My father-daughter dance would have been to "Ain't No Mountain High Enough." My mom would have hated it because it wasn't "traditional" and would have turned into my dad and I singing Marvin and Diana into each other's faces the way we did every morning on the way to school when I was growing up. But it was our song and nothing else would have felt right. His speech at the reception would have involved thanking every person in the room by name for being there, and he would pretend not to cry when he walked me down the aisle and gave me away.
When I used to fantasize about my dream wedding, those moments were just as big a part of it as the ring, the venue, and the dress. The leading man in these fantasies changed a hundred times over the years, but I always assumed I could count on my dad to be the one walking me down the aisle. Over the years, two bouts of cancer and various other health problems made him a bit less steady on his feet, but I never doubted that he would figure out a way to get to the Chuppa.
But then, all of those Marvin Gaye–induced fantasies were laid to rest when he was diagnosed with terminal leukemia. He was given a three-to-six-month prognosis, and only lived to see two of them.
Our last conversation was about the moments we both wanted so, so badly and knew we were going to miss. He had just gotten a good report from his doctor, and we were watching an old episode of Law and Order: SVU when he turned to me and said, "The thing that makes me the saddest is that I'm not going to live long enough to see you get married." I told him he was being ridiculous, and that of course he was going to be there to walk me down the aisle, but we both knew I was lying. "If that boyfriend of yours wants to ask me for permission, he better do it quickly." I laughed it off, told him he was crazy because we'd only been dating for six months and he had plenty of time to see me get married, and kissed him good night. The next morning, he didn't wake up.
For the rest of that summer, I RSVP'd "no" to every wedding I was invited to (somehow, since my mom was suddenly short a +1, I was consistently added to the guest list). I kept going back to that last conversation, and the thought of watching my friends experience all of the "dad moments" that I knew I was never going to get made my chest tight. Father of the Bride officially made it onto my Do Not Watch list (the only non–horror movie to make the cut), and I started to wonder whether I would be better off sticking with a Carrie Bradshaw–style courthouse wedding when it came time to tie the knot.
In August, I got an invitation I knew I couldn't say no to. The groom a was a close family friend who had been like an older brother to me; he was a pallbearer at my dad's funeral. I knew it would have meant a lot to my dad to be there, so I reluctantly sent my RSVP card and got ready for a really tough weekend out in East Hampton.
So, how'd things go? Well, I had to leave the rehearsal dinner early because I had a panic attack after the bride's parents' speech. I went to my hotel room, packed my black tie gown, and decided I would take the first train home the next morning. But somehow the next morning came around and my mom convinced me to stay, and I managed to get through it without ruining my eye makeup. It helped that the bride and groom were the most in-love couple I've ever seen, and that it was the most beautiful wedding in Hamptons history. I found out later that the groom was wearing my dad's watch, which only made it more special.
So now, I have a system: I know exactly which moments I should excuse myself for (the father-daughter dance, the speech), and which require two hands' worth of wine glasses (the aisle walk, which is unavoidable but bearable with alcohol). After talking to my friends who have also lost parents and doing some late-night Internet research, I've realized I'm not alone in finding weddings particularly hard—we eventually learn to suck it up, enjoy the open bar, and celebrate the people we love.
I will never stop missing my dad and will never stop being heartbroken that he won't be there to give me away or to get to know my husband, kids, or me as a wife and mother. But I know when my big day comes, I have two brothers, a sister, and a mom who will dance me down the aisle to Marvin Gaye, for him.