An affair to remember

A bride remembers her father on her wedding day

Robert Kerlin with his daughter Kat Kerlin in April 2007.

Robert Kerlin with his daughter Kat Kerlin in April 2007.

I imagined a backyard spring wedding, my mother smiling, my dad on my arm walking down the aisle. We’d dance to Ray Charles’ “You Are My Sunshine” at the reception. Call it denial, or naivete, or even egoism to think the world would bend to my wishes, but that’s not how it’s working out.

The wedding is still in April and still in my parents’ backyard. Mom will, hopefully, still be smiling, and all of our loved ones—more than I expected—will be there. But Dad won’t be.

The last time I saw him was Nov. 4—30 years to the hour of my birth—in South Dakota, the state where he took his first breath and where, that day, he took his last.

He and Mom had flown to Rapid City from their home in Mississippi to celebrate his 95-year-old aunt’s birthday, a family reunion of sorts.

He’d been diagnosed with lung cancer in April, and bone cancer followed. But he’d been feeling all right, he said. So he toured his childhood town and took a last look at the Badlands. The night before the party, he couldn’t catch his breath. Mom called the ambulance. Then she called me and my sister. A plane seemed too slow. We left Reno by car that afternoon, across the salt flats of Utah and deer-ridden roads of Wyoming, arriving the next day.

We walked into the intensive care unit. Dad was hooked to a respirator, a tube down his throat, but conscious. His blue eyes opened wide as we entered. I told him we were there, and that we’d be there as long as he needed us to be. I told him I loved him. He mouthed it back. The nurse gave him something to help him sleep. He slept for eight days.

My fiance, Grant, came midweek, the comfort he provided reminding me why I’m marrying him. On Nov. 4, we walked into the room, and he could no longer contribute to his oxygen. Three different doctors said there was nothing more to do. My mom, sister, Grant and I sat with him and let him go.

I find it hard to separate any talk of my wedding from my father. I know the day will be a happy one. I will be busy and elated to see so many close, though rarely seen, friends. Grant and I will announce our intentions for all to hear, a special shared intimacy among those we love most. But I will, unavoidably, miss Dad.

Wedding books and magazines provide etiquette advice on everything from seating charts to planning with divorced parents. But nowhere have I found any good advice on planning a wedding when someone as close as a parent recently died. The only thing I could find was this disastrous advice from

“If your father passed away unexpectedly six months ago, any mention of him will be extremely upsetting to those who were close to him. In the case of a recent death, allusions should be as private as possible, invisible to the bulk of the guests: for example, leaving flowers on the grave after the ceremony, carrying something special in your bouquet (such as rosemary, which represents rememberance; or a white butterfly, the symbol of everlasting life), or reading a poem that was a favorite of his, without mentioning him by name. Anything more specific or prominent is overdoing it, risking hysterics and altering the focus of the wedding. If the death is far into the past, more is allowable.”

If etiquette says to hide my dad’s memory because it may make people uncomfortable, my inclination is to say, “Screw etiquette.” The affair won’t turn into a memorial service full of “hysterics.” It will be a good day. But there is no wishing away the gaping absence of my father.

After the rehearsal dinner, his photos will be there on the slideshow screen, along with everyone else important in shaping my life. I’ll toast my mom and my dad at the reception. And when the officiant asks, “Who gives this woman?” I’d like Mom to say, “Her father and I do.”

There’ve been times I’ve thought of postponing the whole affair. I could hold it closer to Reno so that I could plan it all and not stress out my mom, who is upset enough these days. But Dad knew my wedding plans. He had a hand in them, with ideas for the yard, the food. He could picture it in his mind. To change it now seems somehow a betrayal. So no matter how many alternative scenarios I develop, I keep coming back to the original plan. In his backyard, on the grass he installed, on the brick he laid, in the home he shared with my mom, I think it will feel more like he’s with us.

Maybe I should have known.

Death is always an imminent possibility when someone is diagnosed with cancer, especially the fast-moving small-cell carcinoma kind my father had. But he’d caught it early, went through chemo and radiation treatments, never coughed. “A little tired” was his only complaint.

Grant and I were engaged in September and set the date for April. I knew it was possible Dad wouldn’t be with us, but I was unwilling, even subconsciously, to accept that.

My mom tried to prepare me. When she and Dad visited us in Reno for his 63rd birthday in early October, she suggested I move up the wedding date. Like maybe to Thanksgiving.

This seemed crazy to me. Surely Dad would last until April. It was only six months away. And how could I plan a wedding in one-month’s time? Even if I did, it would be obvious that the rush was because we were afraid Dad was going to die. He wouldn’t want my wedding day to be about that. But then, I wouldn’t want a wedding day without him.

I asked him later that day, trying to be nonchalant, “What do you think of the wedding date? Do you think it’d be better if it was a bit earlier?”

He looked at me with sad eyes across the kitchen counter.

“No, honey. You know what? No one knows what’s going to happen. Go ahead with your plans.”

I don’t know how my wedding day will go. I think it will be an excellent party. But “bittersweet” will, no doubt, be an often-used word.

There’s a prevailing idea that any mention of sorrow on a wedding day is in bad taste, or worse, bad luck. But real life shows us that joy and pain are often mixed. It’s a good thing for a couple about to commit themselves—the same phrase used for mental patients—to know. The bride and groom take each other across the spectrum—better or worse, sickness and health. I can love my husband and be happy for our marriage while also missing my father. I don’t think anyone expects me to pretend him away.

There’s no way around grief, unpopular as it may be. But through it, I see how much Dad has left me. True to cliché, I’ve chosen my husband, in part, because he reminds me of my father. With a 34-year marriage, my parents have shown me what a lifetime of love looks like, so I know it when I see it.

Come ceremony time, I’ll take my mom’s arm, and we’ll give a little smile meant for each other and Dad. We’ll look down the aisle, and start walking toward what lies ahead.