A wedding guest recounts the union of two people hopelessly in love, despite their fate.
I went to a wedding in November.
As weddings go, it was remarkable in almost every way, instigated by two remarkable people.
Frank, a sixty-two-year-old retired schoolteacher, popped the question to Anne, his partner of ten years, on a moonlit Monday evening. He was always a gentleman, a traditionalist, and a hopeless romantic, however, on this occasion, he did not get down on one knee as one would have expected—instead, he delicately slipped the diamond and amethyst ring on Anne's finger–from his bed at the hospice.
Frank had entered McNally House Hospice in Grimsby just four days earlier, when his health requirements became more than Anne could manage. His future, he was told, would not even carry over to the next calendar page. Frank's cancer was rare and aggressive, taking hold of him seemingly overnight, like a Trojan horse had been wheeled into his unsuspecting body while he slept, and a quick invasion ensued. Within weeks of his diagnosis and subsequent surgery, Frank was offered a prognosis of about two weeks.
Frank and Anne were forced to fast-forward through the stages of grief; it was confusing, dizzying, but necessary if they were to enjoy any of the brief time they had left together. With this in mind, the morning after the proposal, wedding preparations began. Families of the couple woke up to an emailed invitation to the event, which would occur later that day.
Anne's first stop was to a local discount store to purchase paper plates, plastic cups and cutlery, along with a little something bridal—a plastic tiara. But by the time she arrived back at the hospice, staff and volunteers had heard the news and were armed and ready to take on the needs of the nuptials, all with Anne and Frank's blessing. The wheels were in motion. From out of nowhere appeared proper dishes, champagne glasses, candles and decorations. Volunteers filed in like the Whos in Whoville, assembling for a grand celebration despite the ominous backstory. In no time, surfaces were covered with colourful platters of fruits and vegetables, meats and cheeses, breads and dips, and hearty salads. Dishes overflowed with meatballs, cabbage rolls, perogies, and wraps. Homemade desserts of squares, cookies, muffins, and chocolate covered strawberries presented themselves on multi-tiered plates—the only things missing were the Who-pudding and the rare Who-roast beast.
A photographer and a videographer quickly agreed to capture the event on film, and a local florist supplied beautiful, bright arrangements, featuring Frank's favourite bloom, the sunflower. The living room transformed into a ceremonial site, filled with seating, flowers, candles, decorations and two accent chairs, for the comfort of the bride and her frail groom.
This is the kind of happy event in which the staff at McNally House rarely gets to participate. Because of their volunteers and connections within the community, the cost of this particular party came in at a whopping zero dollars. But kindness and compassion alone won't pay the bills. This peaceful oasis amid the chaos of Ontario healthcare must raise upwards of $600,000 per year through fundraising and donations just to keep their doors open. The purpose of hospices like McNally, is to provide free care for end-of-life patients, so that they can live out their final days in comfort, surrounded by loved ones. But with the ageing Boomer population, hospices all over Canada will not be able to accommodate the number of patients who require their services. The entire Niagara Region, for example, has only sixteen beds to offer. Like so many parts of our health care, it's just not enough.
Ironically, just six months earlier, Frank, himself, was one of the caring volunteers at McNally House, travelling from room to room with his guitar, and brightening the day of patients as he sang their favourite tunes. Eventually, the cough set on by his disease stifled his singing voice, and soon after, his I.D. at McNally changed from visitor to resident.
Even as McNally House had already begun to buzz with the excitement of a wedding, the families of Anne and Frank began to reorganize their day. They, too, swung into action, adding to the festivities with a wedding pie (at Frank's request), music, bouquets and boutonnieres and a headpiece for the bride made of Baby's Breath. Finally, at Anne's request, white silk pajamas were purchased in support of her pajama-clad groom. She put them on during her thirty-minute, pre-wedding bridal shower.
At 8:00 PM, Frank was wheeled down the aisle, soon to be joined by Anne. They beamed at the twenty family members in attendance, who also donning their finest P.J.s out of solidarity for the couple. The minister (and family friend) officiated the proceedings, his robe for this occasion was made of terry cloth, covering a cozy t-shirt and flannels bottoms.
It was a night filled with extreme emotions. The bride and groom were happy and sorrowful; they looked longingly and desperately into each other's eyes; the guests cried tears of joy and grief; there was elation in the moment and a lingering fear of the future.
The crowning event of the night occurred when Frank mustered up the energy to dance with his bride, then dug even deeper within to find his lost singing voice, serenading her with one of his own ballads.
It was a surreal evening, filled with poignancy. It felt like we were all in the same dream or on a movie set. Perhaps at any moment, a director, lurking behind a camera would yell out, "Cut! Good job everyone. See you all tomorrow." Tomorrow we would all be back to normal. And Anne would be at work. And Frank would be volunteering at McNally House, travelling from room to room, singing songs and brightening the day of each patient.
I was at a funeral in December.
It was a beautiful celebration of all things Frank. Anne gave the eulogy for her husband of four weeks; he was a gentleman, a traditionalist and a hopeless romantic. His voice, full of life and passion filled the church as another reminder that, in the end, it's all about the love. It can only be about the love.