Lily Van Sant failed her mother. Badly, it turned out.
Candise Griswolds topmost request when her daughter set off from Durango for New Zealand on a high school exchange program: Dont fall in love.
How badly did Van Sant fail? Since she started dating Matty Graham on March 8, 2003, two-thirds through her exchange year, she searched for a way to be with him. Forever.
The two are now married, living in New Zealand with two dogs and a cat, and if that dont take the cake, theyve entered a competition for The Worlds Best Couple.
Did she disregard her mothers advice? Apparently so.
I always did the exact opposite of what I was told to do, she wrote in a recent e-mail from Dunedin, a city of 125,000 on the southeast coastline of New Zealands South Island.
From the website of the Best Couple contest, sponsored by a New Zealand jeweler, this is their entry for the Those Three Words category:
Lily: Do not fall in love with me. (Typical, Lily thinks anyone would fall in love with her.)
Matty: I love you. (Moments after Lilys comment.)
Lily: I told you not to fall in love with me, but yeah, I love you, too.
Matty: Now what?
Lily: You want to come to America?
Lily Van Sant was born at Mercy Medical Center a quarter-century ago. Perhaps you know her. You might have been a classmate, a volleyball or swim teammate, or neighbor. If so, you probably lost track of her after she moved down under. She wants you to know that she still thinks about you. She asked this reporter to help her share her tale. Being a sucker for a love story, this reporter obliged.
It was 2002 when Lily left home. She had decided that, because she couldnt yet join the Peace Corps, shed do an exchange year. She recalls walking across the tennis courts after swim practice on a very cold winter morning when a friend told her about the exotic two-island country in the Pacific. Right then it became her choice.
A few months later she was on her way to Hokitika, a small town on the South Islands west coast.
Exotic, yes, but also far from lifelong friends and family. At first she found it difficult to make new friends, but she persevered.
I met Matty at school. But he never really talked to me, she wrote via e-mail. He was pretty shy then, and well, anyone who knows me will agree, I am not shy.
We ended up working together for my host mum, and from that point on it was fireworks.
Matty Graham, an endurance athlete, was coaching a fitness group that Lily joined.
We spent a lot of time together, him mostly yelling at me to do push-ups and run faster, she wrote.
I think for us, it just always felt right. I always had a feeling that this was where I was meant to be and who I was meant to be with. Its not glamorous or jaw-dropping, its just right.
In July 2003, Lily grudgingly returned to Durango and told her parents, who had broken up by then, about Matty. And, she added, Mattys trying to arrange a visit to the U.S. Is that OK?
Lily is very strong-willed and of her own mind, Griswold said last week. She half-joked, Id like to think sometimes I tell her things and she listens.
John Van Sant was proud of the way his daughter had taken the initiative to make the exchange year happen but wasnt too thrilled how she was making big decisions over a love interest at 17.
I told her how I felt, John Van Sant said last week. Its just my job to play the devils advocate a little bit. ... Then I gave her my blessing.
Im not going to change her mind anyway. Why dont I support her and give her some guidance?
Matty stayed in the U.S. for two months before heading back to New Zealand in January 2004.
When he left, Candise Griswold remembers thinking, This really is a shame because I like this guy.
The two lovebirds were separated. Days became weeks became months. Lily attended Fort Lewis College for a semester.
She wasnt happy in the time they were apart, Griswold said. When your child is happy, that makes you happy.
Lily finally devised a path back to New Zealand, heading for Otago University in Dunedin in January 2005.
The reason I went back was that it was meant to be, it always has been, she wrote.
Lily earned a degree in anthropology and religious studies from Otago in 2008 the same week she and Matty married in Hokitika.
The couple enjoy a plethora of outdoor activities mountain and road biking, climbing, kayaking and just generally getting amongst it. Matty, who is working on a masters in exercise physiology, competes in multisport endurance races and owns a coaching company.
Are they indeed the Worlds Best Couple? Visit www.my22ct.com, click on browse entries, search for Team Milly, and decide for yourself. Feel free to vote. The winning couple gets a trip to Chicago and a 22-carat diamond ring.
With no other choice, her father in Hermosa, mother in the Animas Valley and older brother John in Denver have adapted to Lily being a 14-hour flight away.
I love Durango with all my heart, she wrote.
But she needed to see what else was out there.
My story is a love story, plain and simple.
As Lily says, its just the way it was meant to be.
johnp@ durangoherald.com. John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column.