A Wedding & a Funeral: Racing against time--and cancer--to plan the big day
When Will, my then-boyfriend, proposed to me over two cans of cheap beer on our anniversary in the same dive bar where we met three years before, I said yes. The planning began the very next day.
On a chilly, rainy March afternoon, we met with a caterer. Before I could polish off a cup of coffee, Will and I signed off on our dream wedding menu: Southern comfort food with a bit of fancy flair, including shrimp and grits, fried apples, homemade peach cobbler and the like.
By early April, we were writing the deposit check for our dream venue, a 200-year-old grist mill that sits along the Stones River. Will and I walked the grounds, hand in hand, gazing at the worn wood buildings that had stood there for centuries. We made our way through towering trees with veils of moss dripping from their branches, our shoes sinking into the soft banks of the river, and stopped under a gazebo.
We turned to each other and giggled. As the river bubbled and rushed below us, we talked about how idyllic that very spot would be when the last orange leaves clung to the trees and the fall breeze made its way off the water. On that day, we set our date for late November.
It would never happen, though. Of course, we had no way of knowing what would come next, so the planning continued.
We met with our photographer, who shared my adoration of the Holga camera and Will’s love of digital. And I could finally justify my love of wedding porn, spending many late nights trolling blogs, pulling hundreds of inspiration photos and creating dozens of virtual inspiration boards. I chose color schemes and dreamt of DIY décor wonderment, which I planned to craft on our living room floor in the many weekends to come.
I emailed photos to my mother and sister of the kind of dress I longed for, a vintage tea-length gown, and I soon found a designer who crafted retro reproductions for a song. Will and I visited the jeweler and designed my ring, which would house the diamond that once rested on his late mother’s wedding band.
When I talked to friends, I told them how easy wedding planning was. It felt predestined and perfect. I couldn’t possibly imagine what all of the fuss was about — or why brides got so stressed — I’d say, with a smile.
Then in May, I got a late-night phone call. It was my older brother, panic evident in his voice. My dad had collapsed in the backyard of my childhood home in Texas. Two strangers spotted him and called an ambulance when they saw our family dogs frantically dashing around him as he lay in the grass. No one knew what had happened to him.
I hung up the phone and sat cross-legged on my living room couch in Nashville, crying and wondering why I wasn’t hearing more. Will sat next me, searching for plane tickets and dashing to get me more tissue.
Hours later, I learned my dad had a stroke but seemed to be recovering well. I left my fiancé in Nashville and took the earliest flight to Texas, my eyes so swollen that the kind older woman seated next to me on the plane asked if she could do anything for me.
For the next few weeks, I spent most of my waking hours in my dad’s hospital room, watching old movies, telling him stories and doing the many other mundane things people do to try to forget how sad it is to see someone you love in a hospital bed. The doctors ran test after test to determine the cause of the stroke.
Eventually, they found it: He had pancreatic cancer. It was advanced and inoperable — there wasn’t much they could do — but they needed to keep him for a few more days before deciding how to make him comfortable in what they deemed the last few months of his life.
I snuck out of the room to call Will, and there was little discussion of what we would do next. We needed to get married in Texas — soon. But the sweltering days of June had already set in, and Will would be taking part in the summer weddings of two friends. Our earliest option was July 16, so it was settled.
I cancelled the venue and the caterer. I called the jeweler, who told me my ring wouldn’t be ready in time for the ceremony. I realized the fate of that perfect retro dress would be much the same. There simply wasn’t enough time for the wedding I envisioned. Perhaps it should’ve been difficult letting all of those plans go, but it’s strange how quickly some things lose importance. Deep down, I just knew I wouldn’t miss my dream wedding — it was my father I would miss. Perfect wedding or not, I had to learn how I’d live without him once the rice was thrown. That realization was so crushing I didn’t know if I could stand, let alone walk back into the room to face him.
Once I’d stifled the tears, I returned to my dad’s bedside and asked if he would be OK with the change of plans. He looked out the window and then back at me, and all I could read on his face was relief.
That night, my brother and his wife agreed to host the wedding in their San Antonio home. Hours later, a Google search led me to a woman who owned a Moroccan food truck with the most charming retro paint job. Within minutes, we’d discussed a menu. I booked her without even tasting the food. She had been through a cancer diagnosis with her own father. She got it.
The next day, after pushing my dad in his wheelchair for coffee in the hospital courtyard, I borrowed my stepmother’s car and drove to the nearest David’s Bridal. Among all of the other summer brides — and the hordes of mothers, sisters and bridesmaids who crowded around them — I walked in alone.
Cliché or not, I fell in love with the first dress I put on. It was wedding gown meets ’50s prom dress; the kind of gown that made me want to twirl like a kindergartner and make cutesy poses in the mirror. But I couldn’t go out onto the platform and face all of those strangers alone. If anyone asked me why I was shopping solo, I knew I‘d fall apart.
So I unzipped the dress, changed back into my shorts and t-shirt, and walked to the register to write the check and leave my Nashville address with the saleswomen, all of whom looked at me — and my 20-minute dress selection — as if I was pulling some kind of prank.
When my father was released from the hospital days later, I flew back to Nashville. Even from afar, I refused to let myself feel any distance from what he faced back home. I spent my days on the phone with hospitals and doctor’s offices, patient advocates and representatives from any cancer organization who would speak with me. My father was uninsured, so most oncologists wouldn’t see him. I was trying desperately to get him some kind of help — anything that would prolong his life. But, really, I was for anything that could make me feel less helpless.
Each day I awoke in a panic, not worried about wedding details, but fearing instead it would be the day my father would pass away. I didn’t want to spend a single second planning my wedding. If my dad died, and I had spent his last days or weeks thinking of handcrafted pomanders rather than trying to get him into chemo, I could never forgive myself.
So I didn’t plan. I had a dress, Will had a suit, and I wouldn’t let myself consider anything more than that.
As mothers tend to do, mine sensed a certain sinking within me. Two weeks before the wedding, she caught a late-night flight to Nashville. The next morning, she asked to see my original DIY to-do list I’d created for the November wedding as well as the inspiration boards I had forsaken. In the days that followed, I spent my mornings making phone calls for my father. Then my mother put me to work.
We visited a dozen craft warehouses, thrift stores and flea markets and scoured Etsy. We bought mason jars, vintage lace for the tablecloths, milk glass cake stands and retro sheets for the pennants and bunting I’d wanted. We drank bottle after bottle of wine late into the night while watching silly romantic comedies, only stopping to ooh and aah at the beautiful things we created. There was the handmade cake topper, hand-cut letter banners and garlands, silly props for a makeshift photo booth and even a bowtie for our Shih Tzu, Nigel Barker.
Two days before we were scheduled to leave for the wedding, my mom asked to see the dress, which I’d stuffed into my closet after it arrived. I wiggled into it as she zipped it up, and the sweetheart top immediately fell to my waist. Stress, apparently, is the best diet ever. A half an hour, many tears, and another fitting later, a kind seamstress promised she’d work through the night to make it fit by morning.
My mom and I returned home and walked through my house, selecting my favorite vintage bottles and vessels for the flowers we’d be buying and arranging ourselves in Texas. I packed stacks of Nancy Drew books, a collection that once belonged to Will’s late mother, to add interest to the tablescapes. Then my mother, Will, Nigel and I loaded into the car — with all of the trappings of the little wedding that could, including one revamped gown — and drove 15 hours straight through in our little gypsy caravan.
We arrived in Texas to find a full crew waiting for us. My sister and my niece folded and fluffed dozens of candy-colored paper flowers. My mother and her best friend, who had flown in from Oregon to serve as our officiant, set up shop in my brother’s kitchen to make dozens of cake pops and bite-sized confections from days past, including one potent batch of rum balls.
As Will and I strung pennants along the living room walls, my dad walked in the front door, tired from the three-hour drive. But still, he was smiling. In the blur of flower arrangements and chair deliveries, I don’t remember much else about that day. When I woke up the next morning, I felt like I could breathe again. No matter how it all turned out, for the first time since my dad’s diagnosis, I knew he would be there.
Will and Nigel drove me to the salon, where they sat together and nodded in approval as they watched hours of hair teasing and false eyelash applying. By that point, worrying about whether we were adhering to tradition just seemed so silly. We even stopped for fast food on our way to the wedding. Our photographer, who kindly agreed to fly in from Nashville, thankfully didn’t catch us arriving with mouths full of French fries and Texas toast.
The blur of dressing, photo posing and champagne swilling led me to the kitchen with my dad, where it was just us two, waiting for our trip down the makeshift aisle that trailed through the living room. Looking at him in his seersucker suit and bowtie, a smile affixed to his face, it was hard to imagine the pain and sheer exhaustion he must have been feeling inside. I couldn’t bear to think what that must be like, not knowing how many important days you had left.
We stood with our arms linked, and I had flashes of my three-year-old self, skipping, squealing and tugging on his arm as we walked together. As we linked arms, I turned to him and said, “It’s really happening. Can you believe it?”
When my dad and I got to the end of the aisle, I kissed him and Will shook his hand.
Then my dad let go, stepping back into the group of guests.
What followed was not the blog-worthy wedding I’d envisioned. I didn’t check everything off my DIY list, the Moonpie treat bags we so lovingly crafted weren’t a hit (I still have about 25 in the pantry, if anyone is interested) and I’m pretty sure everyone sweated through their suits in the sweltering Texas heat.
But this wedding was better, more meaningful. I danced with my dad. People devoured the rum balls. And the photos of all of the tears and laughter are a testament to how much love was in that living room when Will and I said “I do.” In our hearts, my husband and I knew that day was both the beginning and the end, and the weight of that realization made it something bigger than we had ever imagined.
Less than a week after the wedding, my dad passed away. This November, as a cold relentless rain fell on what would have been our original wedding day, I had a certain sense that everything happened exactly as it should. Now when I tell this story, people say my dad must have been holding on just to walk me down the aisle. I don’t know if that’s true or even possible. But I’m grateful nonetheless.
Should I ever begin to forget his face, I have the photos to remind me of the pride in his eyes as he stood with his arms around my sister, brother and me and of the way he closed them as he slow danced with me. The bittersweet pain that washed over his face as I put my head on his shoulder is a searing reminder of how deeply he loved me and how much he did not want to let go.
Since then I’ve realized the hardest part of losing a parent is accepting that all you’ve got is all you’re going to get. There are no more memories to be made. Now, I would give anything to relive my imperfect wedding. I would deal with a hundred more ill-fitting dresses and fumble through last-minute wedding vows a million times over if I could just take one more turn with my dad on the dance floor.
Despite the flaws in my little wedding that could, I wouldn’t change a thing — well, except one. If I could do any of it over again, I would tell my dad what I was thinking during the dance that would be our last: I had never been happier.
Jennifer McCloud always wanted to be a mom. That's why, after difficulties getting pregnant, the native Nashvillian was elated to discover she was pregnant. With triplets!
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