We women, if I may speak for more than just myself, are told that the days and weeks surrounding your engagement are blissful and perfect, full of congratulations, champagne toasts, and giddy engagement announcements to family and friends, including the all-important Facebook status change. And furthermore, that you then spend romantic moments staring into each others eyes, cuddling by firelight, and running toward each other in a field of flowers.
I don’t know if I was ever explicitly told this story, or if I just absorbed it somewhere, but I cannot be the only woman who imagined the beginning of her engagement being special, rose tinted and almost magical. I am not even going to blame the WIC for this, although it’s probably partly at fault, I think this is just some knee-jerk pre-feminist fairytale that we don’t even know we believe until it happens to us. Or doesn’t happen to us, in my case.
This is not how my engagement has played out. At all.
My fiancé, C, and I got engaged in the midst of major family upheaval on all sides. Three months prior, my stepmother was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer that had metastasized into a lump on her spine. And although we weren’t given a specific timeline (at their request), the phrases “stage four” and “metastasized” didn’t sound good. One month prior, C’s father and uncle were in a car crash, killing his uncle and leaving his father in critical condition. C is a Ph.D. student and put the rest of his semester on hold so that we could race a thousand miles home to take care of his teenage sister, distraught cousins, and his ill stepmother. It was a mess, to say the least.
So saying that we got engaged during an emotional, turbulent, and rather difficult time is an understatement. We got engaged in the middle of some serious adult shit, things that tested us as a couple, as individuals, and as members of our larger families. And perhaps we could have chosen better timing, but it was right before Christmas, and we both liked the idea of being able to tell most of our family in person. And we decided that life goes on and that we wanted to bring a little bit of joy into what was otherwise a pretty lousy holiday season for much of our family.
And our families were both thrilled for us, but other issues distracted some of them. Which was to be expected, of course, but at the same time it sucked for us. I spent some time trying to figure out if I was just being selfish, or whether I was actually being slighted and my engagement was not getting the reception I had hoped for.
While I was chewing on this, at some point I realized that this is real life. A particularly difficult and sad stretch of real life, but still real life. This is what C and I have promised to support each other through. And that there is no magical engagement fantasy period, there’s just life and how you approach it with your partner. How you solve problems and express grief and cry, and give your partner the space to do the same. And that even with the turbulence of life, and the confusion and pain of family tragedies, it is still occasionally possible to create a small place where we can be happy together and celebrate the next chapter of our lives. That this is what the vows mean, even though we haven’t taken them yet. Or written them yet, or even nailed down a definite date for the wedding, or any of the thousand other wedding things we haven’t done yet.
It hasn’t gotten any easier. We are now almost four months post-engagement, and C’s father continues to struggle as his broken body heals itself, and my stepmother has succumbed to the cancer, leaving my father devastated and adrift. We are starting to feel as if we are losing wedding guests through attrition. The story isn’t over yet, and frankly I’m not sure how things will turn out in the end. But I am fairly certain that if we can survive this stretch, we can get through almost anything.