When the officiant asked, “Who gives this woman to be married to this man?” my brother answered, “Her mother and I do” in a voice so strong a ripple of applause escaped from the assembled guests.
No one expected Peter Rich, 66, would be well enough to walk his daughter Brenna down the aisle the first Saturday in June. In fact, most of us did not think Peter would live long enough to see this day. But Peter knew better. He knew all along.
To say that Peter has beat the odds is an understatement. Eight years ago, he was diagnosed with metastatic stage four prostate cancer with a median survival rate of two years. When he’d exhausted hormone and chemo/radiation therapy, he enrolled in clinical trial upon clinical trial. All the while he completed triathlons, swam regularly in the local high school pool and grew the most glorious vegetables, strawberries and fruit trees on his 10 acres in South Lyon. He doted on Sage, his first grandchild, and pushed through the pain to attend every family event.
Last summer, the other shoe finally began to drop. Tumors were found on his spinal cord, dangerously near his brain stem. Surgery took its toll. When his oncologist referred him to hospice in February, there were conference calls and meetings with my three other brothers on how we could best support Pete and wife Carol in his last days.
There were wrenching discussions about acceptance, about letting go, about assuring Pete know we would be there for Carol and the girls. We tiptoed into the mind-numbing waters that pit quantity of life against quality of life (in which, incidentally, there is no victor) and talked about when to set up a website to keep extended family in the loop.
Because the emotional terrain of the dying is profoundly woven in fear, we turned on each other, said things we regret, tried to control the uncontrollable. Raw and weary, we forgot we were on the same team. There were tears; lots of tears. My heart ached to see my brothers in such pain.
And then Pete had the gall to whip us all into shape. He up and fired hospice.
Carol said the conversation with the intake hospice coordinator went something like: “Mr. Rich given your present condition, we don’t think you are going to regain your strength.”
Peter focused those cobalt blue eyes like a laser on the now-trembling hospice worker. With no small measure of condescension, he said: “I’m afraid you don’t know me very well.”
There on in, Peter set his sights on being the father of the bride, determined, as he told Carol, that Brenna have the wedding of her dreams. Nothing, not late-night ambulance rides to the hospital, not broken bones or blood transfusions, not persistent urinary tract infections or fluid on the lungs, would deter him. His rebounds were so astonishing we started calling him Lazarus.
Buoyed by handfuls of supplements in one swallow and several small vegan meals a day (prepared by a particularly devoted angel who seconds as Peter’s oldest daughter, Devon), Peter watched from his bed in the living room window last Thursday as the enormous white tent went up on his front lawn.
Saturday’s weather was idyllic, Carol’s gardens were lush and violins played as Brenna, breathtaking in a white lace gown with a green sash, walked behind her father’s wheelchair. When Jeff Cameron, the groom, bent down to embrace Peter, Brenna joined him throwing her arms around the two men she loves most in this world.
The vows were both tender and light with Brenna recalling how, as teenagers, she and her sister eyed Jeff from afar, musing: “The girl that gets him is gonna be one lucky woman.”
“And now I’m her,” Brenna said.
In addition to promising to have and to hold from this day forward, she also vowed she would “seek out grizzly bears while maintaining a healthy respect for bear country etiquette” and “always unplug the coffee machine and lock all the windows and doors when I leave the house.”
For his part Jeff, who is truly the son-in-law of every parent’s dream, told Brenna: “You are the love of my life.”
Toasting the happy couple, the maid of honor proved she missed her calling as a stand-up comedian. “I first met Brenna when she was born,” Brenna’s sister Casey deadpanned. “I wasn’t too happy about it because I had a good thing going.”
Casey went on to reveal some skeletons in Brenna’s closet; that of Brenna’s first marriage in a ceremony performed in the living room with Brenna in her mother’s nightgown, to a preschool heartthrob named Jimmy Cutie.
The dance floor was hopping all night thanks to Motown, Bruno Mars and Michael Jackson. The food was scrumptious, lines at the bar weren’t too long and the grownups and little kids left by 10 p.m., just in time for the second wave of partiers.
At one point I looked over at Peter in the wheelchair. His hands were clasped underneath his chin and he was gazing at the panorama of joy. It was way past his bedtime; he may have even been long overdue for his pain meds. Still, he looked so content.
I don’t know if people choose the time they pass from this Earth. But whatever conversations have transpired between Peter and the Almighty, there is a beaming bride and groom and 250 wedding guests who are eternally grateful someone up there was listening when Peter said: “Not yet.”