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Wedding Dress Shopping… With Dad

[1]Beneath all of the sadness, there are some funny things that happen when people you love die, but sometimes it’s hard to see the humor right away. My family was always the type to find laughter in everything, so it’s fitting that the time around my Mom’s death was also filled with a few funny events. I know that’s probably one of those things that “they” say you shouldn’t say, but who put “them” in charge of this stuff anyway?

The love of my life proposed to me on February 6, 2007. Of course, we called my parents right away, and squealed in a little tele-celebration. They were in Tennessee at the time, visiting my brother, Aaron, and his wife. The next day, I flew out to Nashville to meet them. Mom was weak when I got there, but was so happy about my engagement. My brother was already married to an amazing woman, and I was about to marry a truly wonderful man. Mom had always worried about my brother and me, had always felt that she needed to protect us and console us when the world threw ugly things our way. When she got sick, I could sense an urgency in her words, as she tried desperately to make sure we still felt protected, still felt loved. My engagement meant that my Mom got what every mom wants, which is the knowledge that both of her kids will be safe and happy.

And then, she let go.

Six days after I got engaged, Mom died. One of the best days of my life was quickly followed by the absolute worst. We thought she still had time, but I guess you never can know those things.

Suffice to say, the first few weeks of my engagement were not as delightful as they are supposed to be. It was difficult for me to even share the good news with people, since I knew I also had very, very bad news to share. People inevitably saw the ring and said that my parents must be just thrilled, and how do you even begin to respond to that?  Honestly, I think I hid my left hand a lot so that I wouldn’t even have to begin those conversations with co-workers, neighbors, and people in the grocery store. It was an odd and unbalanced time for me.

My Dad told me that before Mom died, the two of them talked about what would happen when I got married. They both agreed that Dad would do all the things that Mom would have done leading up to the wedding, in addition to all the normal “Dad” things. So Dad would be helping me to pick out the prettiest flowers, the most beautiful and artsy reception hall, and the most fabulously tasty food for our guests. It fills and breaks my heart to think that as my mother was dying, she was most concerned about who would help me pick out a cake topper for my wedding cake.

Dad came to stay with me a week or so after Mom’s memorial service and we went wedding dress shopping. We were so desperate to have something happy to focus on that we didn’t really think it through. So, off we went to the many, many bridal shops of Richmond. With the exception of a few salespeople, my Dad was more often than not the only man in the store.  I tried on countless fluffy dresses as my dad contentedly sat, looking absurdly out of place amongst mothers, bridesmaids, and flower girls, all oohing and aahing every time a woman walked out of the fitting room in a new gown. My dad, ever the proud father, oohed and aahed just as loud as they did, both for me, and the other brides as well. My dad is nothing if not outgoing and good-natured.

In store after store, the staff eyed my dad with skepticism. They didn’t seem to know what to do with a man in the store, so they pretended he was part of the furniture. The one woman who did acknowledge him kept calling him “ma’am” out of habit. Dad replied “yes?” in his best southern belle voice every time, and I couldn’t help but giggle even as I gave him the “cut it out” look.

On a whim, we went to one of the boutique dress shops,  just to see if the dresses really were more fabulous. The woman in this store took stock of me and my dad, asked us a few questions, and ushered me into a lovely fitting room. She settled Dad into a cozy chair alongside a few smiling women, and the bunch of them seemed happy as clams.

The woman who was helping me was your average “mom” type, about 45 or 50, and seemed to honestly enjoy her work. She was sweet and chatty as she zipped me into a lovely fitted lace gown.

Woman: It’s so nice that your dad is shopping with you today. You two must be very close.

Me: Yes, we are.

Woman: Why isn’t your mother here with you two today?

I had mercifully dodged that question all day, in every other store, sometimes with outright lies. I knew that, eventually, I was going to have to start telling people the truth. I took a deep breath.

Me: My mother died.

The woman stopped zipping me up, and stood there with glistening eyes, shaking her head ever so slightly.

Woman: Sweetie, I’m so sorry. When did she die?

One more deep breath.

Me: Seventeen days ago

That is when the woman lost all self control, and just started sobbing. She said over and over how sorry she was, and how unfair it all seemed. I hugged her, patted her shoulder, and assured her that I was ok, I knew Mom was dying, and I was glad she wasn’t sick anymore. Standing there in that $10,000 hand-beaded Italian lace gown, I soothed the nerves of a stranger, who couldn’t comprehend the enormity of what I had told her.

I felt as though everything I said to reassure her just made her cry harder, and louder. I was sure that the other women in the store could hear her, that Dad could hear her, and I couldn’t imagine how odd that must have been for them. As her mascara came dangerously close to dripping on the VERY expensive gown I had on, I quickly pondered if that would be considered her fault or mine, since it was her mascara, but I was the one who made her cry. In that panicked moment, I scrambled to calm the woman, and stopped just short of telling her that in time, she would be able to focus more on the way my mom lived her life, and less on the fact that she died.

And then I remembered that this woman never even met my mom. I mean, seriously, why was she the one who couldn’t keep it together? I was the one who just witnessed a vicious four year battle with cancer. I was the one who had to figure out how to cleverly word my wedding invitation to not include the words “dead mother.” So why was I stuck half-zipped into an itchy, overpriced wedding gown, comforting a stranger in a too-pink dressing room? Why did it seem like the most natural thing to do just then? And how funny is the whole ridiculous encounter?

I’ve retold this story a number of times, and I like to very dramatically act out the woman’s crying and sobbing, and my calm assurances that she’ll be ok as time goes on. It’s funny. Really, it is. If you aren’t laughing now, read this again in a few days.

The reality is that when we lose someone, we are often put in the position of delivering the news to others, and helping them to come to terms with it. While I had months and years to prepare for Mom’s death, I have, on numerous occasions, had to tell people who are just completely shocked by the news.

It used to be really awkward for me, and on some days I still resent having to be the comforting one. But, on most days, I understand how it all works, and am thankful that my mom instilled me with the endless patience, love, and humor that she possessed.

And on some days, I just have to laugh at it all. I mean really, what else can you do?