My Dad Can’t Come to Our Wedding

It's for his own good, but that doesn't make it hurt any less

Every now and then, I come across an article or an essay about a couple that’s moved up their wedding so that someone important in her life with Alzheimer’s or dementia is able to attend. Published alongside this story is a photo of the bride, typically, and the family member, arms around each other and melting with joy. In the end, the couple always says that the stress and hassle of working with vendors on an accelerated schedule, and the race against an illness with its own construct of time, was all was worth it. The loved one is able to be there, cognizant, and the couple will remember the wedding day with this family member as whole as this person may ever be again.

I am not that person. That is not my wedding.

In the years before I got engaged, my dad began to slip. His social graces faded, his personal hygiene faltered. He struggled to form sentences, he began to speak more slowly. “Sick” doesn’t precisely describe his condition during this block of time. Dad seemed “off,” as if his normal behavior could be switched back to the on position. The scale of his mood swings and frustration and confusion grew exponentially until they were no longer easy to ignore or minimize. “Off” became his operating status, and I began to imagine a hypothetical wedding to my long-term boyfriend that would be easy for him and my mom, who had become his caretaker, to attend. A destination wedding that required a flight was out. A venue that involved a long drive from their house was out.

Such a concern is now moot. My dad is not going to be at my wedding. He is in the final stage of vascular dementia, formally diagnosed a few months before being admitted into the nursing home where he is now bedridden. His vision is impaired, as is his hearing and his ability to walk and almost any other functional skill. The last time I saw him, a month after I got engaged, he didn’t recognize me. Maybe he’ll live to see his next birthday, but likely not.

When our family admitted him to the nursing home last fall, it became clear to me that the grips of dementia had tightened to the point that his attendance to my wedding, whenever and wherever it would be, would be meaningless for him and difficult for everyone.

But every now and then, I consider what would be involved in order to have him there. The ceremony would have to take place in my hometown, near his nursing home. My mom would have to arrange for medical aides to bring him to the venue via media transport and attend to him for the duration. That venue would have to be not just accessible but generously accommodating to someone in a wheelchair. He likely wouldn’t be able to try any of the food due to his strict eating schedule and bland diet. With the change of scenery, it’s difficult to predict how he would respond, or what sort of stress the activity and commotion would create. Eventually, much earlier than the remainder of the guests, the aides would have to take him back to the van and drive him to the nursing home. The entire time, my mom, my brother, my fiancé, and I would be tense—what if he falls, what if he has an accident, what if he becomes anxious, what if this was a very bad idea.

I stop at this point in my speculation.

Planning a wedding involves a series of decisions and some degree of “what if” after decisions have been made. What if I kept wedding dress shopping instead of buying the one I had landed on. What if we just elope. Even when the unselected option is not feasible, as is the case of having my dad at my wedding, the possibilities found in the alternative don’t disappear. I often second-guess myself. Other engaged couples seem to figure out a way to host a sick family member at their wedding—why can’t I? What if I tried to accommodate him at a ceremony? I turn away from the realities of his cognitive and physical decline as I raise these questions, until my mind wanders into the land of planning and brings the facts of the matter into sharp, painful relief.

While I was never the girl to imagine my dad walking me down the aisle, I always pictured him being there. At the altar, I would look back and to him in his seat in the front row, smiling broadly and wiping away tears. Reminding myself that this isn’t going to happen feels like a pinprick, a consequence of my choice, but it is still necessary.

I choose in these moments, deliberately, when I wish that things could be different, to think instead of the future with my soon-to-be husband. The small, immediate-family-only ceremony we have begun to plan will be wonderful and completely fitting of my fiancé and me. My mom and brother will be there, too, for which I am so grateful. I also remember the good times with my dad, and I hope that he is comfortable. That is all I can do.

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