First Came Friendship for an Activist and a Single Father of Five

Before Michael Ruxsaksriskul figured out that Kassie Edwards didn’t want to date him because of his personality, he assumed his personal baggage was to blame. As a newly divorced father of five on the verge of bankruptcy, the former Marine knew he was carrying a lot. What he didn’t know was that Ms. Edwards was experienced in unpacking.

Mr. Ruxsaksriskul and Ms. Edwards met in the spring of 2016 at an AIDS awareness event in Washington. Neither was interested in the other romantically, but for different reasons. For Mr. Ruxsaksriskul, restricting all new relationships to the friend zone was a practical necessity. “When you’re raising kids by yourself, you’re too busy to think of anyone that way,” he said.

For Ms. Edwards, 35, the chemistry was just not there. “He was really boisterous and vocal, almost like the male version of me,” she said.

Mr. Ruxsaksriskul, 40, is a cloud engineer at Ventech Solutions, which provides technology services for government agencies. When he met Ms. Edwards, he was living in Vienna, Va., and moonlighting as an Uber driver and DoorDash deliverer while working as a cloud engineer at Amazon. “I was trying to make a new life post-divorce,” he said. To support his children, ages 8 to 17, “I had to start all the way over.”

A few elements of his previous life remained, including his friendship with Nicole Williams, who was speaking at the AIDS Awareness event that spring. Mr. Ruxsaksriskul went to listen. Ms. Edwards was there as a fellow activist. When Ms. Williams introduced them, they exchanged Facebook friend requests. By that summer, they were going on platonic double dates with a pair of mutual friends, Angela Perry and Maurice McCullough, on Mr. Ruxsaksriskul’s nights off from his parenting duties.

“Michael and I would talk like we had been friends forever,” Ms. Edwards said. Though she had been single awhile and was open to a new relationship, his personality still felt like an unscalable hurdle. “Usually when you meet somebody like yourself, you’re not going to get along, especially if you’re outgoing,” she said. “He was so much like me I thought it would be trouble, except I’m a little more selfish and he’s more giving.”

It was this giving quality — on display in September 2017 when Ms. Edwards went to the emergency room at MedStar Washington Hospital Center with severe nausea — that pushed her past her doubts.

“Facebook had just initiated their ‘nearby friends’ feature, and Michael was scrolling and saw I was in the hospital,” Ms. Edwards said. She believes the nausea was brought on by something slipped into her drink at a bar. “He came to see me, and even though I was looking a hot mess, it didn’t matter to me because I still thought of him in the platonic sense,” she said. “I was able to move around him with confidence and ease.”

As a toddler, she had learned not to count on a sense of ease or confidence. Ms. Edwards was born in the Bronx, where she lived in the Co-Op City housing development until she was 2. She and her mother, Verona Dodd Wright, an immigrant from Jamaica, then moved to Pinellas Park, Fla. Her father, Milton S. Clarke, was a New York Police Department auxiliary officer. In 1993, he was killed by a gunman in the Bronx. Mr. Clarke, who was off duty at the time, had heard shots fired and went to investigate. Ms. Edwards never met her father.

“I never knew he was a policeman, and nobody really knew about me,” she said. By the time he died, just before she turned 8, her mother had helped her contact Mr. Clarke. The buds of a father-daughter relationship were forming, but too late. “I remember he told me something was coming in the mailbox for my birthday.” He died before he got it to the post office. “I’m still obsessed with checking the mailbox,” Ms. Edwards said.

The fallout hasn’t kept her from learning how to manage trauma. In 2008, she was sexually assaulted by a stranger as a student at Florida State University. Just after, she read about incidents of untested rape kits and became vocal about having hers tested right away.

In 2012, Michelle Obama invited her to the White House; in 2014, she was asked to participate in listening sessions for the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault. She now serves on the board of the DC Rape Crisis Center.

Ms. Edwards graduated from Florida State in 2010 with a degree in African American studies and museum studies. Five years later, she earned a master’s degree in public administration from Washington Adventist University.

Around the same time, she started working for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, where she is now a curatorial research assistant. “I think I first heard the museum would be opening when I was 20, and I knew I wanted to work there,” she said. “I’ve always loved museums. I was persistent.”

Mr. Ruxsaksriskul’s career path was more circuitous. At 18, Mr. Ruxsaksriskul, who is half Thai and half Black, enlisted in the Marines after a difficult rise through Washington’s public schools. His father, Morokot Ruxsaksriskul, had never been in the military, but he was an inspiration. “My dad struggled to make it in this country,” Mr. Ruxsaksriskul said. He had also struggled in his native Thailand. Morokot Ruxsaksriskul was born to a Chinese father and a Thai mother. “There was a racial bias against him in Thailand because of his Chinese side,” his son said.

To overcome it, Morokot asked the king for permission to change his last name to one associated with Thai royalty. It was granted. Mr. Ruxsaksriskul is the second generation to use the family name. It is pronounced Ruck-SACKS-ris-kool.

Mr. Ruxsaksriskul was born in Washington but lived in Bangkok until he was 5. His first language was Thai, which contributed to his difficulty with English when his father and mother, Gwendolyn Allen, moved back to Washington. They divorced soon after.

“Schools wanted to kick me out, and my dad fought to keep me in,” he said. By the time he graduated, his father was tired of fighting. “He said, ‘When you turn 18, you’ve got to figure out what work you can do.’”

Mr. Ruxsaksriskul saw a Marine Corps commercial and called for information. Not long after, he was shipped to Kuwait, where he saw combat. He enlisted hoping to land an information technology assignment, but a paperwork snafu steered him into the role of logistics specialist. “It was an honor to serve my country,” he said. But in 2003, after four years and reaching the rank of corporal, he decided not to re-enlist.

“I felt in my heart I wanted to work in computers,” he said. By the time he met Ms. Edwards, he had a foot wedged in the door thanks to his Amazon job. His entree into her heart happened just after her trip to the hospital, when he offered to help her move from Laurel, Md., to a new apartment in Belksville.

Mr. Ruxsaksriskul showed up at her doorstep on a Sunday afternoon with a bottle of red wine. “It felt a little celebratory,” she said. They sipped while they packed. By the time the bottle was drained, “a light bulb went off,” Ms. Edwards said. “I had butterflies. I thought, We’ve been friends nearly two years and it’s taken me this long to realize he could be the one?” That night, they had their first kiss.

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Though Ms. Edwards was less encumbered, it was Mr. Ruxsaksriskul who had reservations about where the relationship might lead. “I had never met a woman like Kassie, who has this great intellect and a sunny outlook on everything,” he said. “I’m a single parent without a lot of financial resources to throw around. I didn’t know if it could work, but I thought, I’m going to be in the moment.”

By that fall, they were a committed couple. Ms. Edwards made a practice of not overthinking Mr. Ruxsaksriskul’s family obligations, which expanded in 2018 when Morokot moved in with his son and grandchildren after being diagnosed with stage four prostate cancer. “It wasn’t scary to me,” she said. “It wasn’t something I would have sought out, but it was O.K.”

Until it wasn’t. In July 2019, Ms. Edwards broke up with Mr. Ruxsaksriskul. The pull to get married and have children of her own had been nagging at her. He had a vasectomy before his divorce and made it clear he wasn’t sure he would ever remarry.

The breakup was devastating for both. “I cried for days,” Mr. Ruxsaksriskul said. By September, they decided to give the relationship another try, using couples counseling as a road map. It worked. “We learned how to talk to each other and to listen better,” Ms. Edwards said.

In November, over Thanksgiving dinner at the restaurant Gyu-Kaku Japanese BBQ in Arlington, Va., Ms. Edwards said a joyful “yes” when Mr. Ruxsaksriskul proposed. Counseling had shifted his reluctance to remarry.

“I thought Kassie had this idealized perspective on marriage, and I was afraid that when she got in the thick of it, she would be like, this is not what I signed up for,” he said.

Ms. Edwards convinced him otherwise. Instead of shelving her desire to become a mother, she started a conversation before the proposal about having his vasectomy reversed. He was game. The surgery is scheduled for her 36th birthday, next year.

She brought the same no-nonsense approach to their finances: In July, the couple bought a house in Lanham, Md., after two years of joint saving, another lesson taken from counseling. Months earlier, she had moved in with the Ruxsaksriskuls to fatten their wedding budget. “I’ve been slowly but carefully integrating myself with the kids,” she said.

On Aug. 1, at the Knollview House in Pasadena, Md., Ms. Edwards and Mr. Ruxsaksriskul were married by Paul Graham, the founding pastor at the Restoration Praise Center in Fairwood, Md. Ms. Edwards, in an off-the-shoulder white gown, met Mr. Ruxsaksriskul, in a royal blue jacket and black bow tie, under a bayside arch; 69 guests watched from folding chairs on an emerald lawn.

As part of the ceremony, the couple were celebrated by a quartet of robed monks from Washington’s Wat Thai Temple. For the Thai wedding tradition known as Rod Nam Sang, they sat at a long table and received well wishes while the monks chanted. Before Mr. Graham took a few stabs at pronouncing “Ruxsaksriskul” for his introduction of the new Mr. and Mrs., the couple spoke of their intentions for the marriage.

“I promise to love you forever, that everlasting Gobstopper kind of love,” Ms. Edwards said. Mr. Ruxsaksriskul promised nothing less. “I vow to always love you as you are, not how I think you should be or want you to be,” he said.

On This Day

When Aug. 1, 2021

Where The Knollview House, Pasadena, Md.

Happy Chaos Before Ms. Edwards decided to take on the role she calls “insta-mom,” friends told her she was crazy to get involved with a man with five children. But Sue-Ann Arboine, one of the four bridesmaids, admires her spirit: “She inspires me,” she said. “And unlike me, she enjoys organized chaos.”

All Together Now Mr. Ruxsaksriskul’s children, Tatiana, Selah, Ju’Leah, Rhema, and Mikai, were escorted down the aisle by Morokot Ruxsaksriskul, their grandfather. At a wedding reception at the Knollview House, the couple danced to “Bonafide Love” by Buju Banton. Dinner was chicken marsala.

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