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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.
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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.”
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.”
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.”
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.
“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.
“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.”
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