Those who have lost someone — and that is nearly all of us — can tell you that grief, rather than subsiding, simply assumes the traits of water molecules. Over an amount of time, never predictable, it changes shape from a solid pain to a fluid, familiar ache, an ache which leaves room for joy, for the ability to page through love-worn photo albums, for gratitude at ever having known and loved the person at all.
My fiance, Peter, told me later that he had planned on proposing on the first Friday of last June, but quietly tucked my engagement ring away in a box in our basement when I called him from the car, voice caught in my throat, on my way to my grandmother's nursing home. Teresa, my grandmother, died on that first Friday evening of June at the age of eighty-five, still knowing our names despite living with dementia for over half a decade.
Peter did propose six days after he had held me close at Trese's burial, and this time, after sliding the ring we'd chosen on my finger, I hugged him and cried in elation rather than the rush of acute grief I'd felt in days prior. We began wedding planning and the subsequent barrage of questions: which linens? Which flowers? Which music? I tried to answer each question with confidence – I am a naturally indecisive person — but at times I grew overwhelmed with the sheer volume of choices to make. As I write this, we still have not yet definitively chosen a song for our first dance as husband and wife, and I have changed my mind about my wedding dress at least six times.
“Will we need a corsage for your grandmother?”
Our florist's simple question months after Trese's death, whether she needed to prepare a corsage for our grandmothers, was the first to give me pause, to cause the molecules of my grief to solidify as they had on the day Trese died.
Her question, though it had caused my and my mom's eyes to blur with tears, also clarified the significance of all other wedding choices for me.
Trese was just twenty-one years old when she married her Joe, my grandfather, in 1951. At the time, he could not afford an engagement ring, instead promising her a ring on a later anniversary to make up for it (a promise upon which he delivered). His prior divorce prevented them from marrying in a Catholic church, as Trese had always thought she would. They married at City Hall and had a home-cooked dinner with their families to celebrate, and they never did take a honeymoon in the forty-three years they were married thereafter.
Although I am sure Trese recalled her wedding day with fondness, she rarely talked of it. Instead, up to the last days of her life, the memories she spoke were of the days and years when my grandfather was her husband and the father of her children, not her groom. Her most cherished memories, the memories she hung onto when Alzheimer's had taken all else from her, were of her marriage, not her wedding day.
As a soon-to-be bride nearing the final weeks before our October wedding, my sadness at her loss has crystallized, in the way that only milestones can heighten grief. I will carry her wedding photo with me on my bouquet, and her name is on our programs in remembrance.
Yet the memory of her extraordinary life, and her example of marriage and motherhood, have proved the most significant wedding gift we could receive. The enormity of grief still has not eradicated the capacity I have for gratitude, the gratitude that I have known her and been shaped by her love. Even in death, she remains just as much a part of my engagement as she would have been in life, to remind me that the minutiae of wedding plans will hopefully be lost when I myself am an elderly woman, sharing the memories of my marriage, not my wedding, with my grandchildren.