Sunday, August 19, 2012

How a word healed my wedding day

There's one word I wish I'd heard at least once during my wedding preparations - "elope." I don't mean that I wish Allen and I had run away and gotten married at sunset in a tiny ceremony at Vogelsang High Sierra Camp in Yosemite because I wouldn't have missed sharing that day with his family for worlds. But his family. I think I saw my granny and aunt for about five or ten minutes before they went into the sanctuary. No pictures of my mother tenderly adjusting my veil. No sisters cracking jokes with me while we put on our make-up and jittered through the long wait between photo taking and entrance. No father to squeeze my hand and grin in pride as we walked up the aisle together. Instead of pages in a photo book I have empty spaces in my mind where these memories ought to be. I know roughly what shape and size they should be; I can see the picture frames I should have filled, but not a single memory or photo exists to fill those blanks. My family barely came to the wedding. I didn't know until a week before the wedding whether they were coming at all, and they certainly didn't sit the front row to cheer me on (or even passively approve). They sat together in a pew on the left somewhere around the middle. I saw them when I entered on the arm of an elder who generously offered, based on his spiritual authority, to give me away in place of the father who refused that honor. He wasn't a man I knew very well, but he represented both the groundswell of love and support that flowed from my church and my poverty that required such aid. He is in my photo book.

People told me to smile at my mother when I saw her and have hope that my bridal array and token of fidelity would melt her heart, and when I saw her I smiled. Allen and I dashed out the door after the recessional to greet them and thank them for coming when they tried to slip away without one word. Now I almost wish we hadn't. But you see I didn't realize that, whereas Allen was getting married, I was eloping. I fought so hard for a normal Christian wedding. At a normal Christian wedding the bride and groom speak with the bride's parents and so Allen and I rushed out to grab that little bit of normal, to reassure my parents and ourselves that we weren't rejecting them. It didn't work. It wasn't normal, and it didn't reassure them. Every minute I fought for normal meant one less minute dealing with the abnormal.

I remember vividly driving to the church after meeting Allen for breakfast and being absolutely scared spitless. I think the main reason I didn't run is that when you run from your own wedding you have to leave your best friend behind, and that scared me even more. I was scared of marriage and its newness, scared of sex, scared of how we might change, and only God knows what else. I wanted and needed a sympathetic mother to grab my shoulders and tell me to breathe and remind me, perhaps not that marriage is glorious, but that it's worth it. All I got was my own head chatter. Coming as it did from the brain of a girl who'd been pushed out of her home, verbally abused, and then nearly shunned you can imagine just how helpful and wise a companion I had as I turned into the church parking lot. Afterwards I had friends and soon-to-be-family around me helping me get dressed and bringing us lunch, but I don't remember having anyone who could look at that tangled snarl of emotions in my chest and encourage me. To be honest, they might not have known I needed it.

This is why I think it would have been so very helpful if someone had sat down with me and made it explicit that I was, emotionally at least, eloping with my fiance and not simply getting married. I needed to know this wasn't normal and that I didn't have to treat it as such. I needed emotional space and permission to wrestle with what it meant to enter a marriage ungiven and alone. More than that I needed a word to describe my situation. When I met Allen I was lost in a miasma of stuffed feelings and forbidden thoughts until, largely through our conversations, I came to realize that those feelings I didn't like and tried to ignore largely fit under two categories: "verbal abuse" and "emotional abuse." Suddenly I could begin talking about things and understanding what went wrong instead of blaming myself for feeling rebellious and unlovely. Four years later I needed another word to define and clarify my experience, but I didn't get it for almost another six.


I eloped.

Despite my parent's objections I eloped with Allen.

When my dad refused to give me away and my mom steadfastly ignored all my softly anxious requests to look at wedding dresses with me, I decide to elope.

This isn't something I tell everyone. After all I did have a moderate sized wedding in a church downtown in a city close to where both our families reside with a reception and dancing and the throwing of flower petals. Not your standard elopement. Yet it describes the emotional reality of getting in a car by yourself and driving to a church where not a single family member is putting up decorations or marshaling the food and then waiting for the ceremony during an interval which involves no tender familiar reminisces or adrenaline fueled hilarity among people whom one has known and loved one's entire life. At such times any other substitute becomes utterly inadequate, and one is left, essentially, alone.

And so, after all, I married Allen, with nary a regret and many a thanksgiving for all the people who rallied around us to make our marriage, our elopement, a wonderful celebration of family, faith, and the ability of people we barely know to love infinitely. Your faithfulness has made me strong.

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