On Saturday, I walked down the aisle holding my father’s arm, my groom waiting for me just ahead, standing next to the pastor. I wore a beautiful dress and carried a lovely bouquet; I was surrounded by my friends and family. And Steve and I spoke vows and promises to each other, covenanting together about life and death and good times and bad.
It was the stuff fairy tales are made of except for one thing: we were already married.
When Steve and I first started talking about marriage a few months back, we knew we would do things a little differently. This was his second marriage, which meant he didn’t want a big wedding with lots of fuss and fanciness. And though this was my first marriage, I am 42-years-old, which means I had long given up on fluffy bridesmaid dresses and bachelorette parties.
But even with our practical plans for a small, intimate wedding, the messiness of life got in the way. Facing down my third cancer recurrence meant that suddenly everything was up in the air. Our simple wedding became very complicated as we wondered if the bridal showers, ceremony, reception, honeymoon weekend, and trip to California we had planned would even happen as we waited for test results and second opinions. Though my doctors told us not to change anything until we had a plan, we weren’t sure how it was all going to happen.
So, on a Friday afternoon just after Christmas, we decided to remove what little bit of uncertainty we could and my pastor married us in front of four witnesses. Come what may, at least we were married.
Two weeks later, when we learned that I wouldn’t have surgery until early February, we decided to go ahead with our ceremony and reception so we could declare our vows to each other publicly and celebrate with our families and a few friends.
What was already going to be a simple affair became even more casual. We bought food at Costco and decorations at Hobby Lobby. In just two hours, a few of us arranged the room that would hold both ceremony and reception. And since this was now the second time I was wearing my dress – a vintage, wool lace A-line dress that sat just above-the-knee – and it wouldn’t matter when Steve saw me that day, we arranged to have a brief rehearsal just an hour before the ceremony Saturday morning.
When it was all over, Steve and I both felt it was perfect. Since we had already been married for three weeks, some of the transition and uncertainty was behind us. We were both relaxed and able to enjoy the day. And, we came in under budget on nearly every item on our list.
One man attending the wedding that day has a daughter who will be married later in the year. He told us the next day that he wished she would plan a simple wedding like ours.
“But she would never go for it,” he told us. “She’s young, and she wants it all.”
I used to want it all.
Though I was never the young girl who played wedding with dress-up clothes or the co-ed who bought bridal magazines to look at in her dorm room, I was a romantic, too, when I was younger. I drew sketches of gowns with empire waists and dreamed of string quartets playing quietly in candle lit receptions. I took mental notes over the years of buffet lines and beautifully written vows and bridesmaid dresses that could be worn again (if there is such a thing).
Even in my youthful fervor, I recognized how over-the-top some wedding spending could be. But I also admired the traditions of other cultures, in which families would save for years and spend several times their annual income on the celebration because marriage was so highly valued.
I’d like to think that though our wedding was not exactly a fairy tale with its plastic plates and my knee-high boots and my 20-month-old nephew yelling “Poop!” during the prayer, that it still revealed our priorities. In fact, part of our reason for keeping the ceremony simple is that the wedding was the least of our worries. We had a marriage to plan for.
While I had long abandoned the romantic notions of a wedding ceremony, I feared very much that my ideas about relationships and marriage were over-wrought with sentimentality and naivete. Having had very little experience with dating, I have wondered over the years if I would cling too tightly to the stereotypical relationship experiences I wanted but never had in my 20s, the kind of stuff that romantic comedies are loaded with.
Karen Swallow Prior talks about romanticism in Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me in a chapter about Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Prior describes the title character of this literary classic, Emma Bovary, who throws away a real life of love because she’s always looking for an idealized life of romance.
“Romanticism is a form of idealism,” Prior writes. “These ideals don’t leave much room for nuance. Real people are neither entirely good nor entirely bad, entirely beautiful nor entirely ugly, neither perfect heroes nor dastardly villains. Real people are a mixture.”
And real events are a mixture too. Even as I walked down the aisle on one of the happiest days of my life, I couldn’t stop thinking of the tumor growing in a lymph node just to the right of my celiac artery. As I posed for pictures with my family and friends, I thought of one smiling face that won’t be in the photos – my brother, Ron, who died unexpectedly just three days after I got my cancer news.
I used to want it all. And had I gotten married when I was 22 or even 32, I might have tried to have it all: the empire waist, the fluffy bridesmaid dresses, the long buffet line, and the Caribbean honeymoon. And the man’s daughter I mentioned above? She’ll try to have it all, too.
“Sometimes what looks like romanticism is just immaturity,” Prior writes.
But there’s also an innocence about romanticism that doesn’t know about the nuances and the mixtures of good and bad yet, that is blissfully unaware that some women who want to get married actually remain single their whole lives, or at least for a very long time, that could never imagine scheduling a wedding around cancer surgery, that doesn’t yet have framed family portraits with some members painfully absent.
We don’t need a world without romance. We just need to know what to do in this world when we discover that romance is not all there is, “that living happily-ever-after begins with embracing life—not fleeing to fantasies—today,” as Prior says.
My wedding dress sits in a little pile in the bottom of my closet waiting to be hand washed. We have a few left-over desserts from the reception in our refrigerator that will need to be thrown out tonight if no one eats them. And I’m getting anxious about getting the thank you cards written and mailed before I have to check in at the hospital in two weeks.
But we are happy and we are sad and we are living the life we have been given.
It seems we actually do have it all.