By Rev. Brenda Haggett
Life is full of moments. Some of them we miss because we are thinking of moments already gone by or worrying about moments still to come – but in the end when we look back at life, we remember moments – births, special occasions, weddings, and funerals. We remember moments that change our lives whether for better or worse. Some may have said it was too late and unnecessary for a wedding to take place; others may have said, “Why bother, she is going to die soon anyway;” yet others said, “What a wonderful way to culminate a lifetime of love!”
Life in the palliative care wing is precarious at best. Some patients come to us for pain and symptom management, while others come because they are unable to die at home. Life in palliative care is anything but normal and yet the experiences of patients and families usually have some level of predictability to it: death and grief.
To those looking on, a wedding seemed out of place in a unit that encounters death on a daily basis. Even though she was dying, couldn’t she too have a wedding?
It was a question that came out of the blue. I was visiting Lawanda Badour, her common-law husband Kevin Hoogwerf, and their young daughter Jessica, who was struggling to understand why mommy was lying in bed all the time. They were concerned for their daughter and wanted her to know that mommy was dying. Oh my. I spent several hours with the couple helping them talk to their 4-year-old daughter about life and death. Then, like a lightning bolt on a clear day, the man asked the question, “Could you marry us?” Initially, I was surprised, having assumed they were already married (Lesson 1. Never assume anything.). My answer was yes. I am a licensed minister within the province and I can solemnize weddings. I spoke with the patient’s partner and he expressed again his desire to marry the love of his life, who lay in her hospital bed, dying.
I asked her if that was her wish, too. The answer: Yes, I want to marry him. In less than 24 hours, this couple would be married.
I rushed out of the building and down the street to the town hall to get a marriage license and returned within the hour with the documentation in hand. When I told the palliative care team that there was going to be a wedding the next day, they jumped into action. The next day there were beautiful decorations – a tiara, lights, candles, music, something bubbly to toast with, and the hospital photographer. The palliative care department clerk, Dana Knapp, brought in a beautiful flower girl dress for the couple’s daughter to wear. But it wasn’t just the unit that got on board with the big event, the community did too: donations of food and flowers from local businesses and the surprise gift from the flower shop – a beautiful brooch for the bride to wear with the instructions that it be kept for the little girl’s future big day. Word spread very rapidly that something wonderful was going to take place in a hospital unit where death hovered.
As a minister, I was overwhelmed thinking about how I would approach the wedding vows. The traditional words “till death do us part” felt out of place especially given that the bride was nearing the end of life. What could be said that would make it meaningful? I wrestled with the words and then landed on the idea of using the marriage celebration as a moment to be remembered, celebrated, and honored.
I spent several hours that evening writing and rewriting, trying to find just the right things to say about the joys of marriage, the commitment of marriage and – in this couples’ case – the trials of marriage.
When the time came, 3 p.m., the nurses wheeled Lawanda’s bed just across the hall into the sunroom, which had been transformed into a beautiful chapel. The doctor had cut back on the strong medications she had been taking so she would be lucid for this moment. She would go back on the strong painkillers soon after.
It was, as if for a moment, the dark shadow of death had parted to reveal the joys of life. The groom had purchased rings and managed to get a mate to stand up with him. The bride had an attendant, too, and the little girl Jessica sprinkled rose petals around the room.
This is what I said to Lawanda and Kevin as I joined them together:
“We are gathered here today in the presence of the Divine Creator to give witness to a ceremony that will join Lawanda and Kevin in the sacred union of marriage.
Rev. Brenda Haggett was honored to officiate at Lawanda’s wedding.
“In many ways this ceremony represents the culmination of a love that has already had the traditional marriage vows tested and proven – they have faithfully loved and cherished one another in sickness and in health, through trials and tragedies, through the blessings and challenges of parenthood; and now in the face of limited time … their love has brought them to this moment. Life is made up of moments and moments are all we ever really have… for yesterday’s moments are spent with only memories to recall, and tomorrow’s moments are never guaranteed for any of us. All we have is this moment, and how we spend our moments matters a great deal.
“And so, today in this moment, Lawanda and Kevin desire to affirm their love and commitment to one another by giving themselves to the other in the sacred union of marriage. This ceremony does not create a relationship that does not already exist between you. Rather it is a moment in which all of the moments leading up to this one are celebrated and in which a lasting symbol is made of the commitment you both have already demonstrated each to the other in your life together.
“This ceremony truly is a symbol of the unspoken words that have kept you together through the ups and downs of life. It is a symbol of the never-ending love you have for each other that has carried you each moment and will carry you into the future, regardless of the moments you face. Today, in this moment you tell the love story of your lives and we as witnesses to this mystery feel blessed and privileged.
Please repeat after me…
“I, Kevin, take you, Lawanda, to be my wife. As I have loved you, I will continue to love you, through trials and hardships, through joys and sorrows, through every moment we are blessed to share. My heart is yours.
“I, Lawanda, take you, Kevin, to be my husband. As I have loved you so I will continue to love you through trials and hardships, through joys and sorrows, and in every moment we are blessed to share. My heart is yours.
“This ring I give you is a symbol of my never-ending love for you. I receive this ring as a symbol of my never-ending love for you…
“I consider this a special honor – by the powers vested in me, from the Province of Ontario, I now pronounce that you are husband and wife. You may kiss your bride.
“May every moment you are blessed to share be moments that pay tribute to the love you have shared, and may you know the Great Spirit’s peace, comfort, and hope. Amen.”
Lawanda was visibly happy throughout. The room held an atmosphere of holy reverence mixed with barely stifled emotion. There were a few family members and very special friends present. The nursing manager and a few of the floor nurses were in the room, and other nurses lined the hall just outside the door. Most of them were crying. The couple both signed the hospital marriage register. Their names were the first ones for a wedding in a book that held many recordings of funerals and memorial services.
Earlier in the day it was discovered that a fellow who worked downstairs in finance sang and played the guitar. He was briefed and went home to get his guitar. The mood in the room as Andrew Dion sang, “Have I told you lately that I love you” was rich with feeling. I wonder if he went home that day feeling he had been in a very different and honorable role, one of the care team.
Afterward, there was a party, a celebration with wine and food; congratulations all around. Too soon it was over and Lawanda was back in her hospital room, asleep. All was quiet on the floor again. The wedding took place on a Friday afternoon. On Sunday night, Lawanda died. It is my hope that her husband finds immense comfort in knowing that Lawanda had a dream fulfilled, that she died happy. May the union of her parents provide comfort for little Jessica as she struggles to grow up without a mom. May the extra special actions of so many staff members that day serve to provide a unique job satisfaction in a place where circumstances are all too often somber. I am honored to have played my role in this couple’s journey.
In reflection, there is no guarantee that we will have any more moments than the one we currently experience. Past moments are gone, and new ones may never happen.
Reverend Brenda Haggett is a certified multifaith chaplain and grief services provider. She is currently studying toward a master’s of psychology and counseling. She can be reached at the Brockville General Hospital in Brockville, Ontario, Canada, at firstname.lastname@example.org