His cell phone rang, and I could tell from the moment he answered it that the news was bad. He's normally very laid back; it takes a lot to shake him, but at that moment his face was drained, his eyes far away, his responses fell silent.
"Your mom?" I mouthed. And he nodded, slowly. His mother--my not-quite-yet-mother-in-law--had lost her long, hard battle with lung cancer.
Our wedding was in three days.
What immediately followed was a bit of a blur. I went to my then-fiance's side and hugged him as he hung up the phone. He was so, so quiet. "I'm sorry," I whispered. Then we were off to be with his family. It was a four hour drive across the state. We were sitting on his family's front porch, the congregating place, and everyone wore the same expression: distant, somber, distracted.
"What about the wedding?" one of his sisters asked me. I remember thinking, "Why me? Why is this my decision?" I was so torn. Was having it disrespectful? Was canceling it? What would canceling it mean? Would I be able to tell everyone in time? Did I even have everyone's contact information? I'd lose the deposits, which meant I wouldn't be able to afford another wedding because we'd scrimped, saved, and borrowed to make these payments on grad student salaries, but that was okay, right? Would his family be able to come? I didn't want to get married if his family wasn't there.
I responded quickly, "I'll do whatever you guys think is best. If we need to cancel it, we'll cancel it." I think I started to trail off on some stream of consciousness of how we could just go to the courthouse later, we didn't need a ceremony, but his family cut me off.
"She'd want you to have the wedding," they said.
"Okay." And I think they were right. I loved his mom. She was such a giving, kind, and beautiful person. One day, after she'd gotten sick but while she was still able to get around, we found ourselves alone in her living room. "It's so wonderful," she told me, "knowing that my son is with someone good, someone who's going to take care of him." It was a high seal of approval, and one I don't take lightly.
So, things became a bit surreal. There was grief, and there was joy, and they were mingled together in an unavoidable way. The Friday before the wedding we ran into out-of-town guests at the hotel, and some of them didn't even know about his mom. Then I met distant family members of his for the first time. They congratulated me and gave him their condolences in the same breath. It was strange, but not necessarily off-putting. They were sincere in both statements.
I pulled my almost-husband aside. "Do you really want to do this? Can you really do this? I'll completely understand if you don't want to." But he was adamant. His wedding was going to be about joy. His family was together, and we were going to celebrate. There'd be time for grief later. I nodded, but I was skeptical. Was this really a good idea?
The wedding day was--as I assume most wedding days are--hectic. My aunt and uncle had graciously rented us a limousine that almost took off without us when the driver thought she was in the wrong place. It started raining during the ceremony, and I had to--quite forcefully--explain to the photographer that I was not going to make my entire wedding party stand in a downpour in the middle of the park, no matter how sure he was the pictures would be beautiful. There were dresses to put on, hair appointments to attend, and family to greet. But I married my best friend, the man I love and will spend my life with, and everything else melted into those moments of clarity: our first kiss, our first dance, his insistence that everyone needed a shot of Crown. We started a new part of our lives together that day, and it was beautiful.
I can't speak for them, but I think his family felt that way, too. There they were, together, able to support one another in a time of grief, but with the backdrop of this joyous occasion. My father-in-law danced with his granddaughter and laughed and laughed. My husband's sister and niece were in the wedding party and spent the morning doing their hair and makeup with me and my friends. In some ways, these things were distractions from the pain.
A few days after the wedding, we made the trip across the state again for the funeral. Family members who hadn't been able to attend the wedding congratulated us when we were introduced. I sat up front, a member of the family in this time of sorrow. I cried. I cried for my husband who had lost his mom when he was only 22. I cried for my sister-in-law who was only 19. I cried for my future children who would never know their grandmother. I cried for the memory of this woman whose descent from a vibrant force to be reckoned with was much, much too fast.
Sometimes I wonder if having the wedding was the right choice. When I think about the way it sounds--"his mother died three days before our wedding"--I worry it seems callous, like I was some hellbent bride who would not allow anything to stand in the way of her fantasy wedding. But that's not the case. The only fantasy I had about the wedding was getting to marry the man I loved, and I truly would have been happy doing that in a courthouse weeks later. But if we'd done that, we would have missed out on the opportunity to bring our families together in a time when life--with all the ups and downs it brings--was merging around us.