Kate Baldus reflects on why she went ahead with the wedding five days after her father passed away. It was what he wanted.
My wedding was two weeks away when my dad called and asked that my sister and I come to Iowa for an emergency visit. He had Stage Four colon cancer and had just spent the weekend in the hospital due to severe pain in his sternum. He was having trouble breathing.
As soon as I walked into the ranch house where he had lived for the past 30 years, I knew my father would no longer be walking me down the aisle. He stood in the entryway and although he was smiling, his face was gaunter than it had been when he was getting chemo. He had a tense sad expression, oxygen tubes in his nose and he was flanked by an oxygen tank.
We hugged and I fought back my grief.
Dad had been diagnosed with Stage Three colon cancer just 16 months before. At the same time, I moved in with my boyfriend of four years. Oscar and I wanted to get married, but waited to announce our engagement until dad finished his first round of chemo and got his first clear scan. However, just after we sent out our “save the date” email, dad had his second post-chemo check up and a lump was found in his thyroid.
The cancer had not been eradicated; it had spread.
Dad needed a second round of chemo and had a year or two to live at most. Should we move forward with the wedding when dad was moving towards death? I wanted to postpone, or cancel but no one agreed. We had a date. We had a venue.
And the wedding would give him, and us all, something to look forward to. “If you cancel now it will seem like you are giving up on him,” a friend said. I’m still not sure if it was optimism, or denial, which made us stick with the date, but as dad began his second round of chemo we mailed out the print invitations.
My first night in Iowa, dad asked me to talk. He sat in “his” chair, a wingback he had inherited from his mother. The chair had become his office, living room and at times his bed. Dad was concerned about his stamina for the two flights to New York City and there was the risk of germs.
My father, David Baldus, a law professor at the University of Iowa, was a passionate man who loved to talk about politics, music, travel and the law and yet on this day, he struggled to get from the house to the car to the hospital and back. He was too distracted by pain to read the New York Times he always carried under his arm. And he was not interested in food.
I could not ask him to travel across the country, to smile at relatives and old family friends, to pretend he was OK, when it was clear that he wasn’t.
“I don’t think you should come,” I said, hiding my disappointment.
“Do you say that because of how I look?”
“I just don’t think you’re up for it. Even if you get there safely, I’m worried that it will be too much.”
“That may be.”
Interspersed between trips to the hospital and talks with doctors, I finalized details for the wedding, all the while wondering if we should cancel. How could we truly celebrate when dad was so ill? But dad was adamant. He did not want his illness to get in the way of our happiness, refusing to see that part of our joy would be having him there with us.
As an alternative, he and Joyce, my stepmom, would Skype into the wedding. Dad would make a virtual toast from his chair in Iowa City. Oscar and I would come to Iowa in July for a second celebration with local family and friends.
One week before our rehearsal dinner, Joyce, my sister Helen, dad and I went to the hospital for dad’s radiation treatment, but the treatment got canceled because dad was in too much pain and complained of shortness of breath. We were transferred to a lung specialist who took x-rays and found liquid in his lung. His chest pain was worsening. The doctor thought the cancer, and not the liquid, was causing the shortness of breath.
This was grim news. The oncologist said dad could live for another year, but dad seemed to have much less time. He opted against draining the lung.
The next day, Helen and I were scheduled to fly back to New York, but as soon as we got up, I told dad that the wedding no longer seemed like a good idea. I could not leave right now.
“No. You can’t stay. Go,” he replied.
“But I don’t want to leave.” I coughed out through my tears. He gestured for me to come closer. I wrapped my arms around him and said, “I’m going to miss you so much.”
“I felt the same way about my parents,” he replied. “But you need to go now. You should not stay here with all this death and dying. It’s depressing. Go home. If you leave now, you will get to say goodbye, that might not be the case by Monday.”
I cried on his shoulder while he remained stoic and calm. I knew he didn’t want to die, but believe now that he felt his time was over. After two surgeries, multiple rounds of chemo, radiation and crippling pain there was no more fight left, even if he was not getting one of his final wishes, to walk his oldest daughter down the aisle for her first wedding at age 42.
Hospice arrived before I left for the airport and the nurse said that dad’s elevated heart rate was a sign that he was moving faster to death than the oncologist had predicted. Again I said I would stay and again dad insisted, getting angry this time. I was not to stay nor was I to cancel the wedding. His strong Irish spirit came through. Life was not meant to be easy. All does not work out as we wish it to.
I left the house bawling. My sister, who was allowed to stay for another two days, drove me to the airport, and I struggled with regrets. Why had I not gotten married earlier? Why had we not just had a wedding last fall?
When my plane landed in O’Hare, I called dad and we spoke for the last time. He was asleep by the time I got to New York and in a morphine dream state for most of Sunday.
I was woken early Monday morning with a call from Helen. Dad had slipped out in the middle of the night, when both she and Joyce had been asleep. Oscar, the man I was to marry, comforted me while my father had just been taken from my life. No virtual toast. No party in July. I would be married without my father.
I felt selfish going ahead with the event. Instead of putting on my gold Nicole Miller dress and celebrating my love for Oscar, I should be putting on a black dress and remembering my father, but this was the messiness of life. I struggled to understand how I could celebrate and mourn at the same time, but I went ahead with the wedding because I knew this was what dad wanted. I also knew that dad would be there. He had June 18th Brooklyn engrained in him. If we canceled and moved the wedding to another day and location, he would have no idea when it was. We had to do it on the 18th, otherwise dad would be there on his own.
The morning of the wedding, I woke with an image of my father flying in the sky above me. He wore a jet pack, like an astronaut exploring a space station. He buzzed around, with a relaxed smile on his face, ready for the wedding. He accompanied me as I walked from my apartment to the hairdresser and was there as the make-up artist did her best to make my puffy face look bridal. He was with us as my best friends from college and I took a taxi from Park Slope to DUMBO. And he flew above as I walked down the aisle, my mother at my side.
As the day continued, I said a toast in dad’s honor, danced with Oscar and enjoyed myself, proving that it was possible to mourn and celebrate at the same time.
By the end of the reception, when I closed my eyes, all I saw was black. Dad had taken his leave.
Photo: Flickr/saeed afsharnia