On Tuesday morning, my boyfriend’s mother died. No warning, no easily determinable cause of death. She just up and died. He and his family were in shock. So I went with him to stay at his sister’s house, while the whole family tried to absorb this news and begin adjusting to their new normal. Time seemed to slow down. The grief in the house was palpable. On Wednesday morning, I sat with Will and his family around the kitchen table as his sister Ginny read us the obituary she was writing. And that evening, Will, his sisters, and their father spoke with the funeral director to plan their mother’s service. A few minutes later, Will invited me to take a walk with him down to the dock on Lake Murray, where he asked me to marry him.
To say that this is not the proposal I had imagined would be a huge understatement. I’m a hopeless romantic; I had thought maybe it would be one of those flash mob proposals that goes viral on YouTube, or a scavenger hunt where the clues led me to places that had been important in our relationship, or that there would be balloons and flowers or he’d write a song for me. Never did I imagine that the joy of our engagement would be so entangled with grief, life bumping up against death. We both cried on that dock, as he told me how he had spent months waiting for the jeweler to finish a custom ring he had designed for me, one containing a diamond from a ring of his mother’s; how Peggy had known before she died that he was going to propose, and that she was very happy about that; how he couldn’t bear for my name not to be next to his on the list of survivors in her obituary; and how it was a knife to his heart every time someone referred to me as his girlfriend, because he knew I was so much more than that. So he knelt on the dock, told me he loved me and wanted to spend the rest of his life with me, and that he couldn’t wait anymore to ask me if I would marry him. I nodded, barely able to speak through my tears, and he pulled a gold chain from his pocket on which he had placed his mother’s engagement ring. With his father’s permission, I’m borrowing it until my ring is ready (and she had long, slender fingers while mine are just the opposite).
Will’s family was ecstatic when we told them of the engagement. Some of them knew it was coming long before I did. A lot of relatives and friends were at his sister’s house gathered in mourning when we came back from the lake, and there were hugs and congratulations galore. The next couple of days were surreal and emotionally exhausting. One minute we would be sobbing over Peggy’s death, and the next excitedly making wedding plans. It broke my heart to see Will, his sisters, and especially his father, Doc, break down in tears over and over. As a chaplain, I see this all the time; death is an almost daily part of my job. But things are different when you are not the chaplain but a part of the family. My own sadness felt selfish at times, as I mourned the fact that I would never have a mother-in-law, while I saw how close Will’s sisters were to their husbands’ parents. I also grieved that I never got to know the Peggy I heard about in stories of people who knew her for decades, and the woman I saw in the writings we found in her Bible and scattered around her room. By the time I met her, years of chronic pain and the medications that made it almost-bearable had changed her. In the year and a half that I knew her, I caught only glimpses of the old Peggy, and I loved her. I wish so much that she were here to help us plan a wedding, to celebrate with her only son, to help me learn to be a good wife to Will and a good stepmother to his two sons. With God’s help, I’ll do the best I can without her. The night of our engagement, after everyone else was asleep, I held Peggy’s ring in my hand and promised her that I would take good care of her boys.
I do still have my moments when I wish that our engagement had happened some other time, when it could just be happy, not happy-sad-happy. At the funeral and at church the next day, people didn’t quite know how to offer us condolences and congratulations at the same time. And I get it; I’ve had a headache for most of the week just from feeling all these conflicting emotions at once. Sometimes I wasn’t sure whether I was crying tears of joy or grief. But most of the time, I’m just really, really grateful. This week I’ve experienced the extremes of life. I see it so often as a hospital chaplain, how even in the midst of grief, life keeps happening and God gifts us with joy, if we’re willing to reach out and take it. And that beautiful paradox seems to me like a pretty solid foundation for a marriage, more than a flash mob proposal on YouTube. Will and I already know how to support each other in hard times, because we’ve been doing that this week. We know how to make each other laugh at just the right moments, because we’ve been doing that, too. His sister Ginny said that hearing our laughter as we came downstairs a few hours after the engagement is a bright spot in the week that she will always remember. I will remember how many times Will hugged me and said, “I’m so glad you’re here,” and how when he proposed he said, “I just want you to be there with me and the boys all the time.” I want that, too. Life will always be a rollercoaster, and I’m so glad I get to ride it with him by my side.