There were many years when Mark and I planned our springs and summers around weddings. Weddings of his friends, my friends, family members. Weddings in Cleveland and Chautauqua, Chicago, Florida, New Orleans and Boston. And then suddenly, right when we were complaining about too many weddings, they stopped. We got old, I guess, and as many friends were getting divorced as getting married.
We went to a wedding this past Saturday, our first since my brother Eric’s when I was (very) pregnant with Austin — a balloon of a bridesmaid, if ever there was one.
So I was very pleased when we were invited to my friend Ann’s wedding in Chautauqua. This is the Ann who was my long ago summer friend who reappeared in our lives on our second day on the pediatric oncology ward as Austin’s nurse practitioner. We quickly caught up on the years that had separated us, and she became a solid and irreplaceable fixture in our cancer story.
She had warned me ahead of time that Ariana’s parents would also be at the wedding. “Sweet Ariana” who we knew in the first few months of Austin’s treatment and who has been gone from this world for almost four years now. I hadn’t seen her parents since Ariana was still a patient on the floor but think of her and her mother nearly everyday, so was very excited to see her. I knew this was bound to be an emotional night but thought I would be okay. And then I first glanced her across the room, looking ever more glamorous than the sweat-panted version I used to know, and immediately got choked up. We waved to each other across the room but couldn’t get close enough to say hello as the ceremony was about to begin.
And then a beaming Ann walked down the aisle to her eagerly waiting groom, and the ceremony began. And oh, begin it did. They had the traditional we-wish-to-remember-these-people-who-are-no-longer-with-us-today: Grandma Mildred and Grandfather Harry, Great Aunt Beatrice and this ancient person and that ancient person and then — you’d think I would’ve known it was coming — and then, “and sweet Ariana.”
Oh my god, I almost had to walk out of there. I didn’t dare look up at Anna Marie — that would have been the end of me. I cried behind my hand until Mark pulled a tissue out of his pocket (“I thought you might need this, honey”).
The evening wasn’t all tears. There was laughter and hugs and lots and lots of dancing. It was so special to get to catch up with Ariana’s parents and hear about their older son and their new younger son. Although I cannot truly fathom what they go through each day, I do have an inkling. I see myself and Mark in each of their (sometimes opposite) ways of moving forward. I was able to freely ask the questions like, “What do you say when people ask you how many children you have?” (she says three, he says two) and “What did you do with her bedroom?” (kept it the same for a good long while, but often had to shut the door, and finally made it the new baby’s room).
I know Anna Marie wants joy in her life — and has joy in her life — for her own sake, for her husband, for both her children and for the memory of her oh-so-special daughter. But I know she has pain in her life too, every single day.
All in all, it was a lovely evening, for so many reasons, not the least of which was Ann’s palpable happiness. I spent several hours on the dance floor in my too-high heels. In the recent berth of weddings, I haven’t had many opportunities for dancing, but it does feel good (except for, you know, my feet). I even managed to get Mark out there for one slow song. As we swayed to usual wedding band fare (“I Can’t Help Falling In Love With You”), I thought back to my brother’s wedding in 2006 and marveled aloud, “Is this the first time we’ve danced with each other in almost five years?!”
“No honey,” he said with certainty. “No, it’s not.”
Oh right. It’s been almost four years but there was that night, our fifth wedding anniversary and our fourth night of more than one hundred sleeping on the pediatric oncology floor of the hospital. We had take-out pizza and wine in plastic cups, which we hid behind our backs like kids at a high school party every time a nurse walked in the room. We watched our wedding video and we danced to Ben Folds’ “The Luckiest,” two images of one couple: The first in miniature on the television screen, a fairy tale bride and groom dancing under the stars with the moon reflecting on Lake Chautauqua behind us. The second, in stark contrast, leaning against each other in a hospital room, silhouetted against the green glow of an IV pump, sick baby asleep in the cage-like crib beside us.
Sure didn’t seem like a fairy tale in that moment. But I’m still holding out for that happily ever after.