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Video: Young couple’s love story cut tragically short

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    >> back now at 8:11 with a love story cut far too short. a young bride loses her husband to cancer after just six weeks of marriage. it's a story that generated thousands of responses on our website. moving people in ways we rarely see. we're going to talk to the bride, bethany smith, in just a moment. but first, here's nbc's janet shamlian .

    >> reporter: the story of bethany and ryan in some ways is like many others in young love . they met their freshman year at the university of oregon and sparks flew. they were immediately, bethany describes it, joined at the hip. they graduated in 2009 , found jobs, settled in to an apartment, and knew the formality of tying the knot was not far off. in the meantime, they had the world by its tail. as they documented in pictures and home videos . indulging their passion for travel and adopting a cat. they named him boots. but ryan was feeling ill. a colonoscopy in january of last year revealed a large tumor in his colon. what turned out to be stage four testicular cancer . the diagnosis was initially hopeful and the couple tried to continue on with a normal life . ryan surprised bethany with an engagement ring last july. as his condition took a turn for the worse, reality set in. doctors said he had very little time left. in december, with just three days planning, and herculean help from their friends, bethany and ryan were married. despite ryan 's frail condition, it was a day filled with joy. they treasured every moment.

    >> here's our rings. and yours. they look so good.

    >> love you.

    >> reporter: ryan passed away six weeks later. while there is sadness, bethany says she sees a silver lining and hopes others will, too. she found her true life , the kind many spend a lifetime searching. for "today," janet shamlian , nbc news.

By Laura T. Coffey
TODAY contributor
updated 4/18/2012 1:36:45 PM ET 2012-04-18T17:36:45

Ryan Smith loved golf, airplanes, cooking, good wine, good beer and the Oregon Ducks. But more than anything else, he loved Bethany.

He met Bethany Schmidt in 2005 when they were both freshmen at the University of Oregon. They became inseparable — eating out together, visiting their families together, traveling to Europe together, cheering together at football games at Oregon’s Autzen Stadium.

The good times continued after Ryan and Bethany graduated in 2009. They rented a one-bedroom apartment near campus in Eugene and launched their careers — Ryan in finance, Bethany in graphic design. Then, in January 2011, the 23-year-olds received a blow.

Ryan learned he had a rare and particularly ruthless form of cancer. Bethany took time off work and stayed by Ryan’s side as he tried everything: three intensive chemotherapies, a major surgery in Los Angeles, lengthy and grueling hospital stays. But by November, doctors discontinued his treatment, and by early December, his organs began shutting down.

Image: Bethany and Ryan Smith on their wedding day
Kevin Kubota  /  Kubota Photo-Design
Bethany and Ryan Smith planned their wedding in just three days' time after Ryan's doctors had to discontinue his cancer treatments. "There was more love in that room than I have ever experienced in my life," Bethany Smith said about her wedding day.

The couple realized they had little time left to do what they wanted to do most of all: Get married. So, with the help of family members, friends and helpful strangers, they planned a stunning wedding in just three days. Their nuptials didn’t center on formalwear or wedding favors or other trappings that stealthily consume the thoughts of so many brides- and grooms-to-be. Instead, the focus was simple: Their love for each other, and their love for their family and friends.

Six weeks after the wedding, Ryan was gone.

“Looking back on it, there was more love in that room than I have ever experienced in my life,” Bethany Smith wrote in reflection on her wedding day.

“Although it was way too short, we were able to be married and celebrate our one-month anniversary, and that’s a gift no one can ever take away.”

‘I’ll always be there’
Ryan  was the kind of guy who knew what he wanted in life and went for it. But he could behave like a master chess player at times, not letting on that he’d already worked out all his moves in advance.

“We were close friends for a while before we started dating,” Bethany recalled. “I really liked him and I couldn’t tell if he liked me. Then after we got together, I teased him and said, ‘If you liked me for so long, why didn’t you pursue me?’ He said, ‘I knew you’d come around.’ He knew he had it in the bag.”

Image: Ryan and Bethany Smith in Paris in June 2007
Courtesy of Bethany Smith
Ryan Smith and Bethany Schmidt spent six weeks traveling through Europe together in the summer of 2007. Their itinerary included several stops in Germany as well as Barcelona, Rome, Florence, Zurich, Dublin, London, Provence and Paris, where this photo was taken.

On their one-year anniversary, Bethany gave Ryan a card that said, “You will not believe how glad I am to have met you.” Inside, she wrote:

“Wow — I had a feeling I might fall in love with you but I had no idea it would be like this. I am so, so glad that I met you and our lives have become so intertwined. You mean more to me than just a boyfriend, you are more than just my best friend. I realized last night — you are my home Ry, and nothing compares to that. I'll always be there — I promise. I love you.”

They knew they’d marry someday, and they knew they wanted to have children someday — but they were in their early 20s, that stage of life when adventures beckon, responsibilities feel light and time feels limitless.

Then Ryan got sick. Everything stopped: Work, travel, plans for the future. Bethany took a hiatus from her job as a designer at the University of Oregon’s Duck Stores; her colleagues there donated their vacation time so she could care for Ryan and still receive a paycheck.

Last July — seven months after his diagnosis — Ryan and Bethany decided to take a small break and drive from Eugene to Bend, Ore., to visit their parents. As they neared Drake Park, a beautiful spot in downtown Bend with riverfront access, Ryan asked Bethany to pull over.

“He said he was feeling uncomfortable from the car ride and he needed some fresh air,” Bethany said. “We were walking along by the water, and all of a sudden he dropped down on one knee.”

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Bethany realized what was happening when Ryan pulled a small box out of his pocket. She collapsed on both knees and joined him on the grass. He put the ring on her finger and told her she was his best friend. She cried and told him how much she wanted to marry him.

Story: When ‘till death do us part’ has added meaning

That night they went out to dinner at Ariana Restaurant — a bistro in Bend where they would end up getting married five months later. The restaurant’s co-owner and chef, Ariana Fernandez, would prove to be a godsend when Ryan’s health deteriorated rapidly.

“We set the date on a Thursday and we were married just three days later on Sunday,” Bethany recalled. “She helped with everything ... I kept thanking her and thanking her and she said to me, ‘You’ve had to hear no so much this year. I just wanted to be able to say yes to anything you wanted.’”

‘It is what it is’
Ryan  developed a virulent form of testicular cancer that manifested itself as a large tumor in his colon. Because he also had a rare refractory disease, the cancer was impervious to chemotherapy.

“He never, ever complained,” recalled Ryan’s mother, Carrie Smith. “We have all just marveled at this. He just never complained the entire time.”

Ryan’s father, Peter Smith, said he once tried to encourage his son to vent a little bit when he was sick.

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“I thought it might be good for him,” he said. “But he just told me, ‘Dad, it is what it is.’ ...

“I’ve said to my own siblings that Ryan is basically setting an example for us as we’re all getting older. If anything like this happens to us, we should look at Ryan and see how to handle this sort of thing with grace and courage.”

Slideshow: One month of marriage: ‘A gift no one can take away’ (on this page)

Even with such short notice, 32 guests attended Bethany and Ryan’s intimate wedding on Dec. 11, and many of them flew in from far away: England, Canada, New York, San Francisco, Seattle.

Ryan, a serious foodie, took great pleasure in planning the dinner menu for the wedding reception with Fernandez of Ariana Restaurant. The lineup included blue cheese crostini with truffle honey, butter poached Maine lobster over Dungeness crab risotto, and vanilla bean crème brûlée with fresh berries.

Image: Ryan Smith, Stephen Schmidt, Bethany Smith and Isaac Schmidt on Ryan and Bethany's wedding day
Kevin Kubota  /  Kubota Photo-Design
Bethany Smith's father, Stephen Schmidt, hugs the bride and groom shortly before Ryan Smith had to leave the wedding reception and go rest. Bethany's brother, Isaac Schmidt, is pictured on the right.

But Ryan was too sick to stay for the dinner; after the wedding ceremony, he had to go lie down. Bethany spent most of her wedding reception without her groom.

Near the end of the night, Bethany was thrilled when Ryan managed to return to the restaurant. A close-knit group remained, and everyone sat around telling stories, laughing and crying.

“Their friends stood up and said they had never seen anything like their love,” said Carrie Smith, Ryan’s mom. “They said they hoped in their lifetimes to find a love like this.”

More on this story: The love story that has TODAY readers talking, and crying

Taking flight
On Jan. 18, a little more than five weeks after the wedding, Ryan had to be admitted to the hospital with symptoms that couldn’t be controlled at home. Bethany was lying next to him in his hospital bed when he died in the early morning hours of Jan. 24.

Image: Bethany and Ryan Smith kiss through face masks in hospital
Courtesy of Bethany Smith
Bethany Schmidt and Ryan Smith kiss each other through face masks in August 2011, about one month after the couple got engaged.

“I blacked out two weeks of my life,” Bethany said. “I don’t remember very much from that time.”

Nevertheless, Bethany managed to plan Ryan’s memorial service just six weeks after planning their wedding. Her godfather, Wade Conrad, had married them, and she asked him to handle the memorial service as well.

More than 300 people crowded into the University of Oregon Ford Alumni Center for the service. Ryan had always been fascinated by airplanes, and those in attendance found small origami planes on their chairs. Conrad asked everyone to hold the planes in their hands and think about what they might want to say to Ryan. Many scribbled heartfelt notes to him on the paper creations and gave the planes to Bethany.

Video: Bethany Smith: ‘I have a lot of good memories’ (on this page)

“He would have loved the memorial service — the space and everything about it,” Bethany said. “It was him.”

Ryan has been gone for less than three months now. He donated his body to science; he wanted his tissues to be studied in testicular cancer research trials in order to help other cancer patients someday.

Bethany just turned 25. She’s returned to her graphic design job, and she describes herself as “breathing.” As she adjusts to a different life and an uncertain future, she’s sure of this much: She will never forget the best friend who loved her so completely, or the people who helped her survive the past year.

“It makes you realize how much good is in the world, even when something so bad can happen.”

To see more photos from Bethany and Ryan’s wedding, view this slideshow on TODAY.com, visit this post on the wedding website Snippet & Ink, or visit Bethany and Ryan’s wedding website. Join the conversation on Facebook.

To watch a moving video montage of Ryan Smith’s life that was shown at his memorial service, click here.

Friend TODAY.com writer Laura T. Coffey on Facebook, follow her on Twitter  or read more of her stories at LauraTCoffey.com.

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

Photos: One month of marriage: ‘A gift no one can take away’

loading photos...
  1. Getting ready

    Bethany and Ryan Smith had to plan their Dec. 11, 2011 wedding in just three days’ time after Ryan's doctors discontinued his cancer treatments. Here are images from their wedding day.

    Bethany has her hair done by Jennifer Siefried from Salon Essenza in Bend, Ore. Bethany's mother, Sue Schmidt, watches in the background. (Kubota Photo-Design) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Wine and roses

    Rose petals form the aisle at Bethany and Ryan Smith's wedding in Bend, Ore. The couple opted to have guests stand instead of sit to make the event feel more intimate. (Kubota Photo-Design) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. 'So glad I met you'

    When they were dating, Bethany gave Ryan a one-year anniversary card bearing the message, “You will not believe how glad I am to have met you.” Bethany highlighted those words in this chalkboard display at their wedding and also incorporated them into her wedding vows. (Kubota Photo-Design) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Helping hands

    Ariana Fernandez, co-owner and chef of Ariana Restaurant in Bend, Ore., helped Bethany and Ryan pull together their wedding at her restaurant in just three days. Here, Ariana's mother, Susan Asti, opens wine at the wedding reception. (Kubota Photo-Design) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Personalized messages

    Bethany said she wanted to avoid a Christmas theme for the December wedding, but she found paper-monogrammed ornaments at Pottery Barn that made ideal wedding favors. "We picked out a letter for each guest’s first name and I wrote a personalized thank you on the back of each one," she wrote on the wedding website Snippet & Ink. "We hung them on a beautiful birch tree and the guests had to find their ornament during the evening." (Kevin Kubota / Kubota Photo-Design) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. 'All I wanted to see'

    "I remember walking in the door with my dad, having to turn a little corner, seeing so many people and just searching for Ryan. He was all I wanted to see," Bethany wrote. (Kubota Photo-Design) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Their moment

    Bethany and Ryan planned their wedding as quickly as they did because they knew how little time they had left to get married. Ryan died of a rare form of cancer six weeks after the wedding. (Kubota Photo-Design) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. There for them

    Bethany's godfather, Wade Conrad, married Bethany and Ryan. He handled Ryan's memorial service just weeks later. (Kubota Photo-Design) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. 'More love in that room'

    “Looking back on it, there was more love in that room than I have ever experienced in my life,” Bethany Smith said about her wedding day. (Kubota Photo-Design) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. A family's love

    Ryan Smith receives a hug from his grandmother, Helen Zaraska. Ryan's father, Peter Smith, is pictured on the far left. (Kubota Photo-Design) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A few quick photos

    Ryan was too sick to stay for the dinner and most of the wedding reception. Bethany and Ryan posed for a few photographs after the wedding ceremony, and then Ryan had to go lie down. (Kubota Photo-Design) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Alone at her wedding reception

    This photo of Bethany was taken shortly after the conclusion of the wedding ceremony. "The plan was to take photos right away but Ryan actually went to the car with his dad to lie down for a minute," Bethany said. "I was waiting for him to come back in to take photos and just got really sad he wasn't feeling well." (Kubota Photo-Design) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. A special engagement

    Bethany and Ryan displayed their engagement photos at their wedding. The couple got engaged in July 2011 and had these photos taken in November. After undergoing intensive chemotherapies, "Ry wanted to wait until he had a little hair," Bethany explained. (Kubota Photo-Design) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. A precious gift

    “Although it was way too short, we were able to be married and celebrate our one-month anniversary, and that’s a gift no one can ever take away,” Bethany said.

    To watch a moving video montage of Ryan Smith’s life that was made by Bethany's brother Isaac Schmidt and shown at Ryan's memorial service, click here. To see a video Isaac made celebrating Bethany and Ryan’s relationship, click here. (Kevin Kubota / Kubota Photo-Design) Back to slideshow navigation
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    Above: Slideshow (14) One month of marriage: ‘A gift no one can take away’
  2. Image: Canadian singer Shania Twain poses with
    Gabriel Bouys / AFP - Getty Images
    Slideshow (26) Celebrity weddings of 2011


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