I remember waking up after my first night's rest. Everything felt surreal. We couldn't believe we were actually in the same place. Over breakfast I remember saying to Julie, "Six months ago we were sitting in a courtyard in Cape Town, and now we're here. In Tennessee. Together. " To say it was fairytale-like would be an understatement. We had walked a challenging journey together. We had fought many battles, and were finally reunited.
But soon, everything was going to change, again. In just 18 days I'd hop on a plane from Atlanta to good ole Baton Rouge. I couldn't bear the thought of going back to a long distance relationship. "I better make the most of it," I thought to myself. And looking back, I most certainly did.
I started thinking about popping the question before I headed further south. How, God? All the money I had was what I'd raised for my internship (which I couldn't use it to frost my future wife's finger) and a small bit of savings.
No Money. No ring. No Clue.
Then during one of our infamous boys' days, my friend Daniel felt the Lord told him to bless me financially with money for an engagement ring. Once again, He was providing!
I searched and searched and searched some more. I spent so much time looking at rings that my head began to hurt. Some nights, I'd fall asleep seeing glitter. Nothing was right... too busy, too expensive, too thick, too small. Nothing satisfied my eye.
Through my lens, things weren't looking up, but according to Julie, she was ok with me "tying a piece of string around her finger." My pride and my macho-manly attempt at playing the world's game of provision weren't working out so well.
I'd pretty much given up on proposing before I left for Baton Rouge, and resolved to do it in March when Julie planned to come to Louisiana for a visit. I raised my white flag of surrender... or so I thought.
I also needed to ask Dwight "The Sherf" Dickey for his daughter's hand in marriage, and for those of you who know this legend of a guy, it was a conversation I was nervous about having. The second time I ever met him, I asked if I could have a word with him on the front porch. We stepped outside for a breath of fresh air.
The fact that the temperature was close to freezing gave us no real reason to stand outside together, and after small-talking about the falling property market, the conversation went a little like this, "Dwight, I can see that you've instilled amazing qualities of drive and determination into all three of your daughters. Julie and I are very serious about our future and before we make any plans I wanted to talk to you personally."
Then out walks Brandon, my future brother-in-law, bouncing a ball up and down on the porch.
The conversation fell silent, and all three of us stared at each other, awkwardly. But "The Sherf" saved my rear end. "Well, Tony, I've raised all three of my daughters to make good decisions. I know what you're asking, and if Julie makes that decision, I'm fine with it." And just like that, he nodded his head with approval. Looking back, I'm able to laugh hysterically at that conversation, and I'm glad it went the way it did.
Christmas rolled by, and it was such a treat to celebrate the festive season with Julie's family. They'd quickly become a family of my own. Grandad and I would chat over coffee in the mornings. CC took me for historical drives through Knoxville. Suzanne and I drank plenty fine red wine. Brandon and I spoke about fast cars... and drove fast cars. John took me bass fishing... in the arctic. Kellie (aka Dr. Gray) gave me lessons on log cabin design. Leslie (aka Sista Lez) took me for my first ever shopping mall experience in Knoxville. And Dwight and I got up to a bit of mischief when left to our own devices.
New Year's Eve was just as awesome. We had dinner with great friends, Brady (aka Bradles), Jenny, Brandon and Kellie, then went to a Dirty Guv's concert at the Tennessee Theatre. Then there was one last big to-do before I bid Tennessee my farewell. Family Cabin Holiday.
Still no ring in hand and one night left in Knoxville, Julie and I fixed a Mexican feast for the Gray family, who had graciously let me stay with them during my time in Knoxville. Their hospitality will always be remembered and appreciated. While sitting in the lounge after dinner, I leaned over to Caroline (the mother of the family) and asked her if she knew where I could get a particular kind of ring. She told me she dealt with estate jewelry and that she could get me a ring at cost. I couldn't believe my ears! I knew Caroline worked with jewelry on television networks but had no idea she would be the final piece of the engagement puzzle.
The next day, we headed to Gatlinburg for the family weekend. Kellie spent the morning with Caroline (her mother-in-law) and picked out 14 engagement rings that resembled what I was looking for. She brought all 14 rings with her to the cabin, then handed me the box on and told me to open it. I'd been praying that one of the rings would pop out at me and that it would be in my price range.
I opened the long rectangle case. Pop!
Instantly, it grabbed my attention. It was perfect. It was Julie in a ring. Precious, elegant, cultured, very soft, very powerful. It was the most amazing ring I'd ever laid eyes on. The only thing was, I hadn't checked the price.
Quick disclaimer: There was no way, ever, that I could've afforded to buy something like this. Ever in my life, without divine intervention.
I scanned the price sheet, looking for ring #4. I couldn't believe my eyes. It was the exact amount of money I had in my pocket. The exact amount I was allotted to spend. I exchanged my dollars for the ring, and that was that. It was done. "I'm going to get engaged. Tonight," I told myself.
Once I set my mind on something, it's very difficult to sway the absolutist in me.
Julie and I had already planned on spending some time in worship in prayer after dinner. As we sat down to eat with the family, they started asking questions about how our relationship developed. We had the honour of sharing our story with them for two and a half hours, start to finish. All the little intricacies that had to be in place for us to meet. The perfection of God's timing and the several times we felt confirmed by the Lord that this was the real deal. We shared our emotions and the various challenges and victories we walked through as a new couple. Every now and then, I'd run my palm down my leg just to make sure the ring was still in my jeans' pocket.
By the time we finished, it was 10:30 pm and way past our bedtime. But we decided to stick to our initial plan. We headed downstairs to my room and put some worship music on. What a wonderful setting it was.
I felt the need to surrender myself to the Lord and tell Him that He was always going to be my number one. I felt that proposing to Julie was the right thing to do and declared that God was the center of our relationship. Julie was standing, singing with her eyes closed, and I was already on my knees. I felt my stomach land a double back, and I knew it was time.
Already kneeling, I pulled the ring out of my pocket and propped up onto one knee. I stared at Julie in the dimly lit room as she worshipped God with her heart wide open. A beautiful sight. What happened next was even more beautiful. With her eyes still closed and no idea that I was about to propose, she started praying out aloud for me and my trip to Baton Rouge. She prayed that God would go before me and touch the hearts of the people I would come in contact with.
When she finished, she opened her eyes to find this crazy South African positioned in front of her with a diamond ring in hand. With a grin on my face: "Will you be my wife?" She accepted my offer. We hugged. We laughed. And somewhere in the midst of the yeses and the smiles, the realization landed. After all, a fiancé.
To read our full story, please visit our Love Story page.