When there’s no time like the present
BY JANE BEDARD
Special to the VOICE
I went to a wedding not that long ago. As weddings go, it was remarkable in almost every way, instigated by two remarkable people.
Frank, a 62-year-old retired schoolteacher, popped the question to Anne, his partner of ten years, on a moonlit Monday evening. He was always a gentleman, a traditionalist, and an old fashioned romantic, however, on this occasion he did not get down on one knee as one would have expected. Instead, he delicately slipped the diamond and amethyst ring on Anne’s finger—from his bed at the hospice.
Frank had entered the McNally House Hospice in Grimsby just four days earlier, when his health requirements became more than Anne could manage. His future, he was told, would not even carry over to the next calendar page. Frank’s cancer was rare and aggressive, taking hold of him seemingly overnight, like a Trojan horse had been wheeled into his unsuspecting body while he slept, and a quick invasion ensued.
Within weeks of his diagnosis and subsequent surgery, Frank was offered a prognosis of about two weeks.
Frank and Anne were forced to fast-forward through the stages of grief. It was confusing, dizzying, but necessary if they were to enjoy any of the brief time they had left together. With this in mind, the morning after the proposal, wedding preparations began. Families of the couple woke up to an emailed invitation to the event, which would occur later that day.
Anne’s first stop was to a local discount store to purchase paper plates, plastic cups and cutlery, along with a little something for the bride-to-be—a plastic tiara.
But by the time she arrived back at the hospice, staff and volunteers had heard the news and were armed and ready to take on the needs of the nuptials, all with Anne and Frank’s blessing. The wheels were in motion.
From out of nowhere appeared proper dishes, champagne glasses, candles and decorations. Volunteers filed-in like the Whos in Whoville, assembling for a grand celebration despite the ominous backstory. In no time, the countertops and tables were filled with a smorgasbord of delicious culinary fare—there may even have been a roast beast.
A photographer and a videographer quickly agreed to capture the event on film, and a local florist supplied beautiful, bright arrangements, featuring Frank’s favourite: the sunflower. The living room transformed into a ceremonial site, filled with seating, flowers, candles, decorations, and two accent chairs, for the comfort of the bride and her frail groom.
This is the kind of happy event in which the staff at McNally House rarely gets to participate. Because of their volunteers and connections within the community, the cost of this particular party came in at a whopping zero dollars. But kindness and compassion alone won’t pay the bills.
This peaceful oasis amid the chaos of Ontario healthcare operates on a tight budget of $600 000 annually, most of which is acquired through fundraising and donations. The purpose of hospices like McNally is to provide free care for end-of-life patients, so that they can live out their final days in comfort, surrounded by loved ones.
But with the aging Boomer population, hospices all over Canada will not be able to accommodate the numbers of patients who will require their services. The entire Niagara Region, for example, has only fourteen beds to offer. Like so many parts of our health care, it’s just not enough.
Ironically, just six months earlier, Frank himself was one of the caring volunteers at McNally House, travelling from room to room with his guitar, and brightening the day of patients as he sang their favorite tunes. Eventually, the cough set on by his disease stifled his singing voice, and soon after, his I. D. at McNally changed from visitor to resident.
Even as McNally House had already begun to buzz with the excitement of a wedding, the families of Anne and Frank began to reorganize their day. They, too, swung into action, adding to the festivities with a wedding pie (at Frank’s request), music, bouquets and boutonnieres, and a headpiece for the bridesmaid of Baby’s Breath.
Finally, at Anne’s request, white silk pajamas were purchased in support of her pajama-clad groom. She put them on during her 30-minute, pre-wedding bridal shower.
At 8 PM, Frank was wheeled down the aisle, soon to be joined by Anne. They beamed at the 20 family members in attendance, who had also donned their finest P.J.s out of solidarity for the couple. The minister (a family friend) officiated the proceedings, his robe for this occasion was made of terry cloth, covering a cozy t-shirt and flannel bottoms.
It was a night filled with extreme emotions. The bride and groom were happy and sorrowful; they looked longingly and desperately into each other’s eyes. The guests cried tears of joy and grief; there was elation in the moment, and a lingering fear of the future.
The crowning event of the night occurred when Frank mustered up the energy to dance with his bride, then dug even deeper within to find his lost singing voice, serenading her with one of his own ballads.
It was a surreal evening, filled with poignancy. It felt like we were all in the same dream or on a movie set. Perhaps at any moment, a director, lurking behind a camera, would yell out, “Cut! Good job today everyone. See you tomorrow.”
And tomorrow we would all be back to normal. And Anne would be at work. And Frank would be volunteering at McNally House, travelling from room to room, singing songs and brightening the day of each patient….
Instead, the evening festivities finished later than expected, neither Anne nor Frank wishing for the magic to end. The guests departed, lingering on their farewells to Frank, not knowing if this was to be the first of many goodbyes or the last.
By 11 PM the newly betrothed couple, exhausted but filled with gratitude for the evening, for their families, and for each other, carefully returned back to the newly dedicated “honeymoon suite” of McNally House Hospice. ◆