I’m sure you all remember (because how could you possibly forget), Morgan, who wrote me in January to get Team Practical advice about wedding planning in the face of serious illness. Her dad was dying, and she was getting married, and you guys rushed into the void with support, and wisdom, and just the hand holding of having been there. I was blown away. Morgan emailed me the day after that post went up and said she’d locked herself in her office and cried after reading all your responses, and then read more and cried before dinner, and then read more and cried after dinner, and said, “We got more bad news yesterday, and to have such an outpouring of support and kindness from strangers was just … I have no words. So, thank you..” And then she emailed me a few weeks later to say her dad had died. And then she emailed me a few weeks later to say that they had just gotten married and it was healing and full of joy and she was off on her honeymoon and she’d write a graduate post when she got back. She was blissed out. I was so so so glad and grateful that she finally got to have that. And then she emailed me to say her 19 year old cousin had died. Out of the blue.
And so. After all that, Morgan was strong enough to sit down and write. She wrote two pieces. Today’s post is about why weddings are important especially in the face of death, and tomorrow’s post is about throwing a cheap and lazy wedding (or, as she prefers to call it, a cheap and cheerful wedding). I want to warn you that you need tissues to make it through today’s post. Not in the, “I got misty” way, but in the, “I went into the ugly cry” way. Seriously, I got sob-y as I read this. This level of honesty is necessary, but so hard, and so rare. So here is to Morgan, for her bravery – for getting to the other side, and for being willing to tell the tale.
. . . . .
Let me tell you about my last year.
In March, we know that David is about to become ‘temporarily out of work’, but decided to go to Washington DC as planned for 10 days anyway. A week after we come back, my father breaks the news that he has stage 4 lung cancer. Two weeks after that, David’s out of work, thankfully with benefits. They discover cancer in Dad’s brain, and he starts chemo and radiation – his health improves dramatically. David’s return to work is delayed yet again, now they promise September. In July, we take a look at our savings, my job, and decide on a whim to go to Scotland and Ireland for 3 weeks. He proposes at a Neolithic portal tomb in Ireland. It’s wonderful. My father undergoes another round of brain radiation. David doesn’t go back to work. We start to plan a wedding, and figure that March, 6 months away, seems safe, and book the venue. Gradually my father’s health starts to decline, and as does my mother’s mental health. David finally goes back to work, after 8 months of unemployment, 3 days before Christmas. We are all aware that this will be my father’s last Christmas, and everything is hard. He is getting worse, and this round of treatment does not help. Wedding plans are progressing, but it’s hard to get worked up about details. I call my sister home in mid-January for the weekend, complete with a big Sunday dinner with a couple of my parents’ oldest friends, and it is wonderful. My father then dies 5 days later, 50 days before the wedding. I have very few memories of the week between his death and the wake, and I’m okay with not remembering. I do remember that the day after he died, David and I buy a house, and are stuck with possession the weekend before the wedding. We pack up, con my friends in to helping us move, and eat a lot of take out. The wedding rolls around, and it is wonderful. We go on a lazy beach honeymoon (that also includes zip lines) and come home to start setting up house and buying furniture and unpacking boxes. Less than a week later, my 19 year old cousin dies of a totally unexpected heart problem. Mike was the spitting image of my father at that age, to the point at the wake I’d made a joke that as long as we had Mike, it would feel a little bit like young-dad was around.
So. Things were hard. The big stuff was very, very hard. Two funerals and a wedding in 9 weeks for my family.
I didn’t necessarily cope with well with life. I stopped sleeping around Christmas, and finally went for sleeping pills in early January. The panic and desperation in my voice when I called my doctor’s office got me an appointment an hour later. I contemplated grabbing David and running away. I drank too much rum. I closed the door to my office and cried during work hours. The night before my father died, after I left the hospital in the middle of the night, I screamed the entire way home and my voice was left hoarse and raw for a week. I leaned on David – hard – and he caught me when I crumpled. I got anxious more than a few times, and then I made spreadsheets that helped quell (wedding) anxiety. In some ways, having the wedding to focus on was a small blessing – it was a series of tasks that needed to be done, and things to check off when they were accomplished. Unlike watching my father die in slow motion, where there was nothing to do but watch and grieve.
Interestingly, my mother, sister and I all dealt with our grief in very different ways, at different times. Only now, three months after my dad’s death, is my mom starting to own her anger and sadness instead of simply lashing out at everyone about everything. My sister did most her grieving last summer after the diagnosis. I get grief in waves, and I was fine on the wedding day. I teared up for the toasts, but just damp eyes. The next day, after the wedding brunch? Tired and exhausted and hungover? I made it through the brunch, I made it partway home, and then I started to cry. I cried for the next two hours, finally crying myself to sleep in David’s arms – hardly the sexytime nap we had planned. My grief came, in part, from managing to get through the wedding without my father there, and in part because rites of passage really are a big deal, no matter how happy they make you.
I wore my father’s blue star sapphire engagement ring as my something blue – I got a ring guard and it fit well enough. The minister wanted my mother to say, “with joy Hal and I give her to this marriage” but she couldn’t. My sister’s original toast was about my dad, but when it came time to give it, she couldn’t, and told a funny story about me instead. David’s toast to my father made everyone in the room tear up. We made sure to celebrate his memory in small ways on the day, and it helped.
When Meg posted my plea for advice in January, many people mentioned moving up the wedding date, or trying to involve my father in the plans as much as possible. That just didn’t work for us. Partially because up to the week before he died, my mother was sure that he would make it, and partially because I got the feeling that he knew he wouldn’t, and in his mind I was already married. He lived long enough to meet my husband and to see me happy, and for that I am ever so grateful. As David said, “I’d like to make a toast to a man who, although I only got to know for a very brief time, always made me feel welcomed into his family. A man who so clearly wanted to have something to talk with me about he started reading the sports section and watching Flames games on TV. A man who, although he won’t get to see Morgan and I as husband and wife, very clearly approved of me marrying his daughter. A man who, for the last few months before his passing no longer referred to me as David but rather, ‘Morgan’s Hubby’.”
Do I wish he was there? Of course. Do I wish he had lived and suffered through a horrible and humiliating illness for two more months just to have watched me wed? Of course not. Was walking down the aisle myself hard and nerve-racking? Yes! (I debated the aisle walk for a long time, and in the end, decided to walk by myself. David wanted to be at the altar waiting, and I had to respect that. Although a friend of mine, who got married 5 months after her father died and 11 months after his, didn’t give her groom a choice and they walked in together.) Do I have any regrets about throwing the wedding, about the timing, about our choices? Sure, everyone has regrets, but I can live with my choices. Do I regret standing up in the room full of family and friends and declaring my love? No, absolutely not. Life is short and it can be cruel, we all know this, so any excuse to celebrate joy should be taken.
Managing to sandwich the wedding in between two funerals makes it abundantly clear to me just HOW IMPORTANT weddings are. I come from a large family that only gathers for weddings and funerals, and the fact that my cousin Mike’s last family gathering was a happy one? A blessing. I felt tremendously loved by my family at the wake and the wedding, but the joy at the wedding was healing and wonderful.
Talking about grief and death is hard. Celebrating joy in the face of grief is hard. And ever so necessary.
Picture by Kevin Steinhouse