My first thought was that this woman must be joking; really, who says something like that at a funeral? And by 2008, did the whole “walking down the aisle” bit matter anymore? Weren't we, as a society, over the patriarchal idea that a man “gives away” his daughter at marriage? But as she looked at me through teary eyes, dabbing her cheeks with a mascara-stained tissue, I realized she was completely serious. At least to her, out of the many moments my dad — who had suffered a stroke and died unexpectedly the week before — would miss out on, “marrying off” his eldest daughter would be one of the most significant.
Until her comment, the thought hadn't occurred to me at all. I was twenty-eight and had an ambivalent attitude toward marriage; if it happened, it happened. I was in a fabulous relationship and thought the world of my boyfriend Nick, but we weren't remotely close to a discussion about marriage, and I was fine with that.
Fast forward to 2011. Nick, by then my partner of five years, proposed to me one Sunday morning. Having just stepped out of the shower, I was wearing a towel and brushing my teeth when he asked if I'd like to marry him. I had to spit out toothpaste to respond. It was unplanned, awkward, and adorable, and I wouldn't change anything about the way it played out. Without hesitation I said yes.
But I found that the comment made at my dad's funeral totally stuck. And though I'd never been the type to dream about fairy tale weddings, desired a big dress, veil, bridesmaids, or flower girl… I desperately wanted a walk down the aisle with my dad.
We knew we wanted to celebrate with friends and family in Seattle, where we lived, but I soon discovered I was apprehensive about exchanging vows in front of an audience. I usually don't have a problem being in the spotlight. As I dug into this more, I realized my reluctance centered around Dad's absence. Not that I would have asked him to “give me away” at my wedding, but the fact was that even if I'd wanted to, it wasn't an option, and knowing that made me sad.
So Nick suggested that, instead of referring to it as a “wedding,” we think about it as just a big party. I was surprised at how simply changing the words helped me re-imagine the day and alleviate some of my grief. Neither of us was religious, and we didn't feel the desire to have a formal service, so the party concept worked well.
Shortly after we started venue-hunting, we found the perfect place — Georgetown Stables. A small, unassuming stage was tucked away in one of its corners, and Nick asked me how I'd feel about exchanging vows there. Guests could just gather around us informally for a few minutes—no need for any pomp and circumstance. After I realized there'd be no aisle to walk down, and no room for anyone but Nick, me, and whoever performed the ceremony on the little stage, I agreed.
Then the more our wedding plans coalesced, the more I needed Dad to have a role, somehow, in our wedding. Some friends suggested that we include a prayer in our ceremony to acknowledge him, but this seemed out of character for us. Others proposed placing an empty chair next to my mother to symbolize both his presence and absence, but this didn't seem right, either. My mother is very shy; I didn't want to force her more into the “widow” spotlight than she'd already feel she was. And others recommended that I frame a photo of Dad to display during the party. The problem was that I didn't know where to place it. On the welcome table? Next to the cupcake tower? No place seemed like the appropriate fit.
So, to create a space for Dad, Nick and I decided on the following. They may seem minute, but to me, they were huge:
Inviting my dad's friends
Though we limited our guest list to close friends and family, we invited some of my parents' friends—in particular, Dad's best friend, who was more like a brother to him. Nick hadn't met many of these people, and I hadn't seen them in years. To our surprise, they all made the trip to Seattle. Their presence gave my mom a much-needed support network, and having Dad's closest friends there was almost like having my dad there.
Made a donation in my dad's honor
Instead of spending money on party favors for our guests, we decided to make a donation in Dad's honor to the American Stroke Association. We communicated this to our guests in our version of the “So You're Going to Sit Through a Wedding” program.
Acknowledged my dad in the ceremony
While a prayer didn't seem like a fit for us, we wanted to include some sort of acknowledgement in the ceremony. We incorporated the following:
Chelsea and Nick have asked that we take a moment
to honor those loved ones who are not with us this evening.
They also ask that we recognize those who are still denied the civil right of wedded union,
and that we do more to respect the choice to love, and be loved.
Please take a moment of silence for those we have acknowledged.
It was a simple statement, but it said just what we wanted it to say. In addition to recognizing those not physically with us, we are also able to acknowledge those in our life who did not have the right to marry. We followed it with a moment of silence so that everyone in attendance could reflect in their own ways
Paid tribute to my dad through our playlist
Nick and I assembled an amazing wedding playlist, in which we included music that would remind me (and others who knew him) of my dad. Dad and I shared a love for 1950s and '60s rock ‘n' roll. So we seasoned our playlist with songs that made me think of him: Gene Vincent's “Be-Bop-A-Lula,” Dion's “Ruby Baby,” some Roy Orbison, some Everly Brothers—songs to which Dad would have sung and danced, had he been there
These actions made all the difference for me. Dad may not have been physically present, but I know that he was there in music and laughter, in hugs and tears, and especially in the hearts and minds of those of us who knew and loved him, and probably even in those who didn't.