“I’ll wait for you — and if I should fall behind, wait for me.” — Bruce Springsteen
Lexi Gould Stafford is 18 years old. Her newlywed husband, Ricky, will soon turn 20. It will be years before either of them is old enough to rent a car at an “adult” rate.
But the young Staffords could aptly be called old souls. Together, they’ve both endured far more trials, fears and setbacks than anyone their age expects or deserves.
Their love story — tethered to their shared faith in Christ’s healing hands — seems pulled from the pages of a young adult novel:
A pretty teenage girl with big dreams is shocked to learn she has cancer. At the clinic she meets a handsome young man named Ricky, a cancer survivor. Ricky knows Lexi’s fears and frustrations. They talk and talk and talk. He makes her laugh. Ricky’s victory over the disease comforts Lexi. The two fall for each other — but they’re high school kids, so they simply call each other “best friends.” Ricky leaves for his mission. His cancer returns. This time, Lexi is there for Ricky. Their love grows and Ricky asks Lexi to be his wife. She says yes, just as she knew she always would.
But the Stafford’s story is no Hollywood contrivance. It’s the true and painful and joyful story of two young people holding tight to their faith and friendship to absorb life’s unexpected jolts and jostles.
Lexi had planned to marry a man she loved in the temple long before she ever heard the ugly word “nueroblastoma” or learned the “clinic-speak” common to all cancer patients.
She was two weeks into her sophomore year at Utah’s Cyprus High School when she felt a sharp pain stretch across her abdomen and back. “I thought I had appendicitis,” she said.
A visit to the emergency room revealed grimmer news. Lexi had nueroblastoma, a cancer that develops from immature nerve cells.
Her life changed in an instant. While her classmates were cheering at football games and picking out prom dresses, Lexi’s days and nights were spent with cancer specialists and oncology nurses. She drew strength from her parents, Kris and Emily Gould, along with the rest of her family and her Latter-day Saint faith.
Then a few months into her treatment she met Ricky, who was at the clinic for a checkup following his cancer remission.
“He had hair,” she said, laughing, “which was super weird for people in that unit.”
Ricky was a leukemia survivor. The talented young basketball player from Orem, Utah, had discovered his own illness when he was 15 and being treated for a sports injury.
“When I met Lexi I immediately thought, ‘What a beautiful girl,'” remembered Ricky.
By the end of their first chat they were trusted friends. They understood each other’s unique teenage-cancer-patient challenges: Losing hair. Chemo treatments. Missing out on benchmark high school moments. Facing uncertain futures.
“I was drawn to her — she had a spirit that was so attractive. I just wanted to be around her all the time,” he said.
Ricky and Lexi may have just met, but they related to each other in ways others could not. “Cancer is a weird thing — you have to go through it to really be able to understand it,” said Lexi. “We instantly became best friends right after we met.”
Ricky became a frequent hospital visitor. He encouraged Lexi to stay strong. She laughed at his goofy jokes.
“We both knew we liked each other, but we never admitted it,” she said. “We dated other people for a couple of years and it was soon time for Ricky to go on his mission to Boston.”
Two weeks after Ricky’s mission departure, in the spring of 2017, Lexi was clinically declared cancer free. She shared the happy news with now-Elder Stafford in an email.
Last December, Elder Stafford was eight months into his mission when he received awful news. His cancer had returned.
Lexi was sitting on her bed watching a movie when her parents quietly walked into her room. She knew something was wrong before they could say a word.
“They told me that Ricky had relapsed,” she said. “I was shocked. He was serving a mission. He was where he needed to be. I didn’t understand it. It was harder for me than my own diagnosis.”
Elder Stafford was immediately released from missionary service. His stake president, via FaceTime, assured the young man that the Lord accepted his offering of service. He had fulfilled his mission. It was time to focus entirely on his health and recovery.
One of the first people he texted following his mission release was his best friend Lexi.
“I’m doing great,” he wrote.
Once again, Ricky pulled Lexi from a dark place. But the roles defining their relationship had unexpectedly reversed. It was Lexi’s turn to be there for Ricky. They stayed connected through texts and FaceTime.
“We would read scriptures together and share favorite quotes with one another,” she said. “We found that during cancer, or during any hard time, really, if you stayed close to God things became a lot easier.”
She can’t imagine battling cancer without the gospel.
“It would have been so much different. A lot of my nurses told me they can tell when people are Latter-day Saints because they are more peaceful. Their rooms are peaceful and people are happier.”
Ricky was soon moved from Boston to New York to begin initial stages of his cancer care. Doctors said it was too risky for him to fly home to Utah.
We look for His hand in little things. We see His tender mercies.
After enduring several days of difficult treatment, he was rewarded with a surprise. After wandering into the waiting room of the hospital cancer unit he found a smiling Lexi and her mother sitting on a couch.
“Ricky got a little teary eyed and gave me a big hug,” she said.
“Lexi meant a lot to me,” added Ricky, “and for her show up to support me meant everything because I missed my best friend.”
The two relished their brief time together in New York. Despite their eight-month separation, they immediately connected. When Lexi returned home they were “officially boyfriend and girlfriend,” she said.
Ricky eventually built up enough strength to travel to Utah for aggressive cancer therapy, including a bone marrow transplant last April. His brother was the donor.
Lexi was always at his side.
“We remained best friends, but our relationship had grown and we were falling more and more in love every day,” she said.
On a frigid day last February, Ricky dropped to one knee and asked Lexi to be his wife. She said “yes.” Working closely with their respective families, they planned for a September wedding as Lexi finished her high school studies and Ricky continued his treatment.
“I felt it was necessary to ask her to marry me at that time,” he said. “We both knew we wanted to be with each other. … We knew God wanted us together. We didn’t want to put it off if it was meant to be.”
A couple of weeks ago, family and friends cheered as Lexi and Ricky exited the Mount Timpanogas Utah Temple, hand in hand. They had been best friends for years. Now they were family.
“Sometimes it still doesn’t seem real,” said Lexi.
And some more good news. Ricky’s treatment is working. His latest tests reveal no signs of cancer, but he remains a weekly face at the clinic where he goes for frequent checkups and blood work.
“I’m in the maintenance phase right now,” he said.
Cancer brought the Staffords together. And yes, people often tell them their love story is the stuff of movies. But the disease does not define their new marriage. They are simply a “good fit,” they say, with or without their illness.
Their shared gospel testimonies continue to bind and sustain them. Hardships have forged spiritual sensitivities and wisdom in Lexi and Ricky that belie their youth.
“We have seen God’s hand so many times in our lives,” she said. “We look for His hand in little things. We see His tender mercies.”
It sounds cliché, but Lexi and Ricky have grown adroit at “living in the now.”
No one is promised a tomorrow, so enjoy everything today offers. “We appreciate each and every moment,” she said. “We try to stay positive no matter what is going on. We are grateful just to be here.”
Ricky is certain he and his new wife were placed in each other’s sometimes-rocky paths. “Once I met Lexi, I wanted to be with her. From the beginning, I hoped she would one day marry me.”
Strengthened by past trials, the Staffords are focusing on their future. Lexi is enrolled at Utah Valley University and plans to become a pediatric oncology nurse. She’s eager to help other kids and teens battling cancer. “The nurses, I found, become your family,” she said.
Ricky, meanwhile, works full-time at a car dealership and plans to play college basketball.
“We’ve got a lot going on,” he said, “but we’re happy.”