mother. Sure, you’re fantastic at it, but I want you to know ten years after taking my hand in marriage, you’ve become more to me than just my wife. You’re my confidante. My advisor. My constructive critic. My supporter. My prayer partner. My personal comedian. My geek-in-training. My cuddle-buddy (I included this just to weird out our students). You're a part of every single aspect of my life.
Sitting there, bouncing the boys on my legs, with my beautiful wife sitting just a few feet away, the realization struck me: this is the happiest moment of my life. This. Right here. My wife and my boys. Our routine. Just another day. Just another game. Just another day with the three blessings that I could never, ever deserve. Joy has sometimes been elusive in my life, but at that moment, I felt it stronger than ever before.
I love you more than ever before, and I thank God all the time that He put us together.
You’re my wife. You’re my best friend. You're the mother of my children. You're the three greatest gifts I've ever received.
I love you.