You guys, I’m not even sure what to say about Caitlin’s wedding graduate post, except that it is among the bravest posts I’ve ever read. It’s hard enough to live what she and Mike went through, but to write about it on the internet? That’s a whole other level of grit. And I’m quite serious in warning you that this might not be safe for work, in a sobbing kind of way. So I am beyond honored to bring you Caitlin’s story of loss and joy and grace, all mixed in to one.
Mike and I were married on August 21, 2010 in Cooperstown, NY. Mike left his job and went back to school full time for his degree in teaching just a few months into our engagement, and so we knew planning a wedding would be difficult on one income. But a few months into planning we entered a “deserving couple” contest and, much to our astonishment, won an amazing windfall that included photography, flowers, a dress and a cake—things that were never in our budget to begin with, but were wonderful gifts just the same. Because of this, much of our planning was made easier, and over time I thought that maybe my wedding graduate post would be about creating a wedding/life budget on one income (and a non-profit one at that), or trying to plan a wedding with friends who were all going through far bigger things than our wedding (divorce and babies on either end of the spectrum). But, as it turns out, what I have to say is something that has been echoed in this community many times before.
Throughout the planning process I read from other brides here about losing parents, facing death during the engagement, moving forward with happiness when life was hard; and I empathized, shed tears, but still felt their words didn’t wholly apply to me. I had both parents, plus a stepmom, and though we had lost Mike’s dad to leukemia three years earlier, the pain of his absence had eased somewhat, and we were comforted in knowing that he had considered me part of the family before he passed. Then, in July, Mike’s mom told us she had cancer. And it was advanced. Everything changed.
I remember that first night clearly, hours after she told us, trying to fall asleep in Mike’s sister’s room and whispering to each other an imaginary timeline for when we would be ready to let her go. It seems ridiculous now, but it made those first hours and days easier, gave us some control, to feel that we could deal with this if we could just have another year, even six more months. But just three weeks later the call came that she was in the hospital, and that we should get there as soon as we could. And only an hour after we arrived, we said goodbye, and she left us. It was the Saturday before our wedding.
Words are tricky things to find as I write this. Bernadette was Mike’s mom, but also one of his closest friends. She was not just my mother in law, but the woman I considered a parent for more than 8 years, whose house I lived in over countless weekends when Mike and I were long distance and he lived at home, for more Friday night cups of tea around the kitchen table than I can count. She was an everyday part of our world, and now we were supposed to have a wedding when her death still felt absolutely fictional.
I worried about Mike and his sisters; I didn’t know how we were going to get through the next few days, much less a party in a week.
And so I sent an e-mail to our vendors telling them that we were signing off for the week, that we trusted them to handle any last minute questions that came up, and thanked them for everything they had done for us. And that is one of the best pieces of advice I can share.
You hire people to help you pull this day off, tragedy or no, trust that they know what they are doing and have your best interests at heart. We signed off for that last week (to be honest, we checked out as soon as we learned of the diagnosis), and when we finally came to, we were greeted by a beautifully prepared wedding.
Bernadette’s funeral was on a Wednesday, and on Thursday, after a frantic trip down to our apartment in New York City and back, we left for Cooperstown. On Friday our families began to gather in town, and Mike and I tried to allow ourselves to feel excited. It was a hard transition, but knowing that everyone in our lives was thinking of our family was such a tangible thing—we had never felt so loved.
Saturday began as a relaxing day, but as the hours went by I grew anxious thinking of how Mike and his sisters (who were two of my bridesmaids) were feeling, and I struggled to hold myself together. I thought I would be calm and collected—I had been laid back about the wedding for our entire engagement—so it surprised me that before the ceremony a new, nervous person took over. By the time the dress was pulled on, my hands were shaking so much that I didn’t think I could get my earrings in. This feeling was so unexpected, and I felt ashamed that I wasn’t the breezy bride I thought I’d be—the one who rolls with the punches, is calm under pressure.
But I did get the earrings in, and the photos of me getting ready only show me smiling as I see myself in my dress for the first time. And I thought: “this is alright, this is just how I am feeling before I get married, this is just how I am going to do it.” And I reminded myself that most people would be nervous before getting on the stage that is a wedding ceremony, with or without the week we had experienced. So I had some champagne, took some deep breaths, and thought of Mike waiting for me outside our Inn.
And so we had a wedding. And that’s what mattered. That in the midst of the saddest week of our lives, we were joining our families and friends to say: this is hard, but there is still joy. The day after Bernadette passed, we lost my grandfather as well. The dual losses brought our families together in a way we never could have expected.
I have glimpses now of Mike twirling his two sisters around the dance floor as I danced with my Dad, of his uncle high-fiving the band singer after a great number, of my mom’s sisters talking with my Dad’s sisters who they hadn’t seen in decades, of my brother singing us our first dance song and then a surprise rendition of Stand By Me later in the night, of my cousins and our work friends hanging out at the bar like everyone was an old friend. The images we have from those hours are enough to help heal the sorrow that is our life without Bernadette. And we’ve learned that a wedding is not just “your day,” it is a day to celebrate the lives you were born into, the ones you’ve made, the ones you continue to build. I am so thankful we were there.
Photos By: Justin and Mary Marantz