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Not all brides get to plan their big days with their moms by their sides. Here's how writer Michelle Ward Trainor learned to face down her to-do list without her closest confidant.
Like most people, I was ecstatic when I got engaged. Matt proposed to me on a snowy night in the West Village, at the spot where we'd shared our first kiss in New York City, before whisking me away for a romantic evening out. But as I stepped into a waiting car and took out my phone to start telling my friends and family, I felt a wave of sadness. I couldn't call the one person I wanted to the most, my mother, who'd passed away from breast cancer six years earlier.
My mom was the eldest daughter in a family of 10 children. Raised in a big farmhouse, she was a second-mother figure to a home full of rambunctious boys and two girls. To say she was patient and selfless is a major understatement, and when I came along — after she'd been trying for years to have a child — she poured all of that selflessness, patience, and kindness onto me. My younger brother was born a couple years later, and we were the center of her world.
I watched her fight cancer on and off from the time I was 13. One of the things I admired most in her was the positive attitude she kept. She would get up, put on her makeup, and go to the doctor, notepad in hand, with a smile on her face. And — good news or bad — on the way out, she'd be laughing and holding hands with my dad. She was determined to fight the disease because she wanted to be there for her kids — to help us to adulthood and beyond.
Some of my favorite times with her were the long walks we would take. We'd grab the dog and wander around the neighborhood in our western-Massachusetts town, talking. After college, when I moved to L.A., we'd stroll along the beach when she visited. On one such walk, she shared the story of how she married my dad at 29 ("ancient back then") because she'd refused to settle. "I would hide during the bouquet toss at weddings because I'd be the only adult out there!" she said. At this point, most of my close friends were still with their college boyfriends, whom they would go on to marry, while I was in no hurry to settle down. Telling me this story was her way of encouraging me to wait for the right guy.
I'm not sure exactly when my mother knew the end was near, but I'll never forget the day I did. I got a call from my father telling me that I needed to come home immediately, and I did, one day after my parents' 30th wedding anniversary. She never wanted to burden anyone around her with her pain. The fact that she let my father make that call told me everything I needed to know. Three days later, she was gone. I missed her immensely and immediately. As anyone who has lost a loved one knows, one of the most difficult moments comes when you realize he or she won't be there to experience the rest of your life. I was 25 when my mom died, and with all the loss I was feeling came a gut-wrenching thought: My mother is never going to meet my husband or see me get married or know my children. When that first major life moment arrived, it hit me like the proverbial ton of bricks.
So even though I couldn't wait to marry Matt, when it came to planning, I dragged my feet. The thought of doing it without my mom was crushing and overwhelming. I gave myself a grace period. (I couldn't be expected to visit venues over Christmas, right?) But after one too many questions from friends and family, I decided to rip off the Band-Aid and start with what I thought would be hardest: the dress.
On my first appointment, I found myself awkwardly explaining why my mom wasn't there. "I'm here with my aunts and my best friend, um, my mom passed away, so, um..," I muttered to the saleswoman. "But, um, I'd love to see something with lace sleeves." Carissa, my best friend and matron of honor, shot me a sympathetic look. "I just don't want anyone to think she wouldn't come or we're estranged or something," I whispered. As I tried on each dress, the three of them beamed and told me how beautiful I was, but my mom's absence was palpable. After that appointment, I didn't go on another for five months.
Whatever your relationship is with your mother, a wedding tends to magnify it. My mom and I were exceptionally close. She understood me so well and could help me work through any process. I carried her spirit around with me, from the stories I'd tell about her (which Matt said made him feel like he knew her) to wearing her wedding band, which I put on my finger after her funeral and have never taken off.
The best way to honor her was to not let her death stop me from enjoying this special time in my life. So I decided I had to stop wallowing in her absence and start planning. Sometimes it was difficult, but I tried focusing on the positive, just as my mom always did. I had a wonderful support system: a loving family, including my father, who had been my rock and gave me amazing advice along the way, a great group of girlfriends, and Matt's family, who were warm and welcoming. And then there was Matt. Without my asking, he started researching bridal salons, sending me links to dresses, and setting up appointments for me. Not many grooms want to spend their weekend shopping for wedding gowns, but he was right beside me with a big smile on his face. The sales associates couldn't believe I'd let him see me in the dress before our wedding day, but we didn't care; it worked for us. Before long, I found myself gaining enthusiasm for the process. It did feel like every bridal salon I visited was filled with giddy brides and their equally giddy mothers. But then I'd come out of a dressing room and find Matt drinking champagne with the other brides' moms, and I'd shift my focus from what I didn't have to what I did. And when I finally tried on the dress and saw his reaction, I knew it was the one and that my mother would've loved it. More important, she'd have loved the way Matt and I became our own family. We were facing a challenging time and growing closer through the process.
Which brings us to the wedding itself. I knew this would be the day I missed my mom the most, so I had a plan: The night before, after the rehearsal dinner, I went back to my room and wrote to her. I cried, but it was cathartic. I woke up comforted (albeit with puffy eyes, which my makeup artist magically banished), knowing that even though she wasn't there, she was present. I carried lilies of the valley, her favorite flowers, and her treasured rosary was my "something blue." Holding it while I exchanged my vows made me feel like she was alongside me. My childhood priest, who was very close to my mother, offciated the ceremony and made her a part of his homily. When he said, "Jeanne is with us here today," he was right. And she was proud.