It was meant to happen in Buenos Aires. I hadn't picked out the exact spot, but candidates included a gondola, a rose garden, a riverbank walk. We booked our flights together back in January and then I set to work. I chose a ring, set the date for March 23, Leigh's birthday, met her parents and… well, then all of March happened.
With coronavirus cases rising around the world, we rang the airline to check our flight status. I remember the cheerful American Airlines woman telling us, 'Well, there's next to no one on your flight now so, on the plus side, you'd have the run of the place'. Then the US cases rose, and Argentina announced that everyone coming from America would be quarantined for 14 days. We admitted defeat. One evening we went through a list, cancelling every part of the trip - it felt like taking down a Christmas tree, layer by layer - the flights, hotels, Airbnbs and concerts.
From then on I kept thinking, 'OK, we'll plan B!'. The first plan B was to go out to dinner followed by a Broadway show. Then Broadway closed, followed by all restaurants. So it became 'a picnic with her friends in Prospect Park'. It's right by our apartment in Brooklyn, so I reckoned it was safe. Then gatherings were called off.
It started to feel like a thinking enemy was attacking me. It's like the old joke: if you want to make coronavirus laugh, tell it your plans.
I moved from Dublin to New York in June 2016, and met Leigh a year-and-a-half later. I'd known I wanted to marry her ever since I was watching a silly action movie and started welling up when the hero lost his wife. I realised maybe this had less to do with John Wick's situation and more to do with how much I feared losing Leigh. She's warm, hilarious and a constant surprise to me, so I really, really wanted to surprise her back. I'd already postponed proposing once before, when I lost my job due to a company merger at Christmas, so I was determined to stick to my plan.
I had to get creative. I settled on gathering videos of her friends and family instead, with each person telling a funny Leigh story that I'd edit into one big piece to surprise her. In theory this sounds great. But both our jobs were then 'paused' indefinitely, leaving us stuck indoors together 24/7. This made emailing everyone and editing their footage quite tricky. Anytime she came over to chat I'd jump and close the laptop to avoid suspicion, which really just caused far more suspicion.
The next challenge was dinner. I wanted to have something of the trip we lost. I checked around all the Argentinian restaurants in New York but couldn't find any that were open for delivery. I messaged a foodie journalist friend and explained the whole story. She put me in touch with Norberto Piattoni, an amazing Argentinian chef in Brooklyn, who, luckily enough, was tickled by the whole thing and agreed to personally cook a three-course meal for us.
Finally, on the day itself came a challenge I did not foresee: sweatpants. Like most people, we'd been hanging about the house in our pyjamas and sweatpants all day. I remembered a piece of advice I'd been given by a friend about proposing: "If you're ever doing it, either let the girl know, or find a way to get her dressed up - because nobody wants to remember their engagement happening in crappy clothes."
So I told Leigh there were three surprises happening and, somehow, for one of them, we needed to be dressed up.
"But, we can't go anywhere?"
"Yeah… but… let's just pretend we're going to a fancy meal. We won't get to wear these clothes for months anyway." Luckily she bought it.
I set up our projector and screen, and, in formal dinner clothes, we sat down to watch the film. Once it started - with her mother shouting 'Happy Birthday' from her rooftop - she took my hand in hers, and didn't let it go until the end.
Faces of friends and family passed until the final face was mine. I was in front of the bar where we met, and I sang a silly song I made up that I sometimes sing to her. Then the 'me' on the screen turned to the camera and said, 'well, real Tom, on the couch, don't you have something to say?'
Yes, I'm aware this is super cheesy but dammit I had limited options.
And then it was over to me. I'd been thinking about what to say all week.
The Friday before, I took one last cycle into Manhattan before the stay-at-home rules came into effect. What struck me most on all those empty streets were the ads - they seemed eerily out of place now with nobody to see them. They were like ads seen in zombie movies, reminders of past hopes that now seemed limp and silly. Each one suggested a possible future, possibilities that are difficult to imagine now. Looking at them, it hit me deep down, the virus has scrambled our sense of the future.
And so I turned to Leigh and told her what I felt: That right now we can't know what's going to happen in a month or a week, or even a day. We can't shape the world around us, and it's confusing. What we can do, though, is carve out our future through holding on to what we know is important to us.
Then I got down on one knee and she leaped back in the couch and screamed 'what!!!?'. I took out the ring and then I looked right into her eyes as she caught her breath and said yes. She wrapped her arms around me and it really felt incredible.
I can't fully describe it, but it felt like holding life in your hands. It also just felt so good to have agency again. To make something happen.
Without anyone to take our photo, we set up a camera on our kitchen shelf and set it to take a photo every six seconds, to see what we'd get.
Norberto heroically cycled through the rain and passed us our meal from a two-metre distance in the lobby.
When I told him that she'd said yes, he took his mask off and I could see how large his smile was. For a split-second he went to give me a high five and then stopped.
We rang our families after dinner. It felt great to actually have good news to convey to people, and everyone reacted like it was water after a drought.
Each call was inevitably tinged by the virus - jobs lost, relatives sick, and everyone feeling stuck, stuck, stuck - but still, people relished hearing about somebody planting a seed for the future, despite how absurd that feels now.
Three weeks have passed since then. We're back in sweatpants, the numbers keep growing, and friends and relatives are falling ill. Simple things like laundry and groceries have become like military operations. About half my friends have gone home to Ireland, saying they don't trust the health system here. I can hear sirens blaring all day long now from our apartment in Park Slope.
Still though, as everything escalates and gets more frightening, I keep holding on to the life I want to build with Leigh, and how excited I am for it.
I'm fond of the poem Begin by Brendan Kennelly, especially the last lines:
Though we live in a world that dreams of ending
That always seems about to give in
Something that will not acknowledge conclusion
Insists that we forever begin.
And I think that's one of the ways we'll have to get through this, by finding ways to start new things, even when the future feels like an empty space.
That means doing an essentially human and utterly stupid thing: making plans.