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Why our wedding story could be called: Angst at the Altar

BRIAN TAYLOR/The Globe and Mail

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Valentine's Day is a special day at our house. It marks the end of a string of celebrations from Christmas to the birthdays of our three children, and it is usually a time when my husband and I have caught our breath and started to repair the damage to our bank account.

On Valentine's Day, I dress in red and have high expectations of receiving candy, flowers or a restaurant dinner. Feb. 14 is also important to us because it has become the substitute celebration for our wedding anniversary. We tend to overlook the actual anniversary – in January – first, because it is sandwiched between so many other special events, and second, because no anniversary celebration could match the drama of our wedding day.

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January is usually the coldest, meanest month, but in 1975 our wedding day dawned sunny and warm. It was 16 degrees by noon, though clouds would overtake the sun in the following 24 hours and the temperature would plummet to well below zero. The crazy weather was perhaps an omen of the unusual day that was to unfold.

The wedding was scheduled for 3 p.m. At the church, 75 guests, an organist, a soloist and a minister were already assembled when the wedding party arrived on time. I walked down the aisle with my dad, and took my place at the front with my husband-to-be, two bridesmaids and two groomsmen.

As the service began, my fiancé placed his hand on my forearm. Interpreting this as a gesture of support, I turned and smiled at him. The pressure on my arm increased and then, to my dismay, he began to sink slowly to the floor. The best man managed to stop the groom's fall with help from the other usher, and they lowered him into a pew.

I was in shock, but I clearly remember my future mother-in-law urging from the pew behind: "For goodness sakes, David, get up!"

One of the guests, who had a heart condition, rushed forward to offer up his nitroglycerin smelling salts to revive the ailing groom. That made matters worse.

Dazed, but still standing at the front of the church with the bridesmaids, I wondered aloud: "Do you think he's trying to tell me something?"

The minister instructed the ushers to take the groom downstairs to recuperate, and suggested I wait in the front pew with the bridesmaids. We sat for a few minutes, with me dangerously close to tears. I felt 75 pairs of eyes fixed on my back and I was worried about what was happening downstairs. I left the sanctuary.

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The story ended happily, though. The groom was revived with water and headache tablets, and the bride dried her tears. The ceremony resumed and we took our vows sitting on chairs at the front of the church.

The incident inspired many jokes at the reception. In his speech, my husband protested that he had not fainted through nervousness, but because he was tired and had not eaten before the ceremony.

Over the years, I have wondered if my husband had a premonition that day. Perhaps he foresaw that he was committing himself to a very long-term relationship. Maybe he had a vision of the hundreds of diapers we would eventually have to change. Or perhaps there was a revelation that, over the course of our lives together, we would move 14 times and live in five cities and three countries.

But most likely he fainted because he was tired and peckish.

For years after, we entertained new acquaintances with our wedding story. Typically, the anecdote was met with disbelief followed by guffaws. We got a lot of mileage out of that story, and in fact out of the marriage. Thirty-eight years later, we are still together.

We learned several important things on our wedding day: that life is unpredictable; that you have to roll with the punches; that a sense of humour helps, and that a seemingly negative experience can sometimes turn out all right. Those were lessons we would relearn in the following years.

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When our first son was born, he had a potentially life-threatening blood problem. It puzzled the doctors, terrified us and required several transfusions before it stabilized. Together, we weathered that difficulty. Four years later, we were stunned when the ultrasound technician coyly announced: "I can see the baby really well – perhaps because I'm seeing double." Again as a team we faced the challenge of twins. And, working on the principle that change is good, three times in our marriage we packed up and moved to Asia for several years.

That has pretty much been the pattern for our married life – brief periods of calm followed by surprises, challenges and changes. My husband maintains that all the changes we have experienced probably explain why we are still together. We're not yet bored.

While the 38th wedding anniversary is not a watershed event, it is an achievement and we will toast that success this Valentine's Day. And for the upcoming milestones – the 40th, the big five-O – we will plan something special. We probably won't renew our vows, however – that would be too risky.

Elaine Peebles lives in Ottawa.

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