By Carol Busse
After our son’s seven-year courtship, news of an actual engagement hardly comes as a surprise; he and Kim have been batting the M word around for awhile. When we get married this. When we have kids that. But just because we aren’t surprised doesn’t mean we aren’t delighted. Everyone knows these two high school sweethearts belong together. And after seven years, why wait? They decide on a low-budget garden wedding in the back yard, just family and a few close friends, no more than fifty total.
This gives immediate rise to two issues, the first of which is a math problem. When put on paper the guest list exceeds fifty. We try, but the math required to fix the problem hasn’t been invented. After frat brothers, school buddies, and friends who’ve known Mike since he was born, comes the baseline family count of forty. We’re close – aunts, uncles, grandparents and cousins – the kind of family who welcomes newcomers into the fold with warmth, laughter and plenty of old-fashioned teasing.
Less than anxious to play Center of Attention to a big audience, bride-to-be Kim nevertheless gets it. As the newest newcomer, she has emerged as a force – strong-minded, compassionate, intelligent, motivated, a family advocate and fiercely loyal, her ability to give and to love endearing all. With her own blood ties far out of reach, she has adopted us as her own, and we’re stronger for it.
Sometimes family is a community unto itself, a pyramid; cousins at the base, parents in the middle, grandparents at the peak. When you consider there are only two, these grandparents are pure energy; Phyllis vivacious, creative, a kisser-hugger and unsurpassed cook, and Bill, avid golfer, opinionated sports fan, his humor wry, his voice low and soothing. Supportive, involved, young at heart, the two are an effective team, passing family values on by example, like how to make your kids want to be around you and how to keep marriage to the same old person special decade after decade. They are universally adored by their eleven grandkids.
Our second wedding issue is location. Since the bride-to-be’s family is not in the picture, the back yard in question is ours. Blithely, we say of course! Really, is there any better reason to finish your landscaping than to throw the best kind of party, a wedding?
In daylight, we take another, brutally honest look, which inspires my first OMG.
The front yard is great; nice lawn, ornamental trees, mature shrubs. But it’s small. The large but damp and shady back yard consists partly of a patio (the good part), and a green… area. The best thing about weeds and moss is their green-ness. We decide not to use the kind of lawn fertilizer that kills them. Beyond the ‘lawn’ rises the first tier of an ambitious project our son Mike, groom-to-be, began last summer; a stone wall to retain the bank and provide level planting beds for massive color and interest. Massive because the thing measures over sixty feet long with three tiers, two staircases and a planned Bocci court at the top. Then Mike got busy with work and his first apartment. I was consumed with planning and saving for our daughter’s upcoming January wedding while working full-time, severely sapping my already ADD-challenged decision-making skills. And my husband claimed all his taste was in his mouth when it came to gardens. So, the wall of tiers remained unfinished and empty.
The same wall at which we now gape, a year later, with anxiety and confusion.
‘Empty’ would be imprecise. Any Northwesterner knows that turning your back on bare earth is tantamount to leaving a posse of pre-schoolers to their own devices in your kitchen for an hour. A six-inch weed springs up overnight. After what seems like only hours it’s now a foot tall. A week later it has apparently coupled several times and produced hundreds of children. Turning a blind eye to this botanical orgy – because after a taxing eight hours of work you just want a glass of wine and a little peace – only encourages the early weeds to invite their friends and relatives. Before you know it, millions of seed pods have found their way onto every surface and into every crevice of your property, even your gutters, and their tangled root systems extend into the next county. The worse it gets, the more you ignore it, because you need rototillers, weed killers, truck loads of dirt, plants, tools, bark, and the two things you can’t rent, steal or buy; time and a brain, because there’s no money for a landscaper.
That’s when it kicks in; we love these kids, we can do this. Priorities shift, hidden brain cells get tracked down. The kids have earmarked September as zero hour and this is June. Three whole months… no sweat. I give my decision-making skills a jump-start. My DNA doesn’t contain any worthwhile organizational ability so I fake that part and rely heavily on my soon-to-be daughter-in-law, because she can snap her fingers or twitch her nose and details line themselves up in order to stand at attention. It’s like a magic trick.
Things look good. The now married daughter is on her postponed honeymoon in Hawaii, the son is engaged to the love of his life, the back yard has a plan, and I have three months to lose a few inches.
That’s when I get the phone call. It’s my father-in-law, Grandpa Bill. My husband is playing soccer so I’m the news recipient. Bill’s upbeat tone fools me at first. I can’t take in what he’s saying. Something about leukemia, an aggressive strain, two weeks, three absolute max. What…? Weeks? But I hear Phyllis crying in the background and I know it’s true. This man, so central to us all, is going to die and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop it. He’s matter-of-fact, but with that quietly humorous lilt that defies anyone to get maudlin. I have no useful words, just stunned murmurs.
When I hang up and wait for my husband to come home, the farthest thing from my mind is a wedding.
Ironically, five days later is Father’s Day. The entire clan converges on Bill and Phyllis at their home in Leavenworth – the Bavarian-style village on an eastern flank of the Cascades. Phyllis, though subdued, is prepared to feed the army, and Bill seems unchanged, fully intending to go golfing the very next day. He’s still upbeat, making jokes. The rest of us are still trying to make sense of it. It isn’t real. He doesn’t look or act sick. The diagnosis is wrong. We can’t adjust. But when he says his two biggest regrets are leaving behind his adored wife and missing the kids’ wedding, it begins to sink in.
Mike and Kim are devastated. Unable to fathom celebrating so soon after his death, they call the wedding off. Bill won’t hear of it. Nobody’s calling anything off on his account. Don’t change a thing. Have the wedding you want, the way you want, the way you deserve. No long faces, nobody mope, nobody mourn. He insists.
Easier said than done.
But from this emerges the question, can we pull it off sooner? How long will it take if we really scramble, considering none of us have any more time off coming? Kim and I put our heads together over the calendar. Having survived my daughter’s wedding five months previous, I know certain wedding-type things need serious advance planning. But we have the location, Kim is sure she can find a dress, we’ll figure out the food, the music, the chairs, and that just leaves… the backyard.
It’s obvious we need a month, minimum, at maximum speed, to even approach the original plan, which puts us outside Bill’s time frame. We can’t do it and that’s that. At least not the backyard garden version. When Bill gets wind of this, he says to the kids, Plan it and I promise to be there. I promise. The kids take him at his word.
We set the date. We have twenty-eight days. OMG.
People come out of the woodwork to attack weeds, trim trees, dig holes, haul dirt, plant flats and flats of shrubs and flowers, fertilize this, transplant that, spread bark, pressure wash the patio, arrange outdoor lighting, invent parking, initiate anti-rain dances. The house undergoes a thorough scrubbing, the living room furniture banished in case of rain. My newlywed daughter and her husband return to the bad news and throw themselves into the whirlwind. Formal invitations are rush-ordered and rush-addressed (though every invitee already knows the score). I find a caterer who will deliver main course food on short notice. A woman from my office offers to tend bar. Another makes the wedding cake. People – I don’t even remember who – organize a shower, a bachelor party, a rehearsal dinner. The kids register, order tuxes, bridesmaid dresses, shoes. Occasionally we congratulate ourselves and each other for the progress we’re making, but most of the time we only see how much is left to do. We’re moving at warp speed, operating in panic mode, tempers flaring, nerves unraveling, private tears flowing.
The kids must know the odds are against Bill keeping his promise. I’m skeptical and I worry. But none of us talk about it.
Bill is serene. Week one, he’s golfing. Week two, he goes out, but only rides in the cart while his buddies golf. Week three, he’s on oxygen and using a walker, but is defiantly upbeat though his appetite has dwindled and he’s losing weight. No escaping the obvious now; his leukemia is moving at warp speed too.
Day twenty-six, Thursday before the wedding, Grandma and Grandpa move into the extra bedroom. The house fills with family, gently stepping in where needed, whether to run errands, put out fires, bolster spirits or take turns caring for Bill who now needs assistance getting up and down, dressed and undressed. But he’s still smiling and talking. We’re astounded, really hopeful now. He’s pushed several days past his “three weeks max.” Mike plans to walk his grandpa down the aisle to his seat, like a victory walk for Bill.
The next evening is the rehearsal dinner in my aunt’s house next door, and Bill gets there under his own power, albeit via walker and help. But by the end of the dinner he has to be carried back.
Saturday morning, he basically qualifies for hospice, lapsing in and out of coherency. He has difficulty speaking, his volume almost nonexistent and sometimes appears to be disoriented. He’s grown gaunt. His gums are bleeding. He doesn’t get out of bed. Family members rotate in and out of the room to sit with him awhile, talk to him, hold his hand. He seems to be slipping away before our eyes. It’s a day of banked tears, laughter verging on hysteria, and pure joy – the ultimate emotional roller coaster.
Weddings consist of careful timing and hundreds of last-minute details. I try to keep Phyllis distracted with busy-work. I’m not sure Bill is going to accomplish his goal, but the chairs are arranged, the wedding party is getting dressed, the caterer has delivered and guests are arriving. No turning back now.
Wedding experts advise you to expect an eighty percent turnout. We have a hundred percent plus, people having RSVPd who hadn’t even been invited (but should have been). They’ve come not only to see these kids get hitched, but to say goodbye to Bill, knowing they won’t get another chance.
Zero hour is upon us and Bill appears to be in no condition to sit through a wedding. But he’s still with the program. His daughters have dressed him in his best Bavarian gear and his favorite hat. There is no question of Mike walking him down the aisle now. He and two others carry him on a chair instead. Gone is the confusion. Bill knows exactly where he is and what’s going on, and he’s beaming. Promise kept.
As if having conserved himself in the days previous just for this event, he is present for a good portion of the party, greeting and smiling, sipping wine, and holding six week-old Natalie, the first great-grandchild.
A great tension has been released. The music and dancing and laughter is joyous, as a wedding should be, even though when Bill retires from the party, we’re half afraid, half resigned he’ll no longer be with us in the morning.
Miraculously, he is. And as we pack them up in the car, to be chauffeured home by their youngest daughter and her husband, most of us are openly sobbing. We know we’ll never see him again but are grateful for this last chance to say I love you. We aren’t aware until later that Phyllis has extracted a final promise. Please, Bill, wait until we get home.
Sometime during that night, at home in his own bed, he quietly slips away.
There are as many personal belief systems as there are people to explain what willpower can accomplish, and who can definitively say which is right. Maybe they all are. I choose to believe that Bill’s ‘power’ stemmed from love, and therein lies his legacy; embrace each and every breath of your life, die with dignity, grace and courage, and love with all the warmth and brilliance of the sun.