In the weeks preceding Valentine’s Day, family members and friends of Ashlee Reed, 24, and Jerrod Spence, 25, of Decatur received a postcard depicting a love story that’s withstood a trying, albeit short, test of time.
In addition to a June 24 wedding date and a photo of the couple, the save-the-date featured a tree marked by three signs noting three other monumental dates in their relationship.
The two dated from 2003 to 2006 in high school and split just before heading off to college, where they reunited just before graduating in 2010. After patiently feeling out the situation, they began officially dating again Jan. 7, 2011, before Jerrod proposed July 14, 2012.
Now they prepare to create one last sign representing their “forever love,” influenced by the lessons learned from their “young love;” validated in their rekindle as “true love;” and driven by their “engaged” love.
After a display of selflessness, a young Jerrod and Ashlee began dating in 2003, just before beginning their sophomore year of high school.
That summer, Jerrod had undergone surgery warranted by a serious staph infection on his knee.
“She came to the hospital with a goody bag that she had put together for me with Sports Illustrated magazines, candy, a Big Gulp, then spent the day with me at home after I got discharged,” Jerrod recalled. “We started dating right after that.”
Commonalities – not just in their interests, but also their ambitions – held the relationship together for more than three years.
“We didn’t like to go out and party. We didn’t like big groups,” Ashlee said. “We both really like to hang out with our families. That’s what I saw most attractive in him in the beginning. We were focused on school and sports. We wanted the same things at the same time … I never thought that was attainable.”
But those deep-rooted mutual interests and exclusive companionship cultivated a tight relationship at an almost alarming pace, the two now realize.
“I had trouble, after moving here (in eighth-grade in 2001), finding really good girlfriends,” Ashlee said. “He was like my best friend, who I felt I could share everything with and I wasn’t judged, whereas a girl would stab you in the back … It made it easy to stay together. But I realize now, we were very serious at a young age.”
That epiphany, paired with the overwhelming uncertainty of what was to come in college and a little bit of curiousity, led to a difficult, but necessary, break-up their senior year.
“You’re about to take a huge step and start another chapter,” Jerrod said. “Since we’d been together for three years in high school and we were all each other knew, we thought we needed to experience something different. It was really hard, though.”
Despite the pain the separation inflicted then, the two embrace the lessons it taught them now.
“I wouldn’t take it back. Going through that and having to learn who I was again and be an independent person made me stronger and helped me figure out who I was and who I wanted to become, not who Ashlee and Jerrod were,” Ashlee said. “If I wouldn’t have had that, I think I would’ve been lost. It was definitely hard for a long time. But you learn how to get through it and know God has His plan. You just have to trust in that.”
In retrospect, the two can see that plan substantiated.
“If we would’ve stayed together, we wouldn’t have branched out and met new people in college,” Ashlee said. “He wouldn’t have gone to Mexico, I wouldn’t have gone to Spain College for Jerrod was very important. He had to really focus and make really good grades in order to get to where he is today. Maybe I would’ve been too much of a distraction.”
“Sometimes, couples that started dating in seventh grade and stay together are happily married forever and ever,” he said. “But then at the same time, I feel like if you don’t experience life on your own or what it’s like to be by yourself, you really don’t know who you are outside of your significant other. It made us more independent and more able to deal with hardship. And now having had those experiences for four or five years, I more appreciate our relationship.”
Even with separate identities established, the time apart made the two realize how much their independent selves needed each other.
Although both attended Texas Tech University in Lubbock after graduating from Decatur High in 2006, they rarely crossed paths until a chance encounter in the fall of 2009.
“There was this little coffee shop in the student union, and I would go in there literally every day to get coffee,” he said. “I bumped into her one day. … we decided to meet a couple of days after that and have coffee and catch up. And that’s where it started.”
For a year-and-a-half, the two talked and hung out strictly as friends. Through that semester and the following spring 2010 semester, they hung out with each other’s friends, watched movies, attended church together and would regularly meet to watch a television show then go for walks.
“The show, ‘Chuck,’ was a love story, so I think that that was another reason we found it so appealing. But for then, we just kind of fell back into the friendship,” Ashlee said.
Ashlee graduated first in the summer of 2010, then moved to Wichita Falls to pursue a nursing degree.
“Even when she left for Wichita Falls and I stayed in Lubbock, we still talked. And we weren’t even seriously dating,” Jerrod said. “I would call her once or twice a week just to see how things were going. We kept up and got closer and closer as the semester went. She was really good at supporting me as I was going through the application process for med school, which was extremely stressful and scary.”
But at the end of the fall 2010 semester, Jerrod had graduated from Tech with word of his acceptance to his alma mater’s medical school. And he and Ashlee were officially dating again.
The delayed pace to get to that point was not accidental.
“I knew that I wanted to see her and be with her, but I’m glad that we did it the way that we did because we got a chance to start over,” Jerrod said. “We had changed. In four years, going from 18 to 22, you change quite a bit. You can’t really pick up right where you left off. We knew we had to take it slow and make sure it was what we wanted.”
They had to also ensure that repeated heartache was spared.
“It was an unsaid thing that if we did get back together, that was it,” Ashlee said. “We didn’t want to put each other through that again. I was scared for a very long time. I spent so many years building up walls, trying to forget about him and move on. Those walls were very hard to tear down.”
Jerrod agreed, adding that the first six months of their second go-around were bumpy.
“She had those walls up,” he said. “I had to beg her two or three times to stay with me. I totally understand why.”
“I was just afraid that I was going to get hurt,” Ashlee said. “When you’re constantly telling yourself for years to get over that, it takes time to tell yourself it’s OK. … I had to ask myself, ‘Is he the one I want to be my future husband?'”
With a strong friendship as a firm foundation, the two took the plunge. The decision was further validated when he began medical school in the fall of 2011. Ashlee joined Jerrod and his dad to help move him in.
“His dad left, and I got to stay with him,” she said. “We got to decorate his house, and that was the first time we really got to spend time, just us two, together. Anytime before that was with friends or roommates or family. So we got to experiment what life would be like if it were just us. It was fun. We cooked, we cleaned, we did laundry, we did everything a married couple would do for about a week.
“Some people may not approve of that. But we were 23 and 24, and we needed that to establish where our relationship was going,” she continued. “We needed to know anything and everything …”
“It’s not about the glamour and the dates,” he continued. “It’s, ‘Do you see yourself with this person day in and day out? Through the mundane? The boring times? Doing chores? Who do you want those times with?’ I couldn’t see myself with anybody else. After our one-year anniversary (in January 2012), that’s when we talked about moving the date up and getting married before I got out of school instead of waiting four years.”
And the more they thought about it, the more validated their gut instincts became.
“We just knew,” Ashlee said. “So why waste time? I think it will be fun to be able to see what he goes through during clinicals for med school, to help him through and just be there.”
Amidst the deliberation, the two embarked on an enlightening day of cuts, halos, settings and karats that spring.
“We had no clue about anything,” Jerrod laughed. “It was like wedding rings for dummies.”
That day of ring browsing gave Jerrod an idea of what Ashlee wanted, but ultimately, she wanted the chosen ring to be his decision.
“I knew she liked the halo and the princess cut but not too square. I could narrow it down to those things. And simple – she wanted it simple, and she wanted the old, vintage look,” he continued. “I thought this ring looked pretty and exactly like what she wanted. But it was a little bit harder because I bought the setting and the ring separate. I wasn’t used to that; I was used to seeing them already together. I ended up freaking out right after I bought it because I couldn’t see it completed. I wasn’t too confident until I went back two weeks later when they had it set. That’s when I thought, ‘Oh yeah, this looks really good.'”
Armed with the bling, he moved to the next stress.
“She’s a hopeless romantic so I felt all this pressure,” he said. “I actually figured out almost every detail on the four-hour drive home (from Lubbock) the last day of my first year of med school,” he said.
And that’s what he stuck with when he got down on one knee and proposed on July 14, 2012.
With candles in mason jars, handwritten notes, photo collages and vases of roses, Jerrod lined the sidewalks leading to an arch intertwined with twinkling lights in her backyard.
“It was perfect,” Ashlee said. “… it was so pretty, we could’ve gotten married then. It was simple, outdoors among all of God’s creation. You don’t have to do a lot to dress it up. The proposal made us realize how pretty (the outdoors) can be with so little. It definitely inspired the wedding.”
Initially, the couple thought they would plan a lavish reception at an area hotel ballroom. But inspired by the simplicity of the proposal, the two opted instead for a ceremony on a private Florida beach for the June 24 celebration.
“What I envision is just lights and candles with the beauty of the scenery – that alone should be sufficient,” Ashlee said. “It’s mostly just family. It was a hard decision making the destination choice because you don’t want to leave people out.”
But the reduced stress of a smaller, easier to manage celebration appealed to the couple.
“It’s been fun figuring out how to incorporate us,” Ashlee said. “It will still be a traditional wedding, but there will be things that are meaningful to us.”
Some of that will be preserved in the officiant.
“The guy that’s marrying us was my college Sunday school teacher,” Ashlee said. “He’s willing to fly out to Florida to do it. It’s exciting.”
In the remaining four months, the two will brainstorm other ways to personalize their big day. As they prepare to tack on the fourth board telling of their love story, they remain mindful of the transition’s significance.
“So many people tell us being married to a medical school student, that’s crazy,” Jerrod said. “It does have it’s disadvantages, but the fact that we will have the opportunity to be together and not do this long-distance thing, I actually think it will be better. We knew it was going to be hectic, but she doesn’t care. I don’t care. We’re both ready.”
And although better, the two know that doesn’t necessarily mean easier.”
The two will wed a couple of weeks after Jerrod is to take his board exams. After returning from their honeymoon, they have a week to move out of Jerrod’s apartment in Lubbock to their new place in Amarillo, where Jerrod is to start two years of clinical rotations July 5.
“It will be hard,” he said.
But they believe they are armed with traits required to make it work.
“She’s very understanding,” Jerrod said of his soon-to-be bride. “Your time is so pulled in the other direction. It’s hard to find that balance. She’s been extremely patient throughout all of this.”
In addition, the two are confident that the struggles of the past have cemented the foundation of their new beginning.
“Not many people can say they have a past together, this time of our life and the future,” Ashlee said. “It’s just cool to look back and see how the pieces fell together. Although difficult, hitting all those low points in life are always good for making people stronger. That, in turn, strengthens your relationships, because relationship are only as strong as the people in them.
“We know it won’t be easy, fairytale all the time,” she continued. “It hasn’t been up this point. We always want to keep God at the center of our lives because that’s the only way we’ll be able to work through the struggles. Every marriage is going to have that, no matter how much in love you are.
“For now, we’re just living by the moment, and enjoying it.”