By Pat Muir Yakima Herald-Republic
YAKIMA — This is not a sad story.
Parts of it are tragic, unquestionably. It is, after all, a story about a 21-year-old man with terminal cancer. There’s no getting around that. Still, this is not a sad story; it’s a wedding story, and a beautiful one. It’s a story about two people finding each other right when they needed each other most. It’s a love story.
“He actually proposed on Valentine’s Day,” said Lynsie Conradi, 22, holding a sedated Rodney Conradi’s hand as they lay together in his hospital bed earlier this week.
The wedding was Feb. 16, two days after the proposal, in the basement of Yakima Valley Memorial Hospital. The bride, a recovering leukemia patient herself, wore a borrowed dress. The groom wore a gray vest and pink tie, his IV stand a few feet from the makeshift altar. His brother stood at his side as best man, his sister as Lynsie’s maid of honor.
The whole thing took about 15 minutes. Later that evening, Rodney’s pain worsened to the point that doctors switched him to sedation drugs the next day. He was, in other words, in incredible physical pain during his own wedding. He has been under sedation since, barely able to speak. But the photos taken that day show him smiling.
“He kept saying, ‘That’s the best day of my life,”’ Rodney’s father, Kirk Conradi, recalled this week during an interview at the hospital.
That Rodney would get married in a hospital basement makes sense. Friends and family say he’s always been the kind of guy who didn’t care much about obstacles. Whether he ultimately could do something or not never stopped him from trying.
When Rodney was a student at Riverside Christian High School, he went on a mission trip to Los Angeles with Foursquare Yakima Church youth pastor Mark Grange. The group took a break one day to hang out at Venice Beach, where Grange and some others got a volleyball game going. Suddenly, Grange saw beach cops storming down the beach toward a rock formation that stretched into the ocean. It was like “Baywatch,” he said. Out there on those rocks: Rodney Conradi.
“Obviously that isn’t legal for anybody to do,” Grange said. “He loved adventure. He wasn’t going to be held back by anybody.”
Grange smiled when he told the story, then chuckled, remembering how Rodney on that same trip had climbed a palm tree barefoot. That’s about as bad as Rodney’s mischief got, though; he wasn’t malicious, just kind of goofy.
“He had leadership in that people really liked him and loved him for his spontaneity,” Grange said. “You never quite knew what he was going to do when.”
After high school, Rodney signed up for the Navy to be a hospital corpsman. He wanted to be a doctor, and he finished third out of 88 in his first round of medic training in Chicago. He graduated from boot camp in March 2009. He was 19.
“After that is when the disease started to show up with extreme pain in his legs,” Kirk Conradi said.
The pain just kept getting worse, until Rodney was discharged from the Navy in early 2010 for undetermined medical reasons. It took doctors until October of that year to pinpoint the cause as Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare form of cancer that causes bone tumors. He began treatment at Seattle Children’s Hospital and moved into the Ronald McDonald House across the street. Around the same time, Lynsie Rainford of Bellingham was finishing treatment for leukemia. She was sitting on a bench outside the Ronald McDonald House with her mother.
“Up rolled Rodney in his wheelchair,” Lynsie said. “He was asking if I was staying there and how old I was and what kind of cancer I had.”
She thought he was sweet. She thought he was funny, and she was impressed with his spirit in the face of his diagnosis. They spent time together, going for walks when he had the strength for it and eating at restaurants near the hospital.
“He acted, like, goofy all the time,” Lynsie said. “He didn’t really care what other people thought at all. That’s what I liked the most probably. He just didn’t care what other people thought.”
Rodney’s Facebook page from that time is full of pictures of him, head shaved after losing most of his hair to chemo. He’s smiling in almost all of them. He was falling in love.
“She said it was probably her bald head that attracted him,” said Rodney’s mother, Char Conradi.
Lynsie finished chemo and went home to Bellingham, but she came back to Seattle every two weeks for follow-up treatment. And she kept seeing Rodney. Then one day at the Azteca Mexican Restaurant near Ronald McDonald House, he just kissed her.
“I don’t even know how it happened, to be honest,” Lynsie said. “At that point it was kind of obvious that we liked each other.”
For a while last year, it looked like Rodney had turned a corner. His hair got thick again. He went back to Yakima. Lynsie went back to Bellingham. They saw each other a few times, even going camping together.
“We talked about moving in together and just having a normal life finally,” she said. “Pretty much through our whole relationship one of us has been sick or we’ve both been sick. We never really had a normal relationship.”
Late last year, Rodney’s cancer returned, worse than before. He started the fight over again, harnessing his strength and Lynsie’s.
Lynsie started staying with Rodney’s parents in Yakima. She split time between their house and Memorial, where she spends her days with him. They talked about getting married, but Rodney’s health was getting worse faster than expected.
“We didn’t know how much time we had left before he’d be too sick to do it,” Lynsie said.
The thing about Rodney is that his whole life he’s gone after what he wants, Kirk Conradi said. It’s like the time he wanted to jump out of a plane. Or the time he climbed that tree. Or the time those beach cops busted him, venturing out into the ocean on those rocks. So, even as Rodney’s health deteriorated and the pain increased, Kirk Conradi knew his son would propose to Lynsie.
“He had a goal: ‘I’m going to marry that girl before I die. She’s the love of my life. She’s my soul mate,”’ Kirk said.
And then it was Valentine’s Day. Rodney’s legs and spine were in agony when he got down on one knee to propose.
“He was really, really sick, and he was puking,” Lynsie said. “That’s what made it special; even though he was really sick, he still wanted to do it right.”
Wedding planning was a blur. “It was what they wanted and nothing was going to stop them, no matter how painful it was,” said Emily Conradi, Rodney’s sister. “The power of love was enough to get through.”
That it was a love born of tragedy, that the two young people getting married never would have met without that tragedy, is not lost on anyone.
“Tragic things happen, and you pray for provisions,” Grange said. “You say, ‘God, give me what I need.’ And you can see God’s hand in that, Lynsie being that provision for Rodney and Rodney being that provision for Lynsie.”
Rodney’s parents believe that, too. So does Lynsie.
“Lynsie and I have talked about that,” Char Conradi said. “The situation isn’t a normal situation. … But if they had not gotten sick, they probably would never have met and found their soul mates.”
And on the day of their wedding, for the 15 minutes it took to complete the ceremony, none of that mattered anyway. Everything was all right.
“It was the best wedding I could ask for,” Lynsie said. “Magical, kind of.”