It was a perfect wedding on a crisp December day a week before Christmas. I felt beautiful in my creamy-white satin dress dotted with tiny pearls accentuating my petite frame and auburn hair. It was a season of joy and hope.
But joy and hope did not characterize the years that followed. How can one ever understand the mystery, the inner life, of another? I watched helplessly as my beloved succumbed to the grip of escalating alcoholism and the deceit that abides with it. I felt myself crumbling under the constant rain of emotional abuse, my energies revived only when that abuse began to turn its ugly face toward our two tiny children.
Joy and hope were gone; the marriage was in shambles. The wedding dress, carefully packed away in memory of a happier time, became a source of pain.
Pack it away
Pain was also the experience of another young woman. At the age of 27, Teresa was dying of cancer. The joy, the hope, that should have been hers was ebbing. At her side was her beloved, shattered by the reality that their life together would not be, their wedding day only a dream.
I was no longer the young bride in the satin dress. Now a single parent, I struggled to care for my little ones. I reflected with gratitude on the education that was mine. The ability to use my nursing skills not only supported my young family but also provided a ministry of healing that could bless my patients and my wounded self as well. As I sought to lift Teresa's mantle of pain, I gave thanks for the bittersweet blessings of my own life.
As morphine dripped through the intravenous line, Teresa whispered to me, "My fiance and I have decided that we want to get married before I die. I know that may not make sense, but we want to be one before God, even if only for a short time. I don't know how we would get married, though."
"Let me talk to our chaplain," I responded.
The next two days on the nursing unit assumed the atmosphere of a party. The wedding chapel at the hospital was reserved, the chaplain counseled with the young couple about the meaning and blessing of marriage, the social worker-a gifted violinist-offered to play for the ceremony, and the hospital cafeteria promised a special reception feast.
"I guess I'll look kind of strange getting married in this hospital gown," commented Teresa. Her funds exhausted, her hospitalization was now covered by state insurance for the indigent.
My dress, I thought. My tiny wedding dress. It would be just the right size for Teresa.
"I have a lovely dress you could wear," I said. "I wore it for my wedding, and I think it would fit you." As I described the dress and the delicate matching veil, Teresa's eyes sparkled.
The wedding day dawned clear and sunny. There was a hush on the nursing unit as the medical and nursing staff hurried through their morning tasks. An undercurrent of excitement and joy permeated the environment. The wedding dress hung at the foot of Teresa's bed, ready to be draped gently on the bride. Teresa waited contentedly, a soft smile framing her gaunt face.
At 1:00 p.m. I came into the room to begin dressing the bride. Outside Teresa's room a bridal bouquet of pink roses and baby's breath, donated by the local florist, waited. Entering the room, I glanced first at the creamy-white satin dress dotted with tiny pearls, my thoughts focused on that crisp December day many years before. I touched the fabric, enjoying its smoothness. Picking up the dress, I turned to Teresa, momentarily noting how peaceful she appeared.
"Teresa, are you ready to be a beautiful bride? Teresa? Teresa!" Oh no. Please, God, not now. Please don?t let her die right now!
Teresa glanced briefly at me, gently smiling her goodbye.
The atmosphere turned from joy to tears. Teresa's fiance sobbed inconsolably as he threw himself across her frail body. Her mother crumpled at the end of the bed. I held the wedding dress to my own bosom, splashing tears onto the tiny pearls.
Two days later Teresa's mother and fiance sought me out, asking if I could spare the time to attend the funeral. "Teresa loved you," said her mother. "We would be honored if you could be with us at the funeral. She wanted so much to be a bride, and you understood."
She wanted so much to be a bride. In life she was denied this joy.
"My Teresa would have been beautiful in that lovely dress," said her mother.
If not beautiful in life, why not in death?
"No, Lord, no. That's too much," I said silently.
"My purpose is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God" (Colossians 2:2).
"What do you mean, Lord?" I asked.
"Encourage them in heart and show them My love through your love."
With a faltering voice I asked, "How will Teresa be dressed for her funeral?"
Averted eyes-and then, "We haven't decided yet. All her clothes are so old and too big for her now."
"My purpose is that they be encouraged in heart . . ."
"Would you like to dress Teresa in her wedding dress?" I asked.
"But that is your wedding dress," said her fiance.
"No, it was my wedding dress, but it was also to be Teresa's wedding dress. It's her dress. You may have it."
Teresa was buried in the creamy-white satin dress with tiny pearls. A filmy matching veil gently covered her face, still delicate in death.
I stood at her gravesite, trying to understand the mystery of God?s ways. "Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! 'Who has known the mind of the Lord'?" (Romans 11:33, 34).
Barbara Frye Anderson is the associate dean at Seattle University College of Nursing. She is married to Eugene Anderson, and they share five wonderful children and three grandchildren.