Chance Encounters

They fell in love in the 1980s but married other people. 23 years later they reconnected

Francesca Street, CNNPublished 17th November 2022
(CNN) — Grace Migliaccio decided at the last minute not to get on the plane.
It was summer 1984. Grace, a recent college graduate in her early 20s, had put all her savings towards a long distance flight from her home in Washington DC to visit her Australian boyfriend, John Hiron.
The couple met at a party earlier that year, a few days before John was supposed to be leaving town. The early days of their relationship were a whirlwind -- after falling for Grace, John extended his trip for as long as possible.
They were, as Grace puts it, "super head-over-heels madly in love." But eventually John's visa ran out, and he had to go home. After that, Grace and John's relationship was confined to letters. Their snail mail took weeks to travel overseas, and the physical distance between them created an emotional distance that was hard to bridge.
As her departure date approached, Grace started to worry.
"I had a dream that I was making a huge mistake," Grace tells CNN Travel today. "I just had a really bad gut feeling I shouldn't go."
It didn't help that Grace, "was not an adventure taker," as she puts it. Looking for reassurance, Grace spontaneously called John. The couple rarely spoke on the phone due to the hefty long distance charges, but she was feeling increasingly desperate.
"I needed him to say, 'You're doing the right thing,'" she recalls. "But he wasn't home."
Grace and John, pictured here in 1984, struggled to navigate a long-distance relationship.
Grace and John, pictured here in 1984, struggled to navigate a long-distance relationship.
Susan Payor Wilkerson
Instead, John's mother answered and said she'd pass on the message. It was over 36 hours before John phoned Grace back. In the interim, Grace's anxiety only increased.
"Should I come?" Grace asked, when John eventually returned the call.
"If you want to," was John's response.
For Grace, this apparent nonchalance sealed the deal.
"I didn't get on the plane," she says. "And so he went to the airport to get me, to pick me up, and I didn't get off -- I wasn't on the plane."
"I said the wrong thing, without a doubt," says John, who blames his immaturity. He wanted her to come, he says now, he just didn't know how to express it and the long distance was tough.
When Grace didn't turn up, John and his friends went straight from the airport to the pub. Over beers, his friends told John he'd meet someone else and move on. But John knew he'd lost something not easily replaced.
A few days later, he called Grace to ask her what went wrong. Over the grainy connection, Grace and John both struggled to articulate how they felt. Achieving a sense of closure felt impossible.
"I know we're going to date other people, but we shouldn't marry anyone else," said Grace eventually, sensing the call -- and their relationship -- was coming to an end.
"Why?" asked John, thousands of miles away in his parent's house in Perth.
"Because we're never going to love someone the way we love each other," said Grace.

Different directions

Grace and John, pictured here in 1984, went their seperate ways after she decided not to get on the plane to be with him.
Grace and John, pictured here in 1984, went their seperate ways after she decided not to get on the plane to be with him.
A. Giles
For months afterward, Grace says she felt "devastated." But she tried not to imagine what life would be like if she'd boarded her flight. Instead, she "set about trying to move forward."
"I bought a car with the money that I was going to go to Australia with, so that I couldn't be tempted to change my mind later," she says.
Months turned into years and John and Grace remained on the periphery of each other's lives.
"I would call periodically," says John. "One year I called, and she got married. And then I called again and her parents had died."
Sometimes, John would phone and wouldn't get through -- Grace would have moved, and he'd struggle to track her down. There was no social media or email to aid this quest, and one time John phoned an international directory in the US to find Grace.
For Grace, these intermittent calls were bittersweet.
"I would swear, 'l am not going to talk to him anymore. What is the point?' along the way. Because it would stir up emotions," she says.
"But every time he would call, I would take the call, of course. But I would swear this is the last time we're going to talk."
Grace kept all of John's letters.
Grace kept all of John's letters.
John Hiron and Grace Migliaccio
The decades rolled on. Grace and John dated and then married other people, and later had children.
"Twenty-two years later, I'd long moved on from this relationship," says Grace.
Even so, she'd kept all of John's letters.
"I always had them wherever I went, whoever I was with, however many times I moved, the things that he gave me came along with me."
Then, one day in January 2007, John called Grace out of the blue. The two hadn't been in touch for some time. In the interim, they'd both been going through trying times -- by coincidence, Grace had recently separated from her husband and John and his wife had also recently split.
"I said, 'We've broken up and I'm not married anymore.' And Grace said the same thing," recalls John.
"That was really surprising that we were both separated," says Grace.
The two talked for a short while, sharing how they were both feeling about their marriage breakdowns.
John mentioned a device called a webcam was becoming more commonplace -- maybe they could video call sometime?
"I went to the local Staples, and I bought an external webcam, and I plugged it in and had to figure out how to use it," says Grace. "And we saw each other for the first time in 22 years."
The image was slightly pixelated, Grace took a moment to adjust to John's gray hair -- but despite the years, they both recognized one another right away.
"It's funny how your mind tricks your eye, and you see the person from age 22, you don't see the person who's 45, in your mind, you see the young person," says Grace. "And so from the minute we actually saw each other, it was super emotional -- this almost visceral reaction."
It was also a bit awkward.
"We didn't really have a lot to talk about at first because what is there to talk about?" says Grace. "Just -- 'how are you doing with the divorce? How are the kids? How are you handling it?' And helping each other through that, and kind of catching up on our lives and where we were and what was going on."
Still, they arranged to speak again and over the next few months, they connected frequently by video call. Grace and John felt drawn to one another and their calls became a bright spot in both their lives.
"I'd get home from work, and we'd sit down and I'd be watching TV and the webcam was on and we'd talk for the night," says John.
After a while, John suggested he could come to the US and they could reunite in person.
Grace was hesitant -- was this a terrible idea? She raised the question with her marriage counselor, who suggested seeing John could bring about some much needed closure.
"She said, 'This will be good for you to see each other, and you'll never see each other again. So it's kind of a very safe thing to do. You're not going to get into something complicated, because how could you? You're so far away.' That was her advice. And that backfired..."

Reunited in the US

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Here's Grace and John in 2008, when they were reunited in the US.
John Hiron and Grace Migliaccio
Grace picked John up from Newark Airport in March 2008. Waiting in a taxi with a bottle of champagne and chocolate covered strawberries, she found herself thinking about the day, all those years ago, that she didn't get on the airplane.
When she saw John again, Grace says "it was like getting back a missing piece of myself that I hadn't realized was lost for so long."
"It was amazing. Very emotional," says John of their reunion. "It was just about like no time had passed, it was all very familiar and comfortable."
Before John's arrival, Grace was worried there would be awkward silences. She'd prepared conversation topics, but these prompts turned out to be unnecessary. After just a few days together, the decades did seem to melt away. Grace and John started to discuss maybe meeting again in a year's time.
But as they spent more time together, the two realized they were more than just old friends. The connection they'd felt in 1984 was still there, and waiting a year to reunite felt impossible.
"We were like, 'Well, what are we going to do? Because now we can't ever be apart again. We made a mistake -- maybe we were young, maybe it was the right mistake and things worked out the way they were supposed to. But we can't just go back to now being apart again,'" says Grace.
One evening, they reread the letters Grace had kept for all those years.
"It literally made us cry, to see the depth of emotion then, and that we could have let it slip away," says Grace.
Then they found themselves recalling the phone conversation they'd had in 1984, right after Grace didn't get on the plane.
"I said, 'Wow, 22 years ago, I said we shouldn't marry someone else.' And he finished the sentence '....because we'll never love somebody the way we love each other,'" says Grace,
"He remembered that -- and that was like a stab in the heart of, 'Okay, now, what are we going to do?' This is going to be difficult and complicated."
Grace and John lived on opposite sides of the globe. They were both going through divorces. They both had children they loved, and they wanted to be part of their lives. Following their hearts was complicated.
Still, several months later, Grace visited John in Australia, and less than a year after that, John moved to the US and the couple eloped.
"I was very emotional because we waited a lifetime, really, to say those words," says Grace of their wedding day.
The couple eloped, and 10 years later celebrated their wedding anniversary in Hawaii, pictured.
The couple eloped, and 10 years later celebrated their wedding anniversary in Hawaii, pictured.
Kevin Rockwood Photography
Falling in love again, 23 years later, was as bittersweet and complicated, as much as it was "euphoric."
Some loved ones were hurt by their reunion. Some friends thought they were both going through midlife crises. For John, moving across the world from his children was particularly tough.
"It was extremely hard, extremely emotional," he says.
"It was a couple of years of really difficult times with that move," says Grace.
But as the dust settled, John and Grace were able to spend significant time in Australia, as well as in the US.
They became a cross-continental blended family, bringing their children together whenever they could. Some of John's children have since studied and worked in the US.
"What's amazing is all the five kids get on pretty well together," says John. "We can take them on a vacation and everyone gets on well, we have a good time."
"We like to think that in the end, when you get past the pain, we made all of our kids' lives so much bigger, and set a great example for love," says Grace.

Making up for lost time

Grace and John say they are trying to make the most of every day together, and travel a lot -- including to the Taj Mahal in India, pictured here.
Grace and John say they are trying to make the most of every day together, and travel a lot -- including to the Taj Mahal in India, pictured here.
John Hiron and Grace Migliaccio
Today, 15 years since their reunion, John and Grace still live together in the US, where they're "making up for lost time."
"It almost feels like we'd never been apart," says John.
They try to enjoy, as Grace puts it, "a lot of traveling and adventures and experiences to create a lifetime of memories in a shorter, compressed period of time."
Loved ones who were originally naysayers have come round in the interim. And as for Grace and John, they've both come to believe things happened the way they should have.
"It's worked out the way it was meant to work out," says John, who says the decision to be together wasn't easy, but it's always been worth it.
"If we tried to carry on from 1984, we probably wouldn't have been mature enough to get through that period to get to where we are now," says Grace. "So I feel sad, but I know that I have the best of it now. So it can't really be sad, because it all worked out the way it was supposed to -- despite all of our mistakes that we made, including me not getting on the plane."