OAKDALE -- For nearly two years, the warmth of her husband's arms and a little house in the country were intangible realities for Sarah Dudley. They were 2,500 miles away in a different country along an old dirt road in Oakdale.
United by marriage and divided by immigration law, the couple were prevented from living together in the United States until a month ago.
After years of fighting red tape, long-distance calls and waiting, Sarah and Matthew Dudley and their 1-year-old son, Jakob, are in that little house in the country.
It finally feels right, they say.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Modesto Bee
"I didn't know how lonely and depressed I had been until she finally got here," said Matthew.
The Dudleys' story was first told in October, when The Bee published an article about how they'd married in February 2006 in California and gone to Oshawa in Ontario, Canada -- where Sarah was born and grew up -- for a reception two months later. Visiting Canada after their wedding was a pivotal error that would separate them and test their bond.
The couple met in February 2005 when Matthew, 24, was in Ontario for a two-year church mission. Sarah's family invited the missionaries to dinner. The couple quickly became friends. They grew close and by the time Matthew's mission ended in 2005 they realized how much -- even the quirky things -- they have in common.
"Like salmon in a can from Costco. It's one of my favorite things to eat. I said that one night at dinner, and Sarah's mom looked right at her. She likes it, too," Matthew said.
But the couple didn't start dating until after Matthew's mission was over. They dated while he was in Canada, and Matthew came back to Canada to see Sarah after he returned to California.
The couple started talking about marriage four months after they started dating.
"When you meet the person, the person you're supposed to marry, you know," said Sarah, 23.
Before they wed, Matthew thought Sarah's citizenship might require some paperwork, but would pretty much be automatic. But what happened after the California wedding and the Canadian reception was a harsh wake-up.
If they had it to do over, the Dudleys said, they would not have left California for a $20,000 reception in Canada. It was paid for before they consulted a lawyer, who advised them to marry in the United States if they wanted to make their home here. No one told them not to leave. They didn't realize that when Sarah tried to re-enter the United States, agents would see that she intended to become a citizen -- and wasn't a tourist.
Since Sarah left the United States, she was obligated to process paperwork in Canada, according to their second attorney, Daniel G. Gold of Torrance. If she had stayed in the United States after their wedding until she was granted a visa, they would have been fine. It's fairly common to travel to another country, fall in love and get married spontaneously, Gold said.
"If I had it to do again, I'd put more thought into it," Matthew conceded.
He figures they spent about $10,000 on filing fees, lawyers and flights.
It was in late October that Sarah received the phone call she'd been awaiting. Someone with the U.S. Consulate in Montreal wanted to schedule an interview with her a month later. If her paperwork was in order and she was in good health, she could fly to California and be with her husband.
At the time, it had been two months since Matthew had seen his wife and son.
After the interview, it took about three weeks to get everything together. Then, U.S. immigration officials sent Sarah packages containing her visa.
"I left the day I got the packages back from Montreal," Sarah said, seated snugly beside her husband in their Oakdale home.
Matthew booked a flight for her and their son the same day and faxed her the information because her computer was down.
"I took a fax of the ticket information to the airport and crossed my fingers," she said.
Once in customs at the airport, Sarah gave two fingerprints and two signatures in exchange for a pass to the United States.
The last time she'd tried to enter the United States, Border Patrol agents detained the couple for four hours, separated them and told each of them that the other person was telling a different story, Sarah said. Eventually, agents let them return to Canada. Sarah stayed and began processing her paperwork. Matthew returned to Oakdale and also started processing documents and working to support Sarah and save for the family they hoped to start soon.
When apart, the couple spoke several times a day, hanging on the phone to share dreams of how things would be once they were reunited.
Matthew visited for a few days at a time when he could, but wasn't able to get away for long from his job as a ditch tender for the Oakdale Irrigation District.
Their divide seemed greater after Jakob was born last year. Matthew missed his son's first steps and first words. Jakob didn't recognize his father during visits, Sarah's mother, Ann Henderson, said. Three months after Jakob began saying "Dada," he learned that Dada is a person, not a telephone.
"Now, when he sees me through the window coming into the house, he yells 'Dada!' " a beaming Matthew said.
Matthew has been around for some firsts, too. Jakob, who had never seen cows before moving to Oakdale, now moos when he sees them.
"Mostly what I missed was the everyday things. I'd see photos of him with peas on his forehead. Now, I get to see him do that," Matthew said, wedged with his wife in a chair where they often sit together with Jakob stretched across their laps as they watch movies.
They have a couch, but are comfortable this way. It feels right, they say.