In 2007, Kalena Alston-Griffin’s life was just as she’d planned: She was married, living in New York City and pursuing a lucrative business career. Ebony Magazine even named her one of the country’s most promising young leaders.
But by 2008, things were coming undone: Her father died. Her marriage was fraying. Her mother had a serious heart attack and needed 31-year-old Alston-Griffin, the eldest of five children, to take in her two middle-school-aged brothers.
Amid the chaos, she was also planning a move to Washington to start a publishing business. “I have been known to be one of those people who doesn’t set limits, so to speak, in terms of how much I can handle. But this was definitely beyond my comprehension,” she remembers.
She enrolled her brothers at Westland Middle School in Bethesda that fall and met with Vice Principal Ben Costa. Kalaii, 13, and Zeke, 11, had been through a lot, she explained, and warned that they might act up. Costa said he understood. He gave her a book about the psychology of adolescent boys and a phone number to where she could reach him when things came up.
“I was like, ‘Wow, he’s great,’ ” she recalls. “I just thought he was really empathetic and understanding.”
Costa’s reaction wasn’t only about the kids. He’d been taken with Alston-Griffin’s beauty. But when his boss warned it would be inappropriate to date her, he resolved to keep flirting to a minimum. Still, Kalaii gave them plenty of reasons to stay in touch — before long, Costa had become a mentor to the boy and was talking almost weekly with Alston-Griffin about his behavior.
“But what was cool about it, to be honest, was that it gave us the opportunity to know each other without the physical part confusing things,” he says.
Their friendship was growing and so were his feelings. She, in turn, had detected Costa’s crush. Though she admired the joking, candid way he related to students and parents, she wasn’t ready to date and felt she needed to keep some distance.
But in February, when Costa informed her that one of Zeke’s favorite teachers had died, she started to view him differently. “I’ve never seen him look so serious and so sad,” she says. “I just felt so moved at how emotional he was about it. And how honest he was with me about his emotions.”
When Alston-Griffin called Costa a week later to see how he was holding up, he invited her to meet for a drink. Neither was sure if it was a date. A few days later, she swung by his house to borrow a DVD. Sitting in his living room she seized up and launched into why they shouldn’t date.
He listened quietly, then stood up and asked her to dance. They moved closer and closer to each other until he finally kissed her. “And it was pretty much the best kiss I’ve ever had,” she says. “It was like he was completely vulnerable — like he gave himself to me. It felt very pure and very open, and I trusted him completely.”
They began dating discreetly, and every day he would send her a poem he’d written. “I realize why adults start going back to church,” he wrote in one. “To thank God for having found that person — for the love in their lives.”
In June, Alston-Griffin dropped by to visit her mom in the hospital, where she’d been on and off over the past year. She felt her knees buckle as a nurse told her, “Your mom may not last through the night.”
As Alston-Griffin struggled to reach her sisters, Costa joined her at the hospital. For a moment, he was left alone in the room with her mom, who was still conscious. “I’ll take care of your daughter,” he told her.
“Just make sure you protect her,” she replied. That night, she passed away.
Alston-Griffin wrote a eulogy about the impact her mom had on everyone. After the funeral, Costa noted that she had never mentioned her own feelings. “I’m definitely very good about smiling through things,” she says. “Nobody wants to know all these horrible things going on in your life. So the fact that he saw that — I felt like he saw me.”
She told him then, for the first time, that she loved him.
Weeks later, Alston-Griffin was startled by a daydream in which Costa was proposing inside a church. That night he took her to Washington National Cathedral, planning to ask her to marry him when they knelt to pray. Unnerved by the premonition, she refused to go inside. So as they sat on a bench in the garden, he asked her to be his wife.
After moving in together, the pair adjusted to a life that included two teenage boys (who claimed they knew the couple would fall in love), three dogs, and Alston-Griffin’s break from her previous business and creation of a new one. “He definitely gets it, in terms of being there and being truly loving — even through all of this chaos. It still impresses me,” she says.
On April 16, the two were married at St. John the Evangelist Church in Forest Glen. Kalaii and Zeke walked their big sister down the aisle.
That night the couple danced again, this time in front of 100 guests at the Crowne Plaza in Silver Spring. They chose a song called “Better than Love,” by Griffin House.
Whispering into her ear, Costa sang along with the lyrics:
“Nothing turns out the way we planned.
You’re still my baby, I’m still your man.”