I sit in my white Reem Acra duchess satin gown in a room on the second floor of The Metropolitan Club in New York with everyone I know just downstairs waiting for me, the bride.
Down those great big stairs is Jay, my future husband. My mother flutters about with excitement. I am sure waiters are about to trip and spill green apple martinis all over me, ruining 13 months of planning. I take a breath.
My father is not by my side, not here to give me away. He is dead — a suicide when I was 4. This is the fact of my life I expect people to know about me instantly; my defining layer.
Then there is Stanley, sitting right next to me, our knees almost touching, like a protector from errant waiters, his tuxedo jacket almost like a superhero’s cape. He was once my stepfather, now my adopted father. I still feel a little like a liar, like alarms will blare and the truth police will arrive when I refer to him as my “father.”
Is it OK to admit that I recognize how important a father is at a daughter’s wedding and that I feel a little cheated? Is it OK to admit I still mourn for a man I barely knew? Is it OK to admit I still expect him to show up?
“This is everything I’ve ever wanted,” I say to Stanley.
My voice cracks and I can feel the tears. I feel as if I am the only person to have ever done such a thing before. He looks at me as if, perhaps, I may just be the first bride ever.
My mother, Stanley and I take our place in the hall before the stairs, the stairs I have worried about for almost a year. The club’s coordinator gets the go-ahead on his walkie-talkie and signals us to go. The string quartet below begins to play “Over the Rainbow.” We come into view for all below to see.
My dress is more difficult to manage than I had thought. My mother holds my arm securely. We are already almost halfway down. Stanley isn’t holding me, just standing by my side and grasping the railing on the other. He won’t even come near me. I must have been too vocal about not making me trip down the stairs — or is he just moving from spot to spot, playing this role, making his way through? Is he my “father,” getting to walk me down the aisle because he pays for the wedding? What does this mean to him?
“I need you to hold me,” I whisper in his ear.
He looks surprised at my request for help, as if to say all you had to do was ask, like he didn’t want to intrude on me. He takes my arm solidly in his and we continue down even further.
I kiss my parents and Jay greets them. As I let them go and take my place next to Jay, I am suddenly calm, even giggly.
Jay turns to me and makes his promises, his vows. I hear bits. Pieces. I can feel my body curl in, taking him and the moment into me.
Then I make my vows to him. “And when I need to cry, as I sometimes do, you never say, ‘just get over it.’”
I see the rabbi lean back, surprised by the thought, taking it in.
I dab my tears and we smile at each other, grasping the other’s hand. Hard part’s over.
Jay steps on the glass. We kiss. And everyone yells, “Mazel tov!” Then we hurry back down the aisle together, married.
I am almost eight months into being 32. My father was just over seven months into 32 when he died. I have made it past the length of his life. This is a good way to mark it.
When we all settle and sit at our tables, Stanley rises and heads to the microphone. I sit up a little higher in my chair, ready for this moment, a father’s toast to a daughter. I really get one. Will this actually count as a father’s toast? I don’t know what he will say. A stepfather’s? I hope it is more than just “Welcome and please have a good time.”
“First of all, thank you very much for coming here tonight and simply joining us.” Adopted father’s? “I think there is just a bit of a void that should be addressed, and I would like to address it. And I would like to say a few words on behalf of someone who is not here tonight. And I guess I’m speaking to all of you, but I’m really speaking directly to Rachel.”
I look for my mother. Her face reads stunned. She didn’t know this is what he was going to do. I look back for Stanley in the center of the big dance floor, holding the microphone, tiny in his tuxedo. I remind myself to pay great attention. Do not get lost to the emotion. Is this really what he’s doing?
“I would like to say a few words for Jeff Zients.”
Yes, it is, and I couldn’t have imagined it, couldn’t have dared to dream it. I didn’t know it was just what I wanted.
“I think if Jeff Zients were here, he would tell Rachel certain things. I think he would tell Rachel that he marvels at how a 4-year-old has developed and turned into a wonderful, truly wonderful young human being. And Rachel is marvelous, I think Jeff would say in many ways, not the least of which I think is her respect for tradition, for family, and, maybe most of all, her respect for respect itself. And I think Jeff would tell Rachel he loves her very much because of that.”
Hearing his name, Jeff, over and over, is a sound that is strange but lovely. I can feel it enter me each time.
“I think, however, most of all, what Jeff would say is that I love you because you are my daughter, and you will always be my daughter and for eternity you will be my daughter…. I think Jeff would have said those things, and if I’m right, and I’m pretty sure I’m right, it is not too late for it to be said appropriately. For myself, I think I would only like to say one thing, in fact what I believe Jeff would have said, he would have said, ‘Rachel my love, he is speaking for me also.’ We love you. Thank you.”
There is a silence in the air. I go straight to Stanley, hug him and am at a loss. This is more than I ever could have imagined. A true fatherly moment. I don’t know why I continue to be surprised by Stanley. But I wear my father’s death as a badge, a shield. Have I kept him at an arm’s length? Fatherless is how I identify myself.
There is always a little broken place. That little broken place reminds me that such events do not go away all wrapped up pretty in a box, but rather need tending to, and when tended to properly, they sleep and rest and allow you to tend to other things.
I know my history will not all be gone after today, but I do not care. I have a husband. A mother. A father. High above in this ballroom that puts us dancing on the same level as the tips of the trees in Central Park, we dance, jumping high off the ground, up toward the sky, through the tall city buildings, into the night. Pounding and thumping the dance floor each time we come back down.
Then up again we go, up, up we jump.
Jumping for joy.
For on this day I became one man’s wife and another man’s daughter.
Rachel Zients Schinderman lives in Santa Monica with her family. She writes a column about motherhood for The Santa Monica Daily Press and teaches writing to moms to help document their experience. She can be reached at email@example.com. To learn more, visit mommiebrain.com.