A Marriage Made on Promises Not Plans

"Six days before my dad was supposed to walk me down the aisle, I curled beside him in his hospital bed."

author dancing during her wedding
(Image credit: Clary Pfeiffer)

Two weeks before Joe and I were to marry on the rooftop of a chocolate factory in downtown St. Louis, we learned my dad had angiosarcoma. We heard words like “cancer.” “One in a million.” “Extremely aggressive.” His doctor warned us not to Google it.

A year earlier, I stood before a silver-framed mirror in a bridal shop sinking my fingers into the soft silk of a wedding dress. I called my dad on FaceTime. “Really, really incredible,” he said, tears in his eyes, “just incredible.” His booming laugh echoed off the walls.

Three days after I said, “yes to the dress,” I woke at midnight to the sinister glow of my iPhone. I learned my dad had been shot point-blank in the jaw during an attempted carjacking. The months that followed were agonizing. Joe cared for my mom as she slept night after night at the hospital, and he comforted me as I wept, afraid, unsure, and heartbroken.

The day my dad was released from the hospital, Joe was there to drive him home. They spent their nights jamming together: Joe on guitar, and my dad pounding piano keys like nothing ever tried to stop him.

My dad, the survivor.

We planned our wedding with newfound vigor. Just like I was there to walk arm-in-arm with my dad as he took his first, unbalanced steps down those monotonous hospital hallways, my dad would walk me down the aisle.

author with her father

'Laura and her father at her engagement party'

(Image credit: Courtesy of Laura Townsend)

But cancer was a cruel, twisted irony. Six days before my dad was supposed to walk me down the aisle to “Here Comes the Sun,” I curled beside him in his hospital bed. We watched Yesterday. He had to pause it halfway through. Sleep was swallowing him.

In college, I would call my dad at one in the morning just to chat. He seemed to be endlessly awake, painting in his art studio until dawn. When he answered, his voice would bounce with slap-happy adrenaline. I could almost smell the thick stench of oil paint and canvas glue that clung to him. He was a painter. A pianist. A writer. A philanthropist. His creative, overactive mind flourished in moonlight. When my dorm was pitch black and my roommate’s snores filled the night’s silence, when my mom was buried under covers with her phone on sleep mode, when my friends were passed out on couches, I could always count on my dad to answer.

That evening—Yesterday paused indefinitely on my laptop—I buried my face into his chest and felt him dream. It was 7:30 p.m. The stars were just beginning to shine through his bedside window. I waited for the sun to come.

marriage in the icu

'Laura, here 2, alongside her father'

(Image credit: Courtesy)

It was a matter of days before my dad was transferred to the ICU. Liver failure. I rushed to the hospital from a wedding hair trial. I had yet to cancel our big day. Part of me felt like as long as our ceremony was intact, my dad’s sickness was something I could wake up from.

Joe learned Taylor Swift’s “Soon You’ll Get Better” on guitar. He picked the strings until his fingers stung, wanting to bring my dad hope through their shared language of music. But three days before Joe and I were meant to marry—in a flurry of music and dancing and euphoria—my dad entered a state of unconsciousness he would not wake up from.

We played “Blackbird” from an iPhone. The music drowned out the sound of my stoic bridesmaids, calling 250 of my loved ones from down the hall to tell them the wedding would not happen.

Two days before I had planned to wed Joe beneath a purple floral arch, I placed a silver band on Joe’s finger at my dad’s bedside. My mom was with us when we chose Joe’s ring months earlier, the three of us buzzed on free champagne, dancing carelessly around the jewelry shop. In the ICU, I glanced behind me. My mom was clutching my dad’s hand, searching for strength.

We cried through our vows; we felt triumphant in the face of the unimaginable.

marriage in the icu

'Laura and Joe during their wedding ceremony'

(Image credit: Clary Pfeiffer)

After our ceremony, Joe and I gave my dad the gift we had made for him. A white serving platter that we painted with a simple message. We held my dad’s hands and read it out loud to him: “All we know of love, we learned from you.”

Without an aisle to walk down or a reception to attend, we were unsure of what came next. Together we wandered to the sterile waiting room, surprised by dozens of our friends and family applauding for us. My mom gave a speech. She told us that when times are hard we must turn to each other for comfort, strength, and courage, and never let each other go.

My dad’s childhood best friend pulled out a guitar, and Joe and I danced to “With a Little Help From My Friends.” He twirled me around in the fluorescent lights that, for a brief moment, felt magical.

Twenty minutes later, my dad was moved to hospice.

I called Joe my “husband” for the first time that night, the word precious and new and right on my lips. We lay tangled on a couch beside my parents. We fought time, battled exhaustion. Another minute awake was another minute with dad. His pale blue gown was replaced with a soft, cherry red shirt that hugged him. He smelled less like hospital and more like dad.

We took turns saying goodbye to him. When it was my turn, I sunk into his arms and put on the song that was supposed to be our father-daughter dance. “Goodnight my angel, now it’s time to dream,” Billy Joel sings, “and dream how wonderful your life will be.” I listened to my dad’s heartbeat. “Someday your child may cry, and if you sing this lullaby, then in your heart there will always be a part of me.”

marriage in icu

'Laura, age 8, with her father'

(Image credit: Courtesy)

On the day Joe and I were set to marry, we watched rain pour from the window of my childhood home. “I’m glad it’s not a beautiful day,” someone murmured. The house was filled with people; wedding guests bound together in mourning. Joe and I escaped to my room where my pearl white, silk wedding dress hung limp and unworn in my closet.

Joe and I turned to each other for comfort and courage and strength. We learned, under unimaginable circumstances, how little control we have over anything.

We learned that plans are not the same as promises.

Our plan was obliterated before our eyes. Not merely our plan for a wedding, but our plan for my dad to be a grandfather to our children. To teach them to paint and to play piano, to answer their late-night phone calls, to love them as enormously as he loved us. Our plan for a future that included all of us.

When my dad was recovering from the shooting, he turned to piano keys and a paintbrush. He slathered bright color onto canvas in a search for something beautiful. He gifted me a painting of a bird with blue and black wings that he made during his recovery. At the bottom, in messy penciled handwriting, he titled the painting, “Flying Again.” He signed it, “Thank you Laura – Dad.”

It’s been six months since Joe and I married. We sit at our kitchen table, making plans for a new wedding. Our apartment walls are adorned with my dad’s paintings. We plan to display them at our new reception.

I pick up my pencil, like my dad once did his paintbrush. I begin to search for something beautiful.

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