I was married the day before my father lost part of his spine. I was in Florida, trying to decide with my new husband where we’d go for our honeymoon, while my father was in surgery, the doctors removing sections of his spinal cord that had been turned to mush by a bacterial infection. E. Coli.
I never expected my father wouldn’t be at my wedding, not even when he returned sick from the Dominican Republic, where he and my mother spent half the year. In DR, he was diagnosed with a simple UTI; after two months of fever, he lost the ability to walk, from the sickness, he assumed. When the plane landed in New York, my parents went straight to the emergency room. My uncle carried my father up the steps into the hospital. The first night we gathered in the ER, my father’s dark skin was sallow, his body sunken, his voice thin and faraway. He had no feeling below the waist.
My fiancé Jonathan and I began to visit the hospital daily. He was studying for his second round of med school boards, and I was working odd jobs to save up the last of the money we needed for the wedding. In the evenings, we brought newspapers and licorice to my father, iced coffee and face cream to my mother. She left the hospital only to shower and slept in a chair beside my father’s bed.
It was July, a month before I was to be married, and my father was receiving antibiotics through an IV twice a day, downing iron pills and stool softeners, and disappearing into whatever movie happened to be playing on the hospital TV, away from reality, his lifeless limbs.
I waited a few days to ask him whether he’d be able to come to the wedding. He arched his eyebrows at me and said, “You think I’d miss your wedding?”
I was used to my father answering questions with questions: it was a strategy he’d used since I was a child to reassure me without revealing how he really felt. At twenty-seven, his evasions somehow still comforted me. If he said he’d be there, he’d be there. I put away my doubt and lay beside him to watch the TV.
In the hospital, my father kept up with the wedding planning. I showed him the final menu, and he approved of the skewered shrimp. We discussed attire, and he told us he’d wear a guabayera shirt and linen pants to the reception, since all of his old suits would be too big on him now. He’d sit in a borrowed wheelchair, smoking a cigar in the front row, and give me away. I showed him the unfinished seating chart for the reception, and he pointed to a table near the cake and said, “Yeah, put me there.”
It wasn’t long before my father developed a bedsore, an inches-deep cavity at his tailbone, because the nurses had forgotten to turn him to his side every two hours. I left the room whenever the wound nurse arrived to measure and dress the sore. He was still running fevers, and the doctors avoided my questions about travel and the wedding. No one had told us yet whether his paralysis was temporary, so I assumed that it wasn’t.
I don’t know what my mother and brother assumed. We didn’t talk about what was happening, but I caught them crying in the hallways, the elevator. My family isn’t one that articulates strong emotion. Pride, excitement, and gratitude are all implicit, as is sorrow.
I’d chosen Jonathan in part because I didn’t have to hide with him—I could weep and worry, celebrate and whine. But in those days at the hospital, I hid, too, from my family and my feelings, my father’s condition. I kept busy working at a café, writing emails to the wedding planner, making escort cards by hand. I started antidepressants. On our subway rides to the hospital, Jonathan would flip through his flashcards, and I’d put my head on his shoulder, teeming with things to say, but I’d remain silent, and count the subway stops instead.
When I was a girl, my mother predicted I’d never marry. Her reasons were various: I folded my jeans sloppily, reacted too sensitively to criticism, looked fat in my school uniform. She held marriage up as a prize, perhaps because her own marriage had been so defining for her, perhaps because she thought the prospect of a husband would motivate me to improve myself and take her advice more seriously. Or maybe she simply had different ideas about womanhood and worth than I did. My mother and I were born decades, an ocean, and a language apart, she, a 1960s baby in the Dominican Republic, and I, a 1980s baby born in New York.
We kept our distance during the wedding planning. My mother was busy, I knew, caring for my father, who’d had trouble walking and used a cane, even before the E. Coli found its way into his nervous system. And so, I found surrogate mothers: the friends who joined me on my dress shopping, the aunt who called each week for planning updates, my bridesmaids, the magazines and blogs I read before bed every night. I cherished any interest my parents showed in the wedding, any mention of their plans. Before my father got sick, he talked of renting a house in Orlando. “For me and all my people,” he said. He and his guests would play records and drink beer. For my father, admitting his plans was tantamount to saying, “I’m so happy for you.”
My father ordered me not to cry when he told me he wouldn’t be able to come to the wedding. He was too ill, and if he left the hospital, even for two days, he wouldn’t be admitted to a rehab center. I couldn’t risk my father coming to the wedding and never walking again. I couldn’t risk him coming to the wedding and dying. I spent my last week in New York in a daze and disbelief. The morning, we left for Florida, we went to the hospital to say good-bye. My mother cried silently in her chair in the corner of the room; she didn’t say it, but I knew she was disappointed for me, terrified for my father and herself. I crawled into the hospital bed with my father and hoped I wasn’t leaving to get married while he stayed behind to die. Before we left, he wrote us a check to pay the caterer. Despite our best efforts, Jonathan and I hadn’t made our intended budget. In the memo, my father wrote: Bo’s Wedding. “Bo” had been his pet name for me since I was born.
The night before the wedding, Jonathan and I ordered room service for the first time in either of our lives. We expected it to feel luxurious, but we ate our sandwiches gravely, passing a miniature bottle of ketchup back and forth. Our week in Florida had been filled with errands, relatives, and avoidance. Finally, one of us asked the other, “How are you doing?” and we both faltered for the first time since leaving New York.
We cried for my father and for everyone else we’d hoped would be at the wedding but wouldn’t—an uncle of Jonathan’s who’d died of lung cancer, and his grandmother who’d died from pneumonia, my friend who died one night in June while riding her bike, Jonathan’s father from whom he’d been estranged for years, my uncle who’d died unexpectedly of a heart attack six months before, a bridesmaid who dropped out of the wedding weeks before because she’d been too depressed to work and raise the money for airfare. We cried for all the injuries and absences that we still carried, despite the promise of our life together. And when we were done, we put on our pajamas and got in bed to write our vows. Congested, and sunburnt, we finished by midnight, and Jonathan fell asleep. I stayed awake, picturing my father in his hospital gown, alone, and thought, “This is happening.”
The next day we were married in an old train depot in the city of Winter Park. Just before we said our vows, a freight train roared through the ceremony, clattering over the nearby tracks. Our guests cheered, and Jonathan and I clapped along to the ruckus of the train—here was a harmless surprise, an interruption we could laugh at. When the train passed, we exchanged our rings and kissed. We were married.
My father watched the ceremony from New York on an iPad. We FaceTimed him afterward. He was a few inches by a few inches on the glossy screen.
“Congratulations!” he said, smiling as if he weren’t sick at all. He laughed about the train, and told us he’d seen everything. He’d liked the sermon, and the song two of our friends performed for us. He thought Jonathan’s nephew made a handsome ring bearer. He mentioned coolly that he had spinal surgery slated for the next morning, and he refused to enter the OR until my mother and brother arrived. My father insisted Jonathan and I stay in Florida, so we blew him kisses and hung up and went on with our joy.
There was magic in the rote rituals of the evening. We cut the cake; we danced to soul; a widowed aunt caught the bouquet. Our families dissolved into a single mass on the dance floor; the children breakdanced under the revolving lights. Then the guests lit sparklers and banged on the hood of the rental car as we drove away.
Back in the hotel, Jonathan and I lay together and reminisced about the night, declaring it was all we’d hoped it be, better than it had any right to be given my father’s absence.
He’d written a toast for us that my brother read during the reception. It was just a few sentences explaining to the guests why he couldn’t be there, that he would’ve liked to be. He wrote, “Marriage is one of the few relationships in the universe where the whole really is more than the sum of its parts.”
It was quintessentially my father—concise, mathematical, aloof, and bursting with feeling. It made me wonder what tenderness my parents shared, unknown to me. And it made me think about the wedding, the way it had drawn a cloud of people around us, in our time of joy and need. There was the friend who recorded our ceremony because we couldn’t afford a videographer; the uncle who had borrowed airfare; the uncle who had paid for our photographer; the distant relatives who were the first to return their RSVPs; the friends who’d embraced me when they heard my father wasn’t there; my brother, who’d walked me down the aisle; the friend who’d taken the iPad to my father in the hospital; my mother, who’d insisted on flying down with my wedding dress to make sure it wasn’t damaged in transit, and who wandered into my hotel room on the morning of the wedding, distraught and missing my father, to ask if I needed anything.
And there was Jonathan, the feeling of our legs looped together, our ankles linked like anchors, and it seemed to me that my father’s words were true—there was much more than just the two of us, we were part of a whole much larger than we had known.