Three impossibly short days before I put on my white dress and walked down the aisle, I’d held my little brother’s swollen hand as he died. The girl that left her brother’s body alone in room 17 of the ICU that day was profoundly different than the one Kellan had been dating for two and a half years. Neither of us knew who she was.
We tightly held each other’s hands as we promised “I do”, then boarded a Jamaica-bound plane. One week later I found myself standing beside a casket. My Daddy could tell that I wanted to see my little brother one last time, and someone opened the lid for me. Quietly, I kissed my fingers and laid them on Ian’s cold chest as my little sister watched. She slowly did the same.
That evening I trembled in the white dress that in another life, I’d carefully chosen for my rehearsal dinner. As eight hundred wide-eyed people sat watching, I willed my legs to walk towards a stage, and spoke at Ian’s funeral. I’d spent a week staring at an ocean, mentally composing my little brother’s eulogy. I had everything and nothing to say.
Kellan and I were the first to arrive back home from the funeral. Night hung heavy, and sweet friends had left glowing candles lining the stairs leading up to my parent’s front door. I sat numbly on the yellow couch while Kellan rented a U-Haul to be picked up the next morning. And just like that, the very next day we found ourselves driving a truck to New York. A fresh mound of dirt reminded me that Ian was gone, and two rings on my finger reminded me that I was a wife.
I hear a lot of couples talk about how their wedding day was the happiest day of their lives. It’s a sweet sentiment, and I wish I could share it. My wedding day and every newlywed dream that I didn’t know I had shattered the moment that Ian stopped breathing. Our marriage began in the midst of crushing grief, the two so deeply intertwined that it was impossible to tell where one ended and the other began.
I am almost afraid to admit it out loud, but in the spirit of more authentic marriages in the world I want to tell you that more of my nights this year have ended in tears than laughter. Kellan and I recently mentioned to some friends that we were about to celebrate our one year anniversary, and they made a crack about the honeymoon phase almost being over. We looked at them as though they’d just sprouted horns and announced plans to summer on Pluto.
The honeymoon phase? Please explain. With visual aids and an outline, if possible.
Kellan and I promised each other for better or for worse in the midst of “for worse”. No girl makes wedding Pinterest boards devoted entirely to adorable seating charts thinking that will be her story, but it’s ours. I can no longer remember what I thought being a newlywed would be like before cancer. I simply know what it has been, and it’s been harder than I’d ever dreamed possible. We have slogged through the neck-deep mud of the death of my brother and the death of the people that we used to be before Kellan and I vowed to become something new together. Each painstaking new step has been painful, worthwhile work.
Over the past year, I have watched my husband honor his vow to love me no matter what on days when neither of us recognized who I was. With no one watching or applauding, Kellan has chosen to love me when the very bravest thing that I could do was get out of bed and stare blankly at our living room wall. He has chosen to love me when I dissolved over closet space [read: missing Ian] and when I couldn’t get off of the bathroom floor. He has chosen to love me on the days that I have been very, very angry about everything that I lost. And after one impossibly heart-wrenching year, I am quite certain of one thing: when Kellan Dickens looked me in the eyes on a Saturday in March and promised for better or for worse, he meant it. Even when it is exhausting and thankless and horribly unglamorous, the past year has taught me that my husband is going to wake up each new morning and make the choice to honor his vow.
Since the day that Ian died I have wrestled with both grief and marriage, and quite unexpectedly, they are teaching me the same simple thing: I need to do what my Mama always told me to and make good choices. In the midst of pain, I need to choose to believe that God is good. I must fight to cling to what my mind knows to be true when everything in my aching heart screams false. And in much the same way, I need to choose to love my husband on the days when it does not spring up naturally in me. Choosing truth is painfully simple and unromantic and often really, really hard—but there is no other way. My heart will not win every battle, but if I have consistently preached truth to myself my mind can win the war.