A Missed Flight Leads To A Connection

Wedding guests spray money at the bride and groom, a tradition in Nigeria’s Igbo tribe. Image: Houston Cofield /The New York Times

Brooke Watson and Nelson Madubuonwu dated briefly at their Memphis high school. A “magical” misprint on her plane ticket brought them together several years later in New York.

Once upon a “magical airline ticket,” Brooke Watson and Nelson Madubuonwu made a connection that brought them to a special place in each other’s hearts.

“Everything happens for a reason,” said Ms. Watson, a 28-year-old senior data scientist with the American Civil Liberties Union in New York.

Ms. Watson and Mr. Madubuonwu, a 28-year-old product manager for Facebook in New York, first met in 2007 as students at White Station High School in Memphis. They lost touch for six years before finding each other again on social media.

“Brooke and Nelson have always felt like they have this wonderful, kind of magical connection,” said Ms. Watson’s father, Dennis Watson. “They’re both very bright and interested in similar things, and they have very interesting careers — they’re just a nice match.”

The two dated briefly in December 2012, but were just friends in August 2013 when they boarded a train for Kennedy International Airport, where Ms. Watson had a one-way ticket to Australia and dreams of starting a new life there after graduating from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville with a degree in microbiology. She was a four-year athlete there on the swimming and diving team, and competed in the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Trials in swimming.

“I had a couple of interviews set up in Sydney, but I was also ready to work in a bar or on a farm there if I had to,” said Ms. Watson, a daughter of Karen Watson and Mr. Watson of Memphis. (Her father is a lawyer there and her mother an executive with a charitable foundation.)

“I was caught up in the adventure of it all,” Ms. Watson said.

But Ms. Watson, who had asked Mr. Madubuonwu upon arrival in New York to help her navigate the city’s subway system to the airport as he was now living in Manhattan, soon found herself in an unexpected adventure. The travel agency she used to book her flight had printed the wrong name — “Brooke Wa” — on her ticket. With the last four letters of her surname also missing in the airline’s database, she was not allowed to board the plane.

“I was sort of freaking out, and to make matters worse, the flight was delayed several times,” Ms. Watson said. “I called my mom, who proposed that I come back to Memphis. But that really wasn’t an option.”

She tried canceling her ticket and buying it back, but the new fare, she said, was $6,000, which she could not afford.

“At some point the plane left and I wasn’t on it,” she said. “I sort of meekly turned around, holding a backpack filled with all of my belongings and with nowhere to stay in New York City, a place where I had never been.”

Her plane had departed, but Mr. Madubuonwu had not.

“I was just about to leave when I heard this kerfuffle at the check-in counter,” he said. “Then Brooke came back and told me what had happened, and I told her that she could stay with me and my roommate at our apartment in Morningside Heights for as long a she needed to.”

Ms. Watson accepted the invitation, and rebooked a ticket she would use three days later. In the interim, she and Mr. Madubuonwu walked around Manhattan, enjoying museums and restaurants, and most of all, each other’s company.

“I think I had always really, really liked Nelson, but I didn’t let myself think we could have a future together because our lives were going in different directions,” said Ms. Watson, who also has a master’s degree in epidemiology from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

“Nelson was this extremely attractive and charming 22-year-old man living in New York,” Ms. Watson said, “so the thought of him wanting to date someone exclusively who lived in another country didn’t make sense to me.”

But it all began to make better sense after spending that small stretch of unexpected time together, which Ms. Watson referred to as “our very wonderful delay.”

“During those three days, I think I saw a little bit more of who Nelson really is,” Ms. Watson said. “He’s a very caring, very smart and very thoughtful person.”

Mr. Madubuonwu, who graduated from Yale with a degree in political science, said those 72 hours “created a feeling of inevitability about us becoming a serious couple that was both incredibly powerful and palpable.”

“I had already seen Brooke as a wonderful person who could be a great partner, but it didn’t seem likely as we were going to be living in different parts of the world,” said Mr. Madubuonwu, who is the son of Paul Madubuonwu and Sandra Madubuonwu. (His father is an associate professor at Meharry Medical College in Nashville and past president of the Anambra Family Association of Memphis, the largest membership organization of the Igbo tribe from Anambra, Nigeria. His mother, is the director of maternal health at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital in Memphis.)

“Brooke and I were never going to work unless somehow we happened to be in the same place at the same time,” he said. “But as it turned out, that magical airline ticket gave us a glimpse of how great our lives could really be together.”

By the time Ms. Watson took off for Australia, Mr. Madubuonwu was grounded in the belief that he had found the woman with whom he would spend the rest of his life.

“At that point, I didn’t want to be with anyone else,” he said.

During the next six months, Ms. Watson lived and worked in Sydney before backpacking through parts of Southeast Asia, including Indonesia and Thailand.

During that time, they visited each other twice, she returning to spend the holidays with him in December 2013, and he traveling to Sydney in March 2014.

“Nelson was incredibly supportive of my time spent abroad,” she said. “He never tried to persuade me to come back.”

Their long-distance relationship continued, each sending the other old-fashioned letters and a never-ending stream of emails, exchanging everything from jokes to newspaper articles to their deepest-rooted feelings for one another.

“Our relationship was built on a bedrock of communication,” Mr. Madubuonwu said. “Given our far-flung time zones, I would be in my bed talking to Brooke at the strangest times of the night or early hours of the morning.”

On one of those nights, in August 2013, Ms. Watson, who had spurned numerous offers to date other men while she lived abroad, called Mr. Madubuonwu to tell him, for the first time, that she loved him.

“I thought about Nelson constantly, and it got to the point where I could no longer hold in the fact that I loved him,” she said. “So I called him and just threw the “L” word out there because I wanted him to know how I was feeling.”

Mr. Madubuonwu returned the “L” word on the spot, and when Ms. Watson returned from Sydney in June 2014, they began dating immediately.

“Every time I learned something new about Nelson, I fell in love with him a little bit more,” Ms. Watson said. “There was never a time when I wasn’t interested in him or fascinated by him or excited about seeing him.”

There was a time, however, when Ms. Watson wondered if she would ever see Mr. Madubuonwu again.

In May 2016, Ms. Watson, who was in England, received a call telling her that Mr. Madubuonwu, who was in New York, had been rushed to an emergency room after his appendix had ruptured.

“He was so sick, we thought he was just going to die,” the groom’s mother said. “Brooke was in London at the time and flew all the way back and stayed at Nelson’s bedside the whole time — that’s when I knew she was the one.”

They were engaged on New Year’s Eve 2017 in the company of friends and family in Memphis.

“My father appeared in a dream for me and gave me signs and indications that this actually is the woman for Nelson,” the groom’s father said. “I should not object. Because it is not uncommon for families from Africa to object to this kind of marriage — an interracial marriage. But my father gave me a clear sign that this is the right person for Nelson.”

The couple had a traditional Nigerian wedding ceremony on Oct. 4 at Memphis Botanic Garden. The following day, they were married in a legal ceremony at Shelby Farms Park, also in Memphis, where the Rev. Ken Zelten, a senior pastor ordained by the Order of Franciscans Minor, officiated, with Sanket Karuri, a close friend of the groom, taking part.

“It’s funny, because they both kind of liked each other in high school, but they kind of tiptoed around each other, so I don’t think they were ready at that point,” said Mr. Karuri, as he gathered for pictures before the Nigerian wedding in an outdoor courtyard. He and other groomsmen were dressed in white Igbo garb, called a senator, and leaning on canes beneath a fading sun, while the bridesmaids wore gold dresses and geles (headpieces), another Nigerian cultural wedding tradition.

Music began blaring from inside Hardin Hall, a ballroom at the Memphis Botanic Garden where members of both families began entering in small groups. Some marched into the room, others danced. The groom wore a red tunic, called an agbada, the bride a red dress. The bride’s family formed a cluster on their side of the ballroom to symbolize their home or village as it would be in an Igbo state in Nigeria. Members of the groom’s family walked across the ballroom bearing gifts for the bride’s family that included beer, wine and a platter of food.

The groom’s father, wearing a large crown and holding a staff, wore an elaborate blue garb, as did other elders of both families.

A member of the groom’s family then declared to the bride’s parents that the groom had brought gifts as a symbolic exchange for their daughter. A representative of the bride then formally introduced both families to each other, telling them a bit about the couple’s history. The ceremony then continued as the bride’s father told his daughter to go to the groom, but unbeknown to her, the groom was hiding among the 275 guests.

“Brooke loves hard, and the Madubuonwus love her,” said Chelsea Cravens, the bride’s older sister. “She’s made a real effort to know all of them individually and learn parts of their culture, that’s just who she is, always.”

Afrobeat music began pulsating as the bride danced rhythmically around the ballroom, holding a glass of wine as her bridesmaids tried to help her find the groom. Each man in attendance was encouraged to shout out to the bride that they were the groom in an effort to confuse her.

But as was the case years earlier, she found the man she had been searching for.


When Oct. 4, 2019

Where: Memphis Garden

Families United Perhaps the most emotional moment of the evening was when the bride and groom’s maternal grandmothers walked into the ballroom hand in hand.

Made in Nigeria Chinekwu Osakwe, the best friend of the groom’s younger sister, helped coordinate the wedding and also got both parties outfitted in tailored clothing from Nigeria.

Spraying Cash As the ceremony wound down, guests danced while celebrating the bride and groom by “spraying” them with money, an Igbo tradition.