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Do You Remember, Anna?
Dear Anna Faith,
The first time I laid eyes on you, we were in second grade. Mrs. Nance’s class, right? You always remember her name…I never can. That year, we were both shy, awkward seven year olds. I was behind in academics. You were behind in health. While I waded through reading and math, you waded through countless illnesses and doctor’s appointments. Your immune system had been lazy and defected since the day you were born, and your asthma was out of control at no fault of your own. A bad case of mono the previous year had left your partially paralyzed, and I think you occasionally used a walker. I don’t remember being friends that year, but you say you do. Do you remember?
The first time I really remember meeting you was eighth grade, when we were paired up for an essay on “Macbeth”. It took you a while to look up at me…you were still so shy! But once you did, I couldn’t breathe. I’d never seen anything so blue as your eyes, and still haven’t to this day.
That summer, we flirted constantly at marching band camp. I, Ryan Alexander Helton, second trumpet, had a super major crush on you, Anna Faith Campbell, the third flag twirler in the last row. We found common interests that freshman year in music, humor, movies, and family. We were both the youngest of four. We both loved 70s and 80s rock music and little-known punk Christian bands. We both laughed at every single one of my horrible jokes. We hung out as nothing more than friends, for a painfully long year and a half.
I wish you could’ve heard, how loud my heart was beating the first time I asked you to dinner. And I will never forget how you lit up when you said “Yes!” ,as if you’d been dying to ask me too.
Our first date took place on your sixteenth birthday. My brother, Ben, dropped us off at Olive Garden. We teased each other, and ate pasta, and sang songs from the Lion King. We almost got hit by a car, as I drug you by the hand across the street to Silver Dipper for late-night ice cream. Do you remember that, Anna? Do you remember?
Our relationship, I decided then, had layers. Just because we’d added the layer of “Boyfriend/Girlfriend” on top of it, didn’t mean we took away the layers of “Best friends” or “Friends” or “that one kid that plays the trumpet”. I’d think about those layers sometimes, staring at the ceiling when I couldn’t sleep because I’d had too many Monsters. I pictured, that we could peel our relationship apart like an onion. If, God forbid, we ever took off the layer of “Boyfriend/Girlfriend”, we’d still have “Best Friends” and “Friends” and “that one kid that plays the trumpet” underneath. It seems kind of silly, doesn’t it?
I taught you to play guitar that year, and we did duets together. We were still quietly, awkwardly romantic during marching band and pep band games. And I absolutely loved to watch you in church. That was where I saw you come alive. It was amazing to me, to watch this quiet, studious little girl suddenly leap into Christ-directed action and leadership. Whether you were teaching a Sunday School class, leading in a youth service, playing piano or guitar, or simply sitting next to your parents and smiling at the sermons, I know that church was one place you always felt comforted and empowered. Do you remember that?
Six months into our official relationship, after a period of being “left alone” by your crappy immune system, you got a slap in the face in the form of a five day hospital stay. Autoimmune hemolytic anemia. Your own immune system, which was supposed to protect you, took your red blood cells and popped them like balloons. You started on steroids, which caused wicked mood swings, worsening fatigue and horrible headaches.
But, it was during this 8 month battle with your immune system that I really started to see your strength. You’d come near to passing out, and have to have your life saved by your parents or your doctors or the school nurse. And when you could finally stand up again, you’d choose to kneel— thanking God for life.
When you didn’t go into remission by your birthday like you had planned, you cried for a whole weekend, and then you goal set: Remission by Christmas. And you worked your pretty little a** off to make sure that happened—you prayed harder, laughed louder, slept more, exercised more, faithfully took your medicines. And you did it, a blood draw on the 27th showing stable numbers. When you got bronchitis over that miracle Christmas, you joked about your voice sounding as deep as Santa’s. It was the most inspiring, awe-striking thing I’ve ever seen in my life and it still brings tears to my eyes to think about it. Do you remember that winter, Anna?
Do you remember the notes we’d write at school? Long letters about our daily happenings—complaining about teachers, expressing our dreams, making plans with friends, discussing siblings, babysitting jobs, church and homework. We wrote them to each other as something to do in class. Yours were always so neat, in brightly colored pens and your perfect handwriting, and I could always feel your bubbly personality seeping through the lined page as I ignored the lecture to read your words over and over.
While we had a mostly perfect high school relationship, we still fought, of course. You griped at me about all the junk food I ate, and I called you a nag. I cautioned you to slow down, and you called me overprotective. I acted like an asshat and made you cry. You got in a “mood” and made me say things I wish I wouldn’t have. Do you remember? But, somehow, at the end of the day, we’d always be able to kiss and make up. Do you remember that? You loved our fairy tale.
College was amazing, for both of us. You loved the environment and the experience of it all. You were active in the band, once again, and once again shining with passion. I perused a degree in business and came out of my shell for the first time in my life. You hauled me home when I drank too much. I sent you a gift bag when you were overwhelmed with stress. You listened to all my crazy stories. I organized who would bring you assignments when you got sick. Do you remember?
I proposed to you the spring of our senior year, on the bridge between our apartments. Remember the bridge? We’d meet there every Friday night. If I got there first, I’d wait. If you got their first, you’d wait. We’d never go past the bridge. It was our spot.
10 years ago today, on February 14th 2018, on a day that I’d once called a sappy, made-up, stupid Hallmark holiday made only for public displays of affection and the profitability of the flower and chocolate industries, was the day we said “I do.” 10 years. Has it really been that long? Do you remember it all?
You were so beautiful…your eyes the same breath-taking indigo I’d first caught sight of when we were 13. The classy dress had thin straps, a fitted bodice that laced up in the back like a shoe, and a poofy princess train. Your niece Lucy (Mollie’s daughter) was the flower girl, and served her role proudly. We exchanged traditional vows, traditional rings and a smooth, warm kiss. You were finally Mrs. Anna Helton, a title we’d been praying for years that you would take.
Our first dance was to one of your favorite love songs. Matthew West’s “When I Say I Do.” The tears in your eyes spoke volumes to me, and I found myself choked up as well. Our love was suddenly deeper and more real than ever. Do you remember that?
We moved into our first home of our own shortly after our marriage, and you began your dream job that September. A crowd of 16 eager faces you greeted you on your first day as a second grade teacher at a private Christian school. You quickly became the teacher everyone asked to have and once again, I watched you come alive in your work. It combined all of your loves—Words, music, Jesus and children. I thought you were in Heaven on Earth.
Our boy Landon Jacob was born the May after our third anniversary. I campaigned for Nathan or Adam or Benjamin after my brothers, but you insisted on Landon, after your favorite movie “A Walk to Remember.” Jacob was for your brother, who is three years your senior and your rock. I’ve always admired how close you are to Jake. When we were in high school, and he was in college, you’d Skype three nights a week to chat and vent and pray together. Do you remember that?
We love being parents, and have the best examples to learn from. Landon’s six now, and growing so fast. He reminds me so much of you, and of your brother Jake. He has your eyes, and they still take my breath away every time I see them.
Lymphoma was a word that rocked our worlds four years ago this coming May. It was towards the end of the year, just after Landon’s third birthday. You’d been sick. You were having trouble breathing, your stomach was in knots, and you’d wake up in the middle of the night covered in sweat. And instead of your “Anna-typical” infection, you had cancer. We’d always known it was a risk, as part of your immune deficiency. But it’s kind of like getting hit by a car—You know it’s a risk when you cross the street, but you never think it will happen to you.
Your optimism, faith and goal setting kicked into high-gear again. “My platelets will be over 90 by Tuesday, I know it.” You’d say. “I’ll be in remission by Christmas, just like I was with the anemia, remember?” After eight long months of illness, treatments, and so much prayer, you went into remission. Do you remember that day, Anna? Do you remember how much we cried, laughed and rejoiced that day?
You went back to work the next school year, teaching first grade this time. Your immune system was still more depressed than usual, and we were all constantly cautioning you to be careful. You were. I know now you were. Do you remember our nagging?
After one of your favorite school years ever, we got the news that summer that IT was back and IT was fighting hard. You fought harder. I stood awe-struck after every treatment, as you would throw up for hours, then stop and thank God for the medicines that were making you so sick. “This sucks, Ry,” You’d say, as I'd hold your thinning chocolate waves out of your face. “But it’s killing the cancer. It is. You’ll see.” Do you remember that?
Landon came home with a cold that January. A stupid, simple little cold. Isn’t that how it always starts with you? You got sick…really sick. Septic pneumonia for the second time in your life. The first time you were a baby…Neither of us remember that. But your parents do. As you came in and out of lucidity and your brother William took Landon to kindergarten, your mom shared how she was having flashbacks to when you were so sick as a kid. “She pulled through that, she can pull through this.” She’d say. “Anna’s stubborn.” Do you remember any of that?
You awoke on my birthday, a cool night in March, at three in the morning. It was the most awake I’d seen you in weeks. “Ryan,” You said with labored breath, our hands intertwining for the thousandth time. “I love you so much. I love Landon so much. Thank you for being my rock. Tell everyone I love them, okay?” As your weak, infected body slipped into a coma, I saw your spirit come back to life that night. Do you remember that?
You were surrounded by family and friends, the spring day God called you home. Landon held your hand, his tiny dimpled fingers gripping tight around yours. Your sister and brothers, and their families. My parents, your parents. Our pastor and your teaching partner. We were all there. All of us. Do you remember that?
Landon drew a picture of you the other day…Mommy as an angel. You were sitting on a cloud, with a halo, and your flute, and your guitar. “Mommy loved music, right?” He asked me, and for once in our lives, I was the one who couldn’t breathe. Don’t worry about him, Anna. He’s doing great. He’s a hard worker in school, so sweet and affectionate, and the most stubborn person I’ve ever met. I told you he reminds me of you.
It’s been 10 months now, Anna Faith, and every day we miss you more and more. I miss you more and more. You’ve been my best friend, my partner in crime, and my princess for almost 20 years. I don’t know how I can miss you so much. I never thought the pain could be so deep.
But I’ll get on, because you got on. You changed me Anna. You made me have faith—In God, in others, in myself. That’s something I can never repay you for. Your awe-striking faith and positive outlook is something that will keep living, even after I’m gone.
We’ve all found some peace knowing you’re comfortable now. No more pain, no more headaches, no more infections. You’ve fought against your broken body since the day you were born, and now…now you’re not fighting anymore.
I love you so much Anna Faith and once again happy anniversary! I’ll be there with you…someday.
All my love,