This is a post about my wedding. Or rather, a wedding. My wedding slipped away both slowly and suddenly months ago, when we all had to pretend that we were coping, that we were all in this together, when we got so good at the pretence of the new normal, that the weight of the dead was only as heavy as our hands could clap on a Thursday night. This is a self-indulgent post, the privilege of it is rancid. But here I go.
‘Isn’t it great that you can have 30 people at your wedding?’ Others ask me excitedly, but I don’t see those thirty people, I see the 150, ghost-like, fading into the distance. The 20x14cm invitation to nothing feels unbearably heavy. Do those 150 people know how much I want them there? Do they know the excitement my fiancé and I felt when we added them to the list way back when? Do they know how we prayed for them, felt love for them, couldn’t wait to celebrate with them? Do they know the 3am weeping over an Excel spreadsheet where moving a name from one column to another felt like ordering an execution?
150 people not there who should be. And the other wedding day things which both matter and don’t. The crème brûlée dessert topped with popping candy a reminder of an early date; the table names an in-joke between me and my new husband; the song of the first dance that we first danced to in the basement study rooms of our vicar school; the parade of sparklers because we love fireworks but we really are as poor as proverbial church mice; the little things that all 180 people won’t notice but accumulate into a day with us and 180 people that we love.
Other wedding day things which both matter and don’t. Because who remembers what they ate at weddings? You remember the ones where you were hungry, or when someone drunkenly embarrassed themselves (usually because they were hungry), but 178 out of 180 people would neither care nor remember that they ate crème brûlée topped with popping candy for dessert. 178 people wouldn’t remember the song we danced (okay, awkwardly swayed) to. 178 people would look at their table setting with a picture of a wooden duck dressed as a Church of England bishop and would just go, ‘these two are weird, but they’re weird together.’ The other wedding day things which both matter and don’t.
But there are wedding day things which matter.
I want to worship at my wedding. And by that, I mean I want to sing. I want to hold onto my fiancé/husband with one hand and throw the other in the air towards the heavens, knowing that behind me are
180 25 people doing the same. I want a priest to take our hands and bind them together, a tangible reminder of the God who binds us, that a chord of three strands is not easily broken. I want to feel the weight of the blessing from a palm on my head, not hovering, holding. I want to see faces and smiles and I can pretend – I can pretend – that I don’t hear the echo created by only 30 people clapping and not 180, space pregnant with disappointment and what ifs. I want to be healing at my wedding, not hurting.
Instead I’m facing the unbearable not knowing if I’m hurting or healing whilst knowing that I am both.
Because I see the pictures of posters pinned to the pillars telling me to keep my distance and what feels like every day, a new document appears on the Church of England website. And there’s no singing or physical blessing and the ring will be marred by alcohol gel before it’s even reached my finger and what is the point of signing a register in indelible ink if my fingerprint can’t even smudge into another’s on a pen? And I just don’t know, am I hurting or am I healing?
Because I’m looking at a day where I think I’m being told I’m healing. There will be 30 people – yay! And wedding receptions, and churches are closing the Zoom rooms and creaking open the doors (and, sorry disabled people, elderly people, shielding people, scared people, we’re back to forgetting about you and what you need and your pain and your uncertainty) and isn’t this great?! You’re healing! Because you’re here and you’ll be married and that’s enough. Why can’t you accept that you’re healing?
Perhaps because those signs and those masks and the cloying smell of alcohol gel and the gaping chasm between the Church of England’s wedding website and covid website remind me that I’m not. And because, well, I know I’m not.
Because it’s Monday evening and the Prime Minister’s words are ringing in my ears and my fiancé is holding me back as my mum and I say goodbye because she’s got the symptoms and we just don’t know what might happen. Because it’s a week later and friends are cross because they want their freedom and they don’t think it’s a big deal and I don’t know what to say because I just don’t sympathise and the distance feels un-breachable. Because I can’t not know the death toll each day but hearing it kills a bit more of my soul. Because I’m cleaning a banana with a baby wipe.
And then it’s the first week of May and my fiancé is weeing into a mango chutney jar we’ve just hastily emptied and he has to ring the GP surgery when we’ve arrived so they can escort him in. Then you’re throwing on clothes in the blinding light, because you only switch the main light on at 3am when it’s an emergency, and a bored nurse at the entrance to A&E tells me I can’t come in so I watch my fiancé shuffle out of sight into the unknown. And in the darkness, under the shadow of the building in which I came into life, the air feels thick with death and I sit on a wall and cry.
And then it’s Thursday evening, and the clapping on our street is both louder and quieter because there’s an ambulance outside our house, and once it’s gone, a neighbour knocks on the door and yells ‘is it’ before mouthing ‘covid?’ And it’s 3am again and you don’t recognise your best friend because how can he look worse than when you put him in an ambulance? And you leave both your bedroom doors open and hear every wince and pained breath and is that alcohol gel you smell or the stench of death?
And you only know time is passing because the death toll keeps rising and it’s Sunday morning and you know you shouldn’t be yelling, but you’re yelling at the 999 operator and you’re exploding from holding it all in because you know he’s dying but you don’t want him to see you crying, and his body is burning and breaking and bursting, and you don’t know whether that sound was of ambulance doors or a coffin lid closing.
And it’s 3am again.
And you’re being called and warned to say goodbye. And ‘I love you’ says both everything and nothing. And you just want to hold the hand of your best friend who might be about to die. Not quite one flesh, but already fusing, furiously dismembered so I’m confused as to which limb I’m missing.
In that air pocket of grace, you are held and you are heard, and your hurt gets everywhere, spills, soaks, stains everywhere.
‘Isn’t it great that he survived?’ ‘Isn’t it great that you can have 30 people at your wedding?’ And I don’t know if I’m healing or if I’m hurting. But I’m looking at the groaning, grimacing bones formerly known as my fiancé bruised by a miracle. ‘Oh, it was only appendicitis.’ Only. Only perforated, ruptured, burst; only a swollen, colonising appendix mass; only the toxic embrace of septic shock.
30 people, because we’re healing! Masking and sanitising and distancing – we’re healing!
So why do I feel like I’m hurting?
We put a line in the wedding vows in the worst place possible. ‘Till death do us part’ – great, but it comes right after ‘to love and to cherish.’ In other words, God asks me to put my heart onto his outstretched hand and Death can steal it, destroy it, anytime he wants.
‘Isn’t it great that you can have 30 people at your wedding?’ ‘Till death do us part.’ And it’s 3am again and I don’t know if I’ve just said ‘I love you’ to my best friend for the last time, but it turns out I haven’t, but he’s still not better, but here’s some alcohol gel and no singing and ‘isn’t it great that you can have 30 people at your wedding?’ and am I healing or am I hurting?
If you won’t let me bleed all over the floor, soak the flagstones, flood the grill, stain the kneeler, then you’ve got to let me pretend that I’m healed. Let me see your face and feel your hand and receive your blessing. Let this day soak into the walls, seep into the pillars, saturate the pews, joining in with the memories of the other wedding days, of funerals, of baptisms, of thousands and thousands of ordinary-extraordinary Sundays. Let me raise my voice and feel the body of Christ un-dismembered. Let me receive joy and explode with it. Let me say ’till death do us part’ like Death didn’t sit with his arm around me at 3am again and again. Let me have ‘the happiest day of my life’ not despite of or in spite of, but just because because because because because because because because…
Jesus Christ, both crucified and resurrected should be a comfort, feels like a taunt. Am I hurting or am I healing?
Or, let’s face it, am I both?