It has been an intense couple of months, with personal life and public life bouncing into each other, and into me. My mind and heart feel exhausted. I’d like to tell you about one strand of this. In late August, my daughter E and her boyfriend B told us they’d decided to get married within the next few months. Within the next week, E became unexpectedly unemployed so job applications rather than wedding rose in importance for a while, our family friend Daniel was killed in an auto crash, and her fiance’s father told them he had a brain tumor, which he said was slow growing and no big deal. (His mother passed away several years ago.) We wanted to meet B’s family, but first I had a two week trip to California and then my spouse had a ten day business trip.
After some negotiation, the date was set for Dec 6. Pulling a wedding together in a few months is an enterprise, even with our goal of keeping it relatively informal. First there was where to have the wedding. My daughter and B identify as atheist, so the first thought was a secular ceremony. But as we were searching the web and discussing those options, I said to my daughter, “It is a shame you are not religious, because it would be homey to have the wedding at our church.” She said she thought that would be nice, if they would not make her and B say things they did not believe, but it would be ok if other people blessed them. Well I knew where that was going, as we are not exactly in a rigid church. I emailed the minister and got back his reply, saying that it was “non-negotiable” that they offer a prayer of some type in the service (!), but they could handle this requirement “gently” with respect for E and B’s beliefs. So the church is on. The next week Daniel was killed and my daughter was at the funeral — itself a very moving event at which we railed at God and spoke our lament and heard a touching eulogy by Daniel’s older brother — and the next thing I knew she’d volunteered to teach Sunday school along with my spouse. She says: “People say they went to church because they wanted a community. When I was younger, I saw this as a weakness. Now I see this as a strength.” This does not mean she has abandoned her professed atheism, but she is interested in the Bible and her atheism isn’t much distinguishable from my theism. As the youth minister said (she did have the sense to talk to E after she volunteered), “For someone who does not believe in God, she’s thought a lot about these issues.”
Anyway, so now we have a place for the wedding. But what about the reception? The church hall can be used, but the church does not permit alcohol. B does not drink alcohol at all, and my daughter rarely drinks, so this is not a problem for them, but B thinks he has a lot of friends and relatives who think it isn’t a wedding if you don’t get drunk, and his father’s response to being told of the engagement was to say, “I’ll pay the bar bill,” seeming to imply a certain expectation about what would happen. So we search for a reception site. This is harder than you imagine unless you’ve done it. Now I know why I’ve been to so many receptions in seemingly-improbable places. Many public spaces ban alcohol. The ones that don’t typically have their own caterer and have definite ideas about what they want done, ideas that don’t mesh very well with E’s ideas of what she wants. As B is vegetarian as well as a teetotaler, Indian food would be their preferred meal, but the Indian restaurants are too small for the desired crowd and the dancing E wants. So after some searching and a lot of phone calls, the owners of the game store where my daughter works part time offered their store for the reception. This is not many brides’ idea of a romantic site — it is basically a big shed with a lot of Dungeons & Dragons banners hanging from the ceiling and shelves with gaming equipment all around the edges — but it suits E and B well as they are gamers and met at the game store. The owners are offering the space as their wedding present, although of course we will pay for cleanup etc. So the reception now has a home. Ready to move on.
This was decided on a Tuesday. The next day, E and B leave for what they think is a one day trip to accompany B’s father to the Mayo Clinic for a medical appointment. It turns out that he is in much worse shape than he has let anybody know. The brain tumor has grown, he is confused and very ill. So they and B’s siblings unexpectedly spend much of the next few weeks in Minnesota. Things are looking bad for B’s father. He gets better with re-hydration and is able to talk some with his children, but then has a surgery that could have helped but didn’t that leaves him more confused. We put the wedding plans on hold. We don’t even want to ask B what he wants to do. One Friday night, E’s car quits on the interstate halfway to Minnesota where she is driving to rejoin B after having come back to town during the week to work; my spouse and I ferry a car up to her so she can continue the trip to Minnesota and then wait to bring her car back to town. (Who knew? A small town on the interstate has a Chevy dealer whose repair shop stays open until midnight on Fridays.) When I get back at 1:30 a.m. I’m still wired from the coffee I drank, and I find B on line (E had arrived a couple of hours before and was now asleep), so I IM-chat with him about life and his father and death and marriage and stuff until 4:30 in the morning. He told E it was our “bonding conversation.” A week later I broach the wedding question with my daughter, we know it is a terrible time, but we need to decide whether it is a go or a no go. And we could scale it back and just have a simple ceremony and not do a big reception. She says they have talked about it and B says the wedding is on, no matter what, and he figures a party is going to happen anyway, so we may as well plan it. So we are back in planning mode, we book the grandparents’ airplane tickets, but are subdued, knowing that this is not the most important thing in the world, and that we live in the intermingling of joy and sorrow. B’s father gets worse, suffers a stroke that leaves him unable to interact with others and probably unconscious, and the doctors say to make arrangements to transfer him to hospice care, there is no more they can do. There are discussions of whether and when to pull the feeding tube. My heart aches for B.
While this has been going on, I’ve been working nose-down getting updated racial disparity statistics prepared for several big presentations, and have pulled two all-nighters doing that work, and have been involved in a number of intense coverations about race. Like everyone else, I have also been obsessing about the election and race, and spend hours reading blogs about the election and race. Last spring I agreed to do workshops about race at church this fall: the first one is next Sunday, I’ve gotten feedback from people about what they want that shows (as I expected) that people are all over the map in what they’d bring to the discussions. So at this point, I am dazed, confused, and disoriented in my work-related life.
The presentations are over. Back to the wedding, we need to triage. What is most urgent? OK, the liquor question can wait, but we need to make sure we have a caterer who is available. Hopefully at least one of the five Indian restaurants in town can handle the volume. Oh, and a dance floor. How far in advance do you have to reserve a portable dance floor? Eeek. And pretty soon we need a guest list and invitations have to go out. I’m also feeling pretty panicked about what I’m going to wear to this thing, as fashion decisions have never been my strong suit and I know I don’t own anything remotely resembling a mother of the bride dress and, anyway, my daughter is planning to have herself and B dressed in non-traditional clothing with perhaps a 19th century look, so I REALLY don’t know what I’m supposed to wear, except that she told her father he definitely has to be in a suit and possibly a tux. And is there any way I can reach out to B’s siblings and his aunt and grandmother (none of whom I’ve met) to tell them that we care about them and their suffering and grief in this time of intermingled joy and sorrow and the onward press of life?