Open Space: Pulling off a wedding on a wing and a prayer 

When I proposed to my wife on March 21 of this year, I had in mind a grand scheme of balance. My proposal date was deliberate, as the symmetry between day and night of the vernal equinox seemed a perfect metaphor for the equilibrium we hope to attain–and maintain–throughout our lives together. That the date of our engagement heralded the first day of spring–a period of unfettered ebullience and wanton expressions of love–and the date of our wedding, the autumnal equinox of Sept. 21, ushered in the first day of fall–a wiser season more given to deep-reaching commitment than its counterpart, though no less glorious–served to cement the pitch-perfect resonance of symbolism.

As the date of the ceremony drew nearer, our lives and minds were consumed with anticipation and logistical concerns familiar, I’m sure, to anyone who plans and effects his or her own wedding. Beginning a little more than two weeks before the big day, though, the balance we sought was undermined by a series of events that left us reeling.

The first blow came when our dog, a 10 1/2-year old yellow Lab named Miles, began acting sluggishly and showing signs of a distended belly. A year and a half earlier, our vet had removed a malignant melanoma from one of Miles’ rear legs. The tumor had been growing for nearly two years, and the canine oncologists we consulted at Colorado State University’s Veterinary Hospital expressed confusion at the slow rate of growth of the cancer and hoped that the unusual nature of his particular case meant that his natural life span would not be cut appreciably short.

When our vet’s fears were confirmed by an ultrasound performed in Helena on the Wednesday two weeks before our ceremony–the cancer had spread to Miles’ liver and he was slowly bleeding into his abdomen–we were confronted by the decision that haunts all pet owners. We didn’t know how much time we had left with him, but on Thursday his level of discomfort had grown to the point that we made a late-night call to our vet. She handled our dilemma with an unimaginable combination of compassion and dignity, and that evening we held him in our arms as he went to sleep for the last time.

Dawn and I spent much of the next several days in state of psychological and emotional shock, drawing comfort from each other and from the friends who knew how close our relationship with Miles had been.

Just as we reached the point that we were able to focus once again on the rapidly approaching ceremony, the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. unfolded with surreal mayhem on our television set. Added to our personal struggles was now the national trauma that sideswiped our nation’s psyche. As we made our way through the black psychological and emotional cloud that settled over the country like a Missoula winter inversion, our thoughts turned (a little guiltily) to the travel restrictions imposed by the government and what they would mean to the 100-plus out-of-town guests we were expecting.

Thoughts of postponing the big day were quickly squelched by the logistical nightmare that such an adjustment would require, and we settled in with the mindset of making the best of whatever—or whoever—would come. At this point, when it seemed that our wedding would be marked by misery, grief and absence, things began to turn around.

Both my parents made it to Missoula on the Saturday before the wedding, as planned, and my dad’s flight from Milwaukee went smoothly. The following day, my brother-in-law and sister (she nearly eight months pregnant), accompanied by their 2 1/2-year-old twin girls, arrived safely in town from Boston’s Logan Airport on the second day that facility had opened following the attacks. Phew, we figured, the fact that we were able to get people in from a ground-zero airport boded well for the rest of our attendees, including several more from Boston and New York.

Dawn’s family also made it in on Sunday, with her mother and her brother’s family teaming up to make an unscheduled cross-country road trip from Madison, Wisc. (Not only did our loved ones arrive unscathed, so too did the mammoth load of genuine Wisconsin cheeses and sausages brought by Dawn’s father and the 500 Swedish meatballs cooked and frozen by my mother). As the preparations picked up steam and our respective families moved down to the location of the ceremony and reception–a gorgeous, perfectly-appointed rustic lodge on the Bitterroot River south of Hamilton—we finally had the sense that this thing was taking on a life of its own that we couldn’t stop even if we wanted to. It was a marvelous feeling.

From then on, all the components of the wedding came together in a manner that exceeded our highest hopes. The weather was perfect for the outdoor event, and the physical preparation of the site, once dreaded, went off without a hitch thanks to help from innumerable sources. The ceremony music, performed by artistic souls close to our hearts, was eloquent and moving. The food and booze, prepared and supplied by dear friends, proved to be perfect fuel for the celebration. And our officiant, the former editor of the Independent and the man who had introduced me to my future wife some six years earlier, delivered a homily that elicited both laughter and tears–this despite the fact that he had to take a train from San Diego and arrived at the lodge only an hour before the event.

Almost without us knowing it, we had created a tidal wave of love that washed away all thoughts of everything but happiness. And as it turns out, it couldn’t have happened at a better time.

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