Like many little girls, I grew up fascinated by the idea of one day being a bride.
While most girls’ daydreams are comprised of big white dresses, bridesmaids, and a mystery groom, I grew up wondering about what it would be like to walk down the aisle because I lost my father to cancer at the tender age of five.
When my Daddy died, I could sense my mother’s sadness. With youthful optimism and childlike faith, I told her not to worry – she could find another husband.
Much to the surprise of all of us, my mother remarried quickly, and walked down the aisle again the next year with a good man we all barely knew. My little sister and I participated in the wedding as flower girls. As a five-year-old with a flair for the dramatic, I was elated to wear a pastel floral dress and command the attention of the audience as I walked down the aisle.
During the ceremony, instead lighting a unity candle, my mother and father-to-be invited us to light a multi-tiered candelabra with them while the song “Welcome to the Family” played, signifying that we were all in this together, that my new adoptive father Brian’s commitment was not just to my mom, but to all of us. While I was excited to be a part of the wedding, I had no idea how much that day and witnessing my parents’ commitment would change my life, how it would shape my views of love and marriage, and give me hope for my own wedding and marriage one day.
My new father and I had an extremely challenging, painful relationship. He traveled often during my childhood and for the majority of the time, my stay-at-home mother was the primary parent. She was the one I fought with, confided in, and trusted. I perceived my Dad as aloof, authoritarian, and refused to value his opinions. As I entered my teen years and began dating, it seemed we spent every interaction struggling for power. While I never spoke the words aloud, the knowledge that he wasn’t my “real father” always lurked beneath the surface of our relationship, tainting my ability to trust and fully love him.
Thankfully during my college years as I began to assert my independence, I was able to share my childhood heartbreak and disappointments with my father. We began working towards healing and a healthier relationship began to bloom. As adults, we were finally able to strike a balance. My Dad was able to become a guide and finally, a friend.
A few years later during our engagement, Nick and I watched a heart-wrenching documentary on a bereavement camp for children who had lost a loved one to cancer. The thing about losing someone so young is that you don’t walk through the five stages of grief in an orderly fashion. Grief becomes a confusing process, showing up at unexpected times over the years to come, swiftly crippling your emotional stability during songs and movies and weddings.
I wept uncontrollably as I watched that documentary. I mourned for the five-year-old version of myself, who did not yet know what lay ahead and how much she was losing. I felt jealous that the children at this camp had the chance to experience their pain in a safe way, in community. Here I was, months from getting married, and I was terrified that the shroud of my birth father’s death might cloud the happiness of my wedding day. I certainly wanted to remember him and carry him with me, but I was terrified I would be reduced to the ugly cry while walking down the aisle for all the wrong reasons. I wondered if I would grieve amidst what should be one of the happiest days of my life, my both heart impossibly heavy and exceedingly light.
Later, on the day of my wedding as I prepared to walk down the aisle, I stood with my sister and Dad outside the chapel doors, laughing and dancing and drinking in the beauty of the moment. My mind was focused on the excitement of the commitment I was about to make, and I forgot to worry that my grief would overtake me at the altar. As I took my Dad’s arm and began my descent down the aisle, my eyes met those of my loved ones. Surrounded by a lifetime of family and friends, I finally met the eyes of my beloved at the end of aisle, and my heart swelled with love.
Months before the wedding, I knew I wanted my father to not just give me away in the traditional sense of a kiss and a brief “her mother and I do” and then retreat to his seat. I asked him to write a charge – a commissioning – for my husband and me. I wanted his words to serve as a blessing and a prayer.
This is what he said:
“Nick, years ago God blessed Will and Edie Simmons with the gift of a precious daughter to love and to cherish, to protect, and to promote. I have been blessed to share in that love and responsibility. Today, as Edie and I give Erika to you in marriage, you formally take your place in this line of love and responsibility. May God bless you with love and faithfulness beyond your human ability.
Nick and Erika, may the life you build and share together reflect God’s glory as you are transformed with ever-increasing glory into Christ’s likeness. May your love mature and multiply as you open your lives to one another, and then to another, and another. May God bless your home and make it a lighthouse shining Christ’s love for all to see. May His kingdom come and His will be done in and through and you.”
Even as my father finished his first sentence, my eyes welled up with tears. What I felt in that moment was not grief, but overwhelming gratitude – for the love of this man who chose to join our already established three-woman family unit some twenty years earlier, for the sacrifice he made to enter into the unknown, and for the difficult, formative years between the beginning of his marriage to my mother and my own beginning that day.
At the end of the ceremony as we returned down the aisle as a blissfully married couple, I was keenly aware of the Mumford and Sons chorus we had chosen to play:
And there will come a time, you’ll see, with no more tears
And love will not break your heart, but dismiss your fears
Get over your hill and see what you find there
With grace in your heart and flowers in your hair.
My parents’ decades-long marriage has been an incredible journey of bravery and faith, and on that cold night in January I was embarking upon on the same. For the rest of my days, I will fight to live up to the weighty privilege and responsibility of trying to love my husband in the same way, growing stronger through trials and triumphs, to leave a legacy built by sacrificial love.