“You know people plan these things a full year in advance,” a good friend of mine pointed out. Her calendar was filling up with work and family commitments. She found herself putting social engagements on hold as she waited for Dan and me to come up with a date. But we were waiting ourselves. Dan’s twin brother Dave had written a one-man show. He was too ill to perform it, but a director friend had teamed up with an actor and was checking out venues. Our plan was to hold our wedding on whatever weekend the play opened so that our family and friends, who would be traveling from as far away as Mendocino and Chicago, could attend both events.
During this period in limbo, we were uncharacteristically calm. Without a particularly detailed picture of our wedding in mind, we felt that however it evolved would be fine.
When we finally had the date, I laughed. Sunday, June 14th.
“You do realize that’s Flag Day,” I said to Dan.
“So? I don’t think that’ll stop anyone from coming.”
“Meant to be,” I sang. As in sync as the two of us usually are, this is one area where we’ve always differed. Dan believes life is basically a crapshoot, while I see meaning and serendipity wherever I look.
I reminded him that on June 14, 1985, I stepped foot on the cobblestone streets of Philadelphia, the city that is now our city, for the very first time. On that long ago day, a friend and I had taken a Greyhound bus from New York to gaze at the Liberty Bell, eat cheesesteaks, and, most of all, study Rodin’s fluid, emotionally expressive sculptures. Unfortunately, when we bounded up to the door of the Rodin Museum we found it locked. Closed for Flag Day.
“Flag Day?” I had groused to my friend in true New Yorker fashion. “Who the hell ever heard of Flag Day?”
“And now, 30 years later to the day, I’ll marry you, My Love, just outside the city limits of America’s first capital.”
“What a coincidence,” Dan responded dryly.
Kismet or happenstance, we had two months to throw together a wedding. My friend’s words came back to me. People plan these things a full year in advance. Still, Dan and I felt open to possibility. We had a venue in mind—a beautiful arts and crafts style social hall around the corner from our house. But if it was already booked we’d hold our ceremony in a favorite restaurant. We also had an idea of the ideal officiates—a Lutheran pastor who had been a student of Dan’s in her high school years, and a poet/rabbi who was one of my oldest and dearest friends. If they couldn’t do it, we’d perform the service ourselves.
“We’re after connection, not perfection,” Dan said as we made the necessary calls, coining our motto for the process, or maybe for the whole of our joined lives.
Meanwhile, Dave’s play would have four performances, two the week before our wedding and two the week of. As we compiled our guest list and started on a seating plan, the sound engineer sat at Dave’s bedside taking notes and finessing recordings, and the actor worked at memorizing his lines.
Connection, not perfection. It was the exact right mindset. But as it happened, perfection seemed within reach. Our first-choice venue was available as were the clergy we most wanted. We sent out invites via email for both the play and the wedding, and the “yeses,” “we’ll be theres,” and “wouldn’t miss its” came pouring in.
A ketubah, a beautifully made wedding contract, is usually commissioned well in advance from a calligrapher and specialty artist. Nonetheless, two weeks before our wedding, Dan and I strolled into Philadelphia’s National Museum of American Jewish History, and walked out with the ketubah we would have chosen had we years to decide. It had tactile cutout artwork that Dan could appreciate with his braille-reading fingers, and wording we two poets couldn’t have improved upon if we tried: ” . . . Today we venture forth, knowing that our union strengthens and elevates us, and we will be more compassionate and better people for it . . . ”
That same afternoon we walked to Jeweler’s Row to shop for rings. Dan already had an image of his—a smoothly rounded, slender band.
A bell chimed as we opened the door of a store we knew of through radio commercials.
“Any idea what you’d like?” Dan asked me.
“I’m trusting I’ll know it when I see it,” I said
But the rings in the many cases struck me as garish and ordinary. What did I want in a wedding band? Something original and artistic that wouldn’t overwhelm my small hand. We stepped across the street into what turned out to be the shop of jewelry designer, Maryanne Ritter. In every unique piece I could sense a bit of Maryanne’s heart melded within the fine metal. One ring—rose gold filigree like a strip of delicate lace—was not only beautiful, but also, somehow familiar. Familiar the way Dan had seemed when he took the seat beside me at an otherwise full writing workshop table a decade ago.
There is a Yiddish word, bashert, which means destiny. Was this wedding bashert? I found it hard not to think so as each aspect of our last-minute multi-piece puzzle fell into place. But as Dan rightly maintained, God, if such an entity exists, had much more pressing matters to attend to than the details of our little ceremony. The devastating effects of ALS for one.
One evening we took the train to Dave’s house for a read-through of his play. He no longer had the balance and strength to climb downstairs to the living room, so nine of us crowded into his bedroom, seating ourselves on folding chairs, Dave’s bed, and the closed lid of a portable commode. His words transported us to a church on a rainy night, a boarding school for blind children, a flight to Paris, and had us contemplating hope, ambition, and, fittingly, the existence of God.
Back at home, we continued our conversations with caterers and clergy, our evenings side by side on our porch swing composing vows and choosing the songs and poems that would make up the service. These included a poem by Stephen Dunn, which describes the “ordinary days of marriage as a place / for withstanding all kinds of weather,” and a poem by Hayden Carruth, which speaks of “two / imperfections that match.”
Dave’s play, Crossing the Threshold into the House of Bach, premiered to a full house. He, together with Michael Toner, the actor who embodied the demanding role, received a ten-minute standing ovation. Ethan sat beside me on opening night, and I looked forward to sharing the play with friends and family from all over the country the following week. But instead our guests attended a staged reading of the play by Dave’s good friend and playwriting mentor, Michael Hollinger. His performance was an act of love offered at a time when we all felt tender and heartsick. Earlier that week, Mike Toner had lost a leg in a hit-and-run accident.
Was any of this meant to be? Huge losses and sorrows like Dave’s illness or Michael’s accident? The small synchronicities that promised to make our wedding the day we hoped it would be? So much heartbreak and so many blessings infused our lives by the afternoon of June 14th. But, finally, there we stood: Ethan—tanned and tall, fresh from his first year of college—on one side of us, and Dave in his wheelchair—bone thin and wan, yet still so handsome, still so very present—on the other. Behind us, 130 people we love bore witness. Above us, a chuppah, a traditional wedding canopy, offered cover to symbolize our promise to protect one another and our relationship as best we can in this shifting, uncertain world. I gazed at Dan who looked as lit up and happy as I felt in that perfect and imperfect moment. Recently, I’d come upon a second meaning of the word bashert: soul mate, the one person who completes another seamlessly. I clasped the hand of my bashert and held on tight.