What My Wedding Will Be Like without My Father There

wedding aisle

When I was little, the only real attention I gave to my future wedding was a lot of analysis of the problem of how to get down the aisle. Not that I thought that I would have cold feet or trip on my heels. The problem was my dad—specifically, his gigantic, powerful, electric wheelchair.

My dad became a quadriplegic when I was eighteen months old after a freak accident partially severed his spinal cord. He maneuvered his wheelchair with a joystick he controlled with some residual power of movement in his arm, but his level of precision was unreliable. He tended to speed up and slow down unpredictably, making walking beside him difficult, and small muscle spasms or bumps in the road would cause him to veer off course. The walls in our home—and occasionally, my toes or shins—bore the marks of these minor mishaps.

So, no puffy dresses for me. I considered those far too vulnerable to being run over or even tangled in his wheels, imagining my train slowly ripping off as he rolled me down the aisle. I frequently considered the possibility of riding down the aisle on his lap, which seemed like a good idea to the eight-year-old me. Ditto on nixing a long veil, since he couldn’t lift it over my head before he handed me off to the groom. And instead of dreaming about something borrowed and something blue, I plotted where to stash a handkerchief. He was an unabashed sentimental crier who couldn’t wipe his own eyes, so I was probably going to have to do it midway through the journey so he could see to steer.

This type of advance planning is characteristic of children of the handicapped. Even today, I’m usually the one walking slightly ahead of a group of friends, a possibly annoying quality I like to attribute to my childhood years of skipping ahead on mini scouting expeditions, reporting back on conditions such as whether the street corner ahead had accessible curb cuts or if we would have to find another way to go.

The one scenario I never considered in all those years of logistical daydreaming was the one that will actually take place on my wedding day. There will be no worrying about wheelchair axle grease on my dress, or him stranded in the middle of the church thanks to a dead battery. This is because he wouldn’t be there are all. He died when I was twenty-two.

So, when I get married, now I can wear a puffy dress. I can have a veil (and my mother to lift it for me). I’ll definitely still need a handkerchief stashed somewhere handy, since it turns out that weddings are one of the times when I miss him the most, and the most sharply, even though he’s been gone for over eight years. Sorry, friend in whose wedding album I appear in the background, crying hysterically during the father-daughter dance (after being blindsided by those emotions at that wedding, I now sneak off to the bathroom when the time comes). Sorry, friend whose complaints about how cheesy her father’s speech at the reception would be that I shot down with the comment that she should be grateful that she has a father to give a speech at all (especially sorry because, in truth, that speech really was quite cheesy).

I’m not sorry that I’ve had all of these experiences. He was a great dad and a great role model both for how to have a good life and a good death. Plus, I am now fantastic at planning routes for strollers, moving dollies, and wheelie luggage. And, best of all in a deeply bittersweet way, I could say “Hey, me too!” when my boyfriend revealed that his mother had died when he was a toddler. This was on our first date, by the way, initiating a tradition of getting personal very early on. Maybe too early, such as when, at a brunch during our first month together, I asked him if he could remember the name we had picked out over drinks the previous evening for our firstborn son, and he had to gently break it to me that we had not, in fact, had any such conversation. Although apparently we did have quite a few drinks…

My dad is still a prominent feature in my fantasy wedding planning. As I’m getting more and more excited about the possibility of a future with my boyfriend, I find my thoughts often turning to the best way of honoring both him and his mother during our ceremony—a way that will also celebrate all the other father and mother figures that we have both been lucky enough to collect along the way. Hopefully, I’ll get to share my big plans with you guys when it happens. Until then, wish me luck on navigating life without a bumbling yet adoring rom-com dad to give me advice when things are temporarily gloomy and to look spiffy in a tuxedo at my wedding. Dad would have been rocking a bolo tie, anyway.

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  • What a wonderful post. I’m so sad that your dad won’t be physically present for your wedding; he sounds like a great person. I like to hear stories of how people manage to integrate disability into their lives and it’s so touching that you spent so much time and energy thinking of how to modify your day to suit your dad’s differences.

    I hope that you’ll share with us some of your thoughts about how to honor the memory of your parents on your big day. I am trying to figure out how to honor in my wedding my best friend who died four years ago.

  • Karen

    Thank you for sharing your story with us and giving us a different perspective. I appreciate your honesty and vulnerability. I know you will create a meaningful way to honor both your father and his mother during the ceremony. I’m so glad you had a wonderful relationship with your father.

  • HalfPint1011

    Oh, tears in the coffee. It warms my heart that you’ve found strength through your experience and a common bond with your man. Finding a way to honor my mother and othes during my wedding and following through with it was unbelievably emotionally cathartic. My best wishes to you and congratulations!

  • kcaudad

    I was able to honor my mother, who passed away when I was a young teenager, and my grandparents, by wearing some family jewelry and other important pieces in my wedding outfit. We also made a slide-show video that played during the cocktail hour that had pictures of us growing up (with some choice pictures of my mother included), and other family wedding pictures, and a short section with people we wanted to remember. It worked out well. It was a more ‘quite’ way to show remembrance and for me to feel like they were are part of our day. I have also seen other people have candles lit for someone who could not be there (during the ceremony or in a prominent place with a sign). Good luck to all of you with similar things to consider on your wedding day.

    • My husband did the same thing to honour is father when we eloped. Because we did things so quietly in the end there was no real chance for a big way to incorporate his dad’s memory in the ceremony or reception, but he wore his dad’s best watch as a way to help feel connected. Then we made a few crass jokes in his dad’s memory at dinner, mostly because that’s what he would have done.

  • Moe

    Such a lovely post, thank you for sharing! My father has been gone almost 10 years now and I am still at a loss as how to honor his memory at my upcoming wedding. I have a locket with his picture to attach to my bouquet that will walk me down the aisle. Beyond that I don’t know if I can handle anything else that is more public or prominent to remind me he won’t be there.

    Also, coming from a family with two people in wheelchairs it really does change your view of the world in terms of accessibility. I consider the weight of doors that need to be swung open by someone in a chair, or I scowl at people who think its convenient to park in a handicap parking space just to pick up their dry cleaning (shame on you!)

  • Jen

    I think we’d all love to hear about how you decide to integrate your dad and your man’s mom into your wedding day!

    I lost my dad when I was 9, so when I was a child imagining my future wedding I always pictured my mom walking me down the aisle. I also, of course, wanted my dad represented in some way, but for me I didn’t want anything too overt or too flashy. My dad, my uncle, and our grandparents who have already left us were all mentioned in our program, but that wouldn’t have been enough for me on its own. I have all of my dad’s old ties (when we gave all of his clothes away for some reason I was very attached to the ties, and even took them across the country when I moved for University), so we decided that my wonderful husband and his groomsmen (his brothers) would all wear my dad’s ties on the big day. That way, my dad and his memory would be present in every single part of the day, and all I had to do was look at my man to be reminded of his presence!

    I also changed dresses for our evening reception (we had a mid-day ceremony), and the dress I changed into was the dress that my mom had worn at her wedding (with a few alterations). That same dress was also worn by my grandmother (my father’s mother), and had originally been made by her mother in the 1920’s. That also felt like a really special link and special reminder of my dad and, really, all of my family that couldn’t be there.

  • Ruin my cat eye makeup, why don’t you?!

    This was so lovely to read. I’m so glad that you had so many great years with your dad and I’m so sorry he was taken from you too soon. And, not to be as cheesy as your friend’s dad’s wedding toast, I think your dad will be there at your wedding, even if you don’t see him.

    • Class of 1980

      DITTO what Erin said (minus the cat eye makeup).

      My cat came back to visit several times after he died. If my crazy cat can be around, I’m fairly sure your father is.

      He sounds like a great dad.

  • This was such a lovely post. I am so sorry for your loss, but I think it is clear that the moral of your family’s story is that life remains beautiful even when it doesn’t go according to plan.

  • Jessica

    Oh my word. Thanks for the warning about the tissues…except somehow I’m still a snotty mess. In the beginning I was like wow, what a sweet and thoughtful daughter until I read this: “He died when I was twenty-two.” My stomach dropped and the water works started.

    Your dad will be there on your wedding day. I do believe that. Thank you for such a touching post.

  • I’ve been reading APW for a while but this is the first post that compelled me to comment. I, too, lost my father at the age of 22, 10 years ago March 1st actually. It was an accidental death that threw our entire family into a tailspin for a while; my dad was the president of his small company, and my mom took ownership overnight. We all struggled for years, but my mom, my siblings and I have become so much closer as a family because of it. I thought I was doing pretty well with my grief in the past few years, finally, but it’s come back in waves quite acutely since I got engaged last August. I’ve had full-on slobbering breakdowns in my fiance’s arms thinking about how much it sucks that my dad isn’t around to walk me down the aisle or do a father-daughter dance, and how unfair it was that he died the way he did. But with our unconventional, multi-cultural wedding we’re planning, I’ve decided to have both my mom and my brother walk me down the aisle, and my sister will be my MOH and my one and only bridesmaid. That way my entire family can be part of my ceremony, and I feel like we’ll be honoring my dad with our love for each other. I’d like to find a material way of honoring him in the ceremony too; still ruminating on that one. Thank you for the heartfelt post.

    • Moe

      In the weeks following my fathers passing I was talking to a friend who lost her dad a few months before me. This was how she described the grieving process and I found it to be true to my experience as well:

      “Everyday is going to be really crappy at first. After a while though the dys will just suck and there will be fewer crappy days. Eventually the crappy days will be fewer and farther between until one day, you will have this normal day. There will be more and more normal days and suddenly out of nowhere you’ll have a sad crappy sad day that completely blows you away.”

      So today, that started out as a normal day is suddenly a little sad as I’m remembering dad all of a sudden. Perhaps it’s a good time to think about how I will honor him.

  • Kaylle

    I’m so very sorry for your loss.

    “Sorry, friend whose complaints about how cheesy her father’s speech at the reception would be that I shot down with the comment that she should be grateful that she has a father to give a speech at all.”

    My mother passed away when I was 20, and every time someone on a wedding forum complains about their mother being difficult, a little piece of me wants to say exactly this. I know it isn’t fair and I know it isn’t going to help anything to say it, but it’s still there in the back of my mind. I think it’s only human.

    As far as honoring her at our wedding, we printed her picture in the program (we had a bit of a theater theme so we had a “playbill” style program with pictures of the wedding party in it) and I listed her as my mother in the “cast” even though she was not physically present. I asked my grandmother (her mother) to light my unity candle in her place and I put a photo of her and I beside it on the altar. I also put flowers in our colors on the grave that day (she is buried beside the church), so I could feel like she was celebrating, too.

  • Peg

    This was a beautiful post. Beautiful, is the only way to describe it.

    My dad was diagnosed with a brain tumor right around the time that i was born. He lived with surgeries and complications and more surgeries – they started off few and far between but as the years went by, they became more frequent occurences. He died when I was 19. I always cherish my memories of him.

    Reading this post and the comments, I was so touched. I could never write something so beautiful on the same subject. Erin, your father would be so proud. I just know it.

    I met my husband a few years after my dad passed away. His dad had just passed away too. We actually didn’t bond over that commonality initially but over the years, it became a really strong bond. We talked about our fathers and I really felt like my dad would have liked him and his dad would have liked me. It was nice to be able to share those feeling with each other. Engagement and marriage really brought back a lot of emotions for me about my dad’s death. I’m really not a sentimental person, and my dad’s death was not unexpected, but the wedding planning process really made me miss him a lot more. I couldn’t help but think “I just wish he could meet meet my guy. I know he would have loved him.”

    I chose to honor my father by wording the invite as follows:

    The pleasure of your company
    is requested at the marriage of
    daughter of Mrs. ____ and the late Mr. ____
    son of Mrs. ___ and the late Mr. _____

    This is definitely not for everyone as it really breaks with tradition and many people don’t like the idea of mentioning death in a wedding invite. But it was really important to me. So i did it. Additionally, for the father daughter dance, I danced to “Imagine” with my dad’s five younger brothers. My dad was the eldest of 6 boys and it was really nice to dance a portion of the father daughter dance with each of them. (I just started with one uncle and told the next uncle to count to 30 and then cut in, and repeat with the next uncle, etc.)

    Whichever way you decide to honor your dad, it will be beautiful. Thanks again for sharing your story with us.

  • KB

    Ohhh, I lost it for so many reasons for this post. I have been struggling with how to incorporate my dad into the wedding because he’s dealing with a number of disability issues that could be problematic on the day of. So I can totally relate to the visceral need to “plan out” everything in advance. And, truth be told, all of these little things have been stressing me the hell out – but then I read your post and think, you know what, if he makes it there, it will be fine, even if we have to figure out wheelchairs/canes, elevators, nap/resting rooms, or if problems come up. The big picture doesn’t have to look perfect.

  • Erin Thompson

    Thank you for all of your wonderful comments – it’s bittersweet, but also amazingly inspiring, to hear about other people working through the same issues. And, wonderful news – my boyfriend proposed this weekend! I better get started with my plans for honoring my dad!!!

    • I am very late replying to this – glad I went back through the archives! This resonated with me so deeply because my father passed away when I was 19 after struggling with MS and complications my whole life. I so know what you mean about “advance planning,” accessibility issues, and managing the chair. When he was alive, I thought about and managed the same things! And while life without him has gotten easier over the last 9 years, now that I have a man in my life that I love, and my entire family loves, it just effing sucks that my dad never got to meet him, and he never got to meet my dad. B/c I know they would have really liked each other.

      And I get sad/jealous at other people’s weddings during the father daughter dances and ceremonies too….so right there with ya.

      Please let us know how you end up honoring your father and negotiating some of the traditions into something that works for you. Thanks so much for sharing this…

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