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first person

Illustration by Mary Kirkpatrick

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In November, 2018, I was flying high, cruising somewhere over the Atlantic. Tired and happy, Sam, my fiancé, and I were now en route home. Two weeks earlier, he had surprised me by proposing on the first night of our vacation.

To say I was surprised is an understatement. I’d first tried to talk him out of his suggestion of a romantic after-dinner walk because I was jet-lagged. Then, I’d insisted on changing from my cute dress into woolen sweatpants because I didn’t want to get chilled. I’d initially interpreted the ring tucked into a handmade scrapbook as a one-year anniversary present. It wasn’t until he went down on one knee that the synapses in my brain started working. In the end, sweatpants and all, we shared a deeply special moment in Seville’s Plaza de Espana.

On the way home, Sam fell fast asleep on the plane, so to pass the time I gleefully tucked into a delightful dish: wedding planning. By the time he woke up, much to his shock, our guest list was nearing completion as was a list of possible venues. I am not someone who has dreamt of my wedding since childhood. I have, however, always “loved love,” and the traditions that celebrate it, so this was a jackpot. We were going to be different than other couples, I thought. We would enjoy the planning process – stress-free – starting with a longer engagement that would usher us to our wedding day: April 18, 2020.

By March 10, 2020, I was certainly not flying high. I sat stunned in a restaurant as my fiancé gently tiptoed around the subject that the coronavirus might affect our wedding. By then, wedding planning had become a second full-time job. It was often pleasant and genuinely exciting at times – like our engagement party or dress fittings with my mom – but increasingly, it had become a major source of stress. Our elegant downtown plans had come together nicely but added costs kept popping up (a pouring fee?) and throughout the year I had been dreaming about the future while the present raced by.

I was too ashamed to admit what I was feeling because I was the bride and brides-to-be are supposed to be overjoyed. Right? If not, I felt at risk of being considered a “bridezilla” who is shamed for being difficult. Maybe, I began to think, bridezillas are just normal people who naturally feel overwhelmed by the pressure for wedding perfection that comes from nowhere and everywhere at the same time.

COVID-19 cases were on the rise and my anxiety level personally and professionally (as a physician) was increasing. Was I experiencing some denial? Partly. But mostly I clung to our wedding plans like a raft in a storm out of a sense of self-preservation amidst the significant psychological crisis that was brewing. “I can’t believe you of all people are saying this,” I replied to my fiancé in the restaurant. “I need you to be supportive.”

That was our last meal out for months. What happened next is familiar to us all: the city shut down. Patient care transitioned to virtual appointments overnight. Lineups. Panic buying. No hugs. Favourite coffee shop closed. Stay home. And stay at home we did, along with an unwanted houseguest: the wedding planning nightmare.

Excitement for our impending nuptials was rapidly replaced with pity. This was truly an apocalyptic wedding-planning plot twist! International guests started to cancel. Dance lessons were cancelled. We bought some time with carefully worded e-mails to our 135 guests. But when our main vendors cancelled and the church doors closed, we spent a rainy afternoon writing our cancellation e-mail.

Behind the scenes, we had tough conversations about what to do now. After much discussion, we settled on a hybrid model: a small civil ceremony in April, with a religious ceremony and outdoor party mid-September, public-health guidelines permitting.

I was devastated, suffering from a bad case of “Why me?” But for the first time in months, I wasn’t fussing over our menu or votive styles or specialty cocktails. Once these never-ending details were stripped away, I was left with something simple and authentic: a sense of real gratitude that Sam and I had met at all. Deep down I knew that, for me, this wedding journey had morphed into project management. I had become more focused on the idea of the wedding instead of what a wedding actually represents.

Unfurling amongst the grieving process was resiliency and in the midst of the new silence of our lives, I felt an inner sense of acceptance and flickers of relief.

April 18 dawned sunny and unseasonably warm, a light breeze rippling through the spring foliage. I went for a peaceful woods walk. My hair was styled outside, and we both wore masks. I did my own makeup. The flower order of one bouquet and two boutonnieres arrived. My limousine was my dad’s Volkswagen Golf, layers of crinoline billowing in the back seat. As planned, I wore my mom’s wedding dress and, unexpectedly, felt not just beautiful but deeply at ease and truly like myself as I walked toward my groom.

What I will cherish most was our socially distanced outdoor reception in my parents’ backyard, arranged so that each of the five couples present (us, our parents, our two siblings and their partners) had their own table. We enjoyed shirin polo, an impressive traditional Persian wedding dish made by my mother-in-law. My dad gave his speech and my brother surprised us with an original song. We cut the exquisite wedding cake my mom had made and sat outside until darkness fell. There could not have been more love or laughter shared in that familiar space.

As our one-year anniversary approaches, I find myself in a reflective mood. The pandemic drags on and people are struggling more than ever. It seems trite now to talk about “silver linings” when our communities face prolonged suffering. I will say this though: The pandemic presented me with an unexpected opportunity to reconnect to what truly matters – our marriage, not the wedding. I see this part of our journey as a strength, not a setback, in the life we are building together.

As a health professional I’m proud that one year later, science prevails.

As a pandemic bride, I can say with confidence and a wisdom born of a challenge: love prevails.

Erin Smith lives in Vancouver.

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