The Night Before:

John and I are in Stone Harbor, NJ, getting ready to head over to my best friend Holly’s rental home. In typical fashion, she and her family have invited us over to celebrate the kickoff of their vacation with dinner and drinks.

On our way out the door, John playfully grabs my favorite beach hat and puts it on. He does a few quirky impressions of me before he tosses it in his car. I find it strange he insists on bringing it along and keep asking why. It’s the evening and the sun is already setting. No need for a hat.

John and I arrive at Holly’s rental and her daughters greet us with lots of first-day-of-vacation excitement. I opened the refrigerator to chill a bottle of champagne and to my surprise, saw a big bag full of pink rose petals.

John and I had been dating for over seven years at this point and I had my engagement antenna up for the past two. That meant two years of regularly over-analyzing every little move and moment anxiously thinking, “Is this going to be when he proposes?”

I quickly asked Holly about the rose petals with suspicion. She said they were for another friend’s surprise birthday celebration later that week. Hmm, I’m not sure how I feel about this answer. That said, Holly did bring a passenger seat full of stunning farm-fresh florals just to decorate her vacation home. She loves any excuse for flowers, lots and lots of flowers.

Holly’s oldest had recently taken up surfing and was eager to get back in the water to catch some waves the next day. That night, we decided we would all wake up early the next morning and take her surfing before the lifeguards went on duty.

We fixed dinner and drinks and made a toast to vacation. I’m admittedly not much of a drinker but spirits were high and the fresh margaritas were flowing all night. It was at least 1 AM when Holly whipped up another round but shortly after, John said it was time to go and poured my entire drink down the drain.

I rarely ever have more than a couple of drinks, if I decide to drink at all. John, Mr. Life-of-the-party and King-of-the-late-nights, always wanting me to “have another” and “stay a little longer” was dumping out my drink and saying it was time to leave?! 

Holly made me another margarita but John still shuffled me out the door.

The Morning of our Engagement:

I wake up and feel my head pounding. John walks in, board shorts on, ready to go. He said he was biking up to Wawa to grab a coffee and asked if I would like anything. I don’t drink coffee so I declined and he left.

I generally don’t shower first thing in the morning when I am at the beach, especially if I am going in the ocean right away. Perhaps I was feeling like a needed a resurrection, a baptism of sorts after drinking too much. I don’t know what it was, but I decided I would go take a shower and hopefully revive myself.

By the time I washed away some of my regret from last night and thew on my bathing suit, John was back. He huffed, “Ugh, you won’t believe it. I dropped my coffee on the way back and it spilled everywhere! Holly and the kids are already at the beach though so we should go.” I asked him for the hat he took the night before. He said we’re going right in the water and that I wouldn’t need it.

As I walked out the door I saw my brother Dan was already on his bike with Kaya leashed up and ready to trot alongside him for a wave check.

I was slow-moving but hopped on my bike, hair absolutely dripping wet, sunglasses hiding my tired eyes. My brother charged ahead with Kaya. I was envious of how much vigor they had.

The sun was bright and I wished I had my hat.

John and I parked our bikes and started walking up the beach path. I was just catching a glimpse of the horizon, ready to jump right into that beautiful glistening ocean when John, a few steps behind, called me by my nickname, “Hey Cal…”

Cue ugly cry with shower soaked and flattened hair.
Photo: @courtneyhaennkelly

I turned around and there was John. On one knee. Holding out a pink, velvet box with a round diamond in a gold bezel setting.


He said, “Will you marry me? I’ve known I wanted to marry you from the moment I met you.” He hesitated and then said,”…and I forget everything else I wanted to say.”

I was in disbelief. “Wait. What? Are you serious? What is happening?” I then see a woman and a young girl run up with a camera and smartphone snapping pictures.

Oh, this is for real.

It’s amazing how many thoughts can buzz through your brain in a nanosecond. In my head: “Yes! Omg. My hair. Do I look as awful as I feel? I hope the diamond is lab-created. I think I’m going to throw up. This is the moment I’ve dreamed about for like, my entire life.”

John is still on his knee, holding out the box, sweating.


I hear clapping in the distance and see Dan and Kaya down at the water’s edge cheering with Holly, her husband and their girls. I realize the camera women are friends of ours which I couldn’t distinguish before with their faces hidden behind cameras and the total chaos and blur of that moment. 

John’s back is soaked with sweat from moving the boat and the stress of proposing. Mine is drenched from my sopping wet hair straight out of the shower.
Photo: @courtneyhaennkelly

John and I walked down to the water. He pointed over to the dunes where a few dresses were hanging on the fence in case I wanted to change. I also spotted my beloved hat! I happened to be wearing a white shirt but was absolutely taking my hat back.

John then guided me over to a lifeguard boat that was pulled down to the water’s edge. There were familiar pink rose petals sprinkled throughout. On one of the boat seats, there was a stunning bouquet from Argyle laying on a Turkish towel. A bottle of Veuve sat on ice with two glasses at the stern.

It was beautiful! I’ve been fortunate enough to spend my summers vacationing on this beach since I was born. In the summer of 2012 when John and I started dating, he happened to be lifeguarding this beach. Our relationship truly took form here. Proposing on this beach was a beautiful and sentimental backdrop to our evolving love story.

We pop the champagne. I realize as I hold the glass that my hand is trembling from the adrenaline of the moment, maybe mixed with a little post-party dehydration.

Hair of the dog, they say!
Photo: @courtneyhaennkelly

We toast, snap some pictures and then John clears the items from the boat and says, “Okay! Get in.”

Here I thought the boat was a cute, nautical engagement staging. Oh no, we were going out on the water! I hesitate for a minute but hop aboard. John gives me a few instructions and I cue him on when to jump in and row us past the break. 

Out on the water, it’s peaceful and quiet. It’s sunny but slightly hazy with dewy morning fog that will burn off later. John rows. Both of us in soaking up the moment. Then I point out a rainbow over the water behind John. Neither of us had noticed it from the shore. Was it even there before? Either way, we took it as a sign and knew we were exactly where we were meant to be.

We rowed in and then had a little run-in with the cops. Buzzkill. We had a dog on the beach during off-hours, there was open alcohol and, “Are you a lifeguard sir? Why is the boat down here?” Thankfully we managed to get off with a warning.

We then biked home, as fiancés.

I said yaaaaasss!

Despite all my sneaky suspicions and intuitions, I was totally surprised. John made our engagement incredibly beautiful and memorable. There were so many little details and scenarios John has contemplated and considered to make sure things went as smoothly as possible:

  • John took my hat and put it in his car the night before because he knows I always wear my hat and he wanted to make sure I had it for pictures
  • Once the drinks were flowing the night before, John knew that I needed an obligation to get out of bed early, hence the surfing plan.
  • He poured my drinks out because he didn’t want me to feel even worse than he knew I was already going to at our engagement.
  • In the morning, John didn’t go get coffee at all. He went to the beach to move the lifeguard boat down to the waters edge. He knew I would decline his offer to get me something because I don’t usually drink coffee.

Later That Day:

My mom was waiting on the porch, waving and crying as we pulled up on our bikes. She had quickly dressed the house with engagement decorations and had some brunch fare prepared. Both of our families were going to arrive for an intimate celebration.

Celebrating at brunch with my mom and dad.

Words can’t begin to express how much it meant to me that my paternal grandparents were able to make it to brunch. They shared their engagement and wedding memories with us, along with martial wisdom. I didn’t know it then, but it would be the last time I’d see my Papa. He passed just a few weeks after our engagement. This July, only 10 months after Papa, my Grandmother left the physical world. She couldn’t live without her beloved husband of almost 69 years. This photo is bittersweet but I will forever treasure being able to share this day with them. My grandparent’s love will continue to inspire me and my future marriage to John.

My late grandparents shared the special morning with us.

After brunch, we headed back to the beach where John had planned a party for some friends and more family. It was perfect. Casual, easy, and beachy. We stayed and celebrated until almost 8 PM.

My very tan future in-laws,

After the actual proposal, John and I didn’t see much of each other until we sat down for a very late dinner at Diving Horse, one of our favorite restaurants on the island.

We were absolutely exhausted but overflowing with love and now filled with delicious food. We were finally engaged.

The Diving Horse is one of the only restaurants on the island where the staff and chef are always kind, accommodating and prepare delicious, specialty plant-based dishes for every course.
Photo: @thedivinghorse