How to Plan a Wedding When You’re an Orphan

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Photo: Burke/Triolo Productions/Getty Images

At my parent’s 1977 wedding, my dad wore a white ruffled tuxedo shirt with no tie, collar unfastened to show off a Tom Selleck–esque tuft of chest hair. My mom’s gown was ivory with long lace sleeves. She wore a fingertip-length cap veil over her tomboyish haircut and two delicate strands of pearls around her neck. They stood beneath a chuppah to say their vows and when my dad smashed the ceremonial glass with his foot everyone yelled out, “Mazel tov!” The trick there is to swap out the glass with a lightbulb, because it’s so delicate and it shatters on the first try.

At my wedding in September I’ll have my own ivory gown and my fiancé will stomp on the glass (even though he’s technically Catholic) and at the Champagne toast both our families will shout, L’chaim! — To life! At 35, I’ll have outlived my mother by five years — she was murdered by her drug dealer when she was just 30 years old. My dad has been gone for nearly 20 years — liver and heart destroyed by alcohol, brain ruined by grief and bipolar disorder.

As our date nears, well-intentioned friends and family ask, “Are you sad your dad won’t be there to give you away?” It’s a strange question. Am I sad that my dad, a Vietnam vet with a tenth-grade education who could reference classical mythology while quoting Richard Pryor; a man who could fold a silk pocket square into his impeccable suit and then navigate a box truck through the crooked streets of Providence, Rhode Island, delivering the newspaper; a man who read Roald Dahl aloud to me and then took me to see my first David Lynch film — am I sad that man is dead? Sad doesn’t come close. But for all the things he was, he wasn’t a man who could be relied upon to show up. Would he be sober? Would he be manic? Would he come at all? My dad was never the kind of man who was going to walk me down the aisle.

But here is my secret, my lightbulb wrapped in a cloth: When I think about my parents’ absence at my wedding I feel a kind of relief. It’s a guilty kind of relief, but there it is.

***

Wedding planning can bring out the worst in people. There are decades-old feuds to consider when planning the seating chart, and meal choices that have to please both your great-aunt Kathleen and your college roommate’s brand-new vegan boyfriend. Even when you’re paying for the event yourself, as we are, you must contend with a barrage of advice, expectations, and critiques. Did you know Chiavari ballroom chairs are considered déclassé? Now you do. Did you know your second cousin — whose 1993 bat mitzvah you were invited to, by the way — can’t believe she didn’t get an invitation? Don’t worry, somebody will tell you. Did you think that you, a professional woman who would just as soon have gone to the courthouse and then maybe a movie to celebrate, would burst into tears when choosing between Tuscan tables and round tables? Surprise!

But there is a reason, and I truly believe this, that inspires all the meddling, and that reason is love. Most people, most friends and family, want you to have a perfect day. Weddings are a chance to reflect on where our lives have taken us. The breaking of the glass, despite the cheers and mazel tovs that accompany it, is actually, as I, a Jew by birthright alone understand it, meant to be a solemn event. It signifies the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem more than 2,000 years ago. It’s about tempering the joy of the occasion with a reminder about the fragility of life and love. My fiancé and I will not invoke God in our ceremony. There will be no rabbi, no priest, no chuppah, and no Bible verse. And so when we break the glass, it will be purely as an act of remembrance for my mother and father. It’s a way I can orchestrate and control their memory, in a way we can never control the living.

***

Just a few days ago as I was stopped at a red light a woman approached my car. She was in her mid-50s, the age my mom would be if she had not been murdered at 30. I had my window down and the woman took me by surprise.

“Hey, pretty,” she said, “I’ll sell you this watch for ten dollars.” It was plastic, clearly worn, maybe taken off her own wrist. The woman looked wrecked by life. She looked, I realized with a sudden and complete understanding, the way my own mother, who had been a drug addict, might have looked had she lived. I had truly never thought of my mom unfrozen from time in this way. I just stared at the woman as she shook the watch in my face. I stared and stared until the line of cars behind me began to honk their horns and she skittered back to the sidewalk, disappointed I’d not given her the money.

When our parents disappear from our life at a young age, whether they die or become estranged, or whatever else happens in the course of life, there is a tendency to forget they were human. For me, my mother exists as a shadow, fully formed only in photos. She was brunette and casual, her smile mischievous, and her eyes the same deep brown as my own. It’s striking to me that when people talk to me about her they don’t say she was beautiful, because she seems to have been. Maybe that’s because my father’s looks — his silver hair, blue eyes, and swagger — are always invoked. But it seems also like the type of thing you would say to a daughter about her mother, as if to prove what was stolen.

Instead, they tell me about her loyalty, her sense of adventure, her defiance in the face of anything she perceived as unjust, and her unparalleled sense of humor. She was a woman who brought a slew of dogs home from the local pound to keep them from being euthanized. She once chased down a city bus and clung to the door when a driver refused to stop for an elderly woman. She took photos, really beautiful photos, of dogs and children, union protests and the Claus von Bülow trial, and of me and of my dad. But I can barely remember her. All I have are the images.

This intangibility is part of the reason I’m writing a book about my parents. I want to understand them better. In April, as part of my research, I visited the Adult Correctional Institute in Rhode Island to speak with a man whose own father, now deceased, had murdered my mother in 1984. (The son was in prison for a different crime.) The man I was visiting had worked closely with his father, my mother’s killer, as a dealer and he knew my mom in the context of his family’s drug enterprise. I hoped he might shed some light on the parts of my mom’s life as an addict that nobody in my family ever talked about. The son of my mom’s killer was hoping for parole, which may have been why he agreed to sit across from me and discuss the past.

He was appropriately solemn in his uniform khakis, with a neat haircut and a fresh shave and beneath it all a pungent, onion-y scent of body odor. He apologized, awkwardly, for what his father had done. And he congratulated me on my wedding — he was divorced himself, but believed strongly in love. When I asked what he remembered about my mom, the question seemed to stump him. Finally, he turned the palms of his hands face up on the table and said, “As far as your mom goes, she was just another customer. She was a happy person. I don’t know. She was just … it happens like everybody else with a drug problem.”

It would be the most distasteful wedding toast in history, but it’s the most honest thing anyone has ever said to me about her death.

***

Sometimes my fiancé will send me a link about a TV show, or new movie, or concert tour with a note about how it seems like something my dad would have liked. He understands him in a way that nobody who ever knew him alive possibly could. The fact that he can not only understand, but grow to really appreciate such a mercurial person from description alone makes me think that (a) I’m marrying the right man, and that (b) my dad lives on in everything I am.

When I ask people about my parents, one of the things I look for is repetition. I’ve noticed that every person has essentially the same thing to say about my parents’ marriage: “They just got each other.” “They were soul mates, but they did their own thing and they met up at the end of the day.” “They accepted each other but did their own thing.” “They just fit.” And this, too: My mom told my dad that I was all she needed and if he wanted another baby he could go to the baby store and buy one himself because it wasn’t happening.

My parents were not traditional people, but when I look at their wedding album I’m surprised by how traditional their wedding was. My grandfather walked my mom down the aisle. My dad didn’t wear a tie but he and his best man had matching three-piece suits. They look happy but it doesn’t seem like their style, really. I wonder what they’d think about my escort cards, and custom postage stamps, and carefully chosen centerpieces. I wish I’d had a chance to know if my mom would have been a typical overbearing mother of the bride. I like to think so, given the alternative. 

I like to imagine them in the front row during the ceremony. Maybe my dad is crying a little but he’s hiding it behind expensive sunglasses. Maybe my mom is looking at my dress and remembering her own as she holds my dad’s hand. But this is all in my head. Because they are gone, I can imagine them as I hope they would be: imperfect but present, having overcome their demons and lived to tell about it. I like to think they would understand, and that I am like my parents. We’ve gone our own ways, and in the end we fit.