The ominous text arrived on a Friday evening in mid-April. My sister-in-law had just called the rescue squad because my 79-year-old brother had fallen and hit his head while coming in from their deck. He had a subdural hematoma and needed immediate surgery. At 2:30am, we heard that his vital signs were good and he was under heavy sedation, in an induced coma.
For months, my energies had been focused on something very different: my only son’s wedding was scheduled for a week from Saturday, and I was looking forward to it with great joy. It was to be held in Philadelphia, and guests were arriving from many distant places. There would be no way to change the arrangements so soon before the event.
My brother’s condition grew more dire every day, and the prognosis grew grimmer. Sadly, he died ten days after he had been admitted to the hospital, never having regained consciousness. The funeral took place the next afternoon, a small graveside service, hastily arranged, with few people in attendance. We sat huddled together under an open tent in the chilly April air, worrying that the sharp wind might overturn the metal poles holding up the canvas canopy.
Early the following morning, I packed my car and left for the three-hour drive from Maryland to Pennsylvania for the wedding. My thoughts were racing: How can I allow myself to participate freely in the celebration? Is it ok for me to put aside my grief and join in the spirit of the day? I have never felt quite as alone and lost as I did during those hours, suspended on an emotional tightrope between the two events.
I arrived in Pennsylvania shaky, hungry, and exhausted. Missing a turn, I got lost, and called my son. “Can you please come find me?” I sobbed. After lunch and a long conversation, I started to feel the darkness of the past two weeks slowly yielding to the exciting prospect of the wedding.
At the hotel, a friend quietly took me aside to tell me about an ancient Jewish belief. “The sages proclaimed that if two processions in Jerusalem arrive simultaneously at an intersection, a funeral procession must yield to a wedding procession,” she whispered. “They meant that life must take precedence; joy must not be delayed.” I was amazed at how the wisdom of those words helped calm my inner turmoil.
Late on Saturday afternoon, it was finally time for the wedding. The ceremony was held outdoors in an arboretum; glorious weather, myriad flowers in bloom. Framed by a brilliant sunset, everyone gathered for the reception and dinner. The air was charged with energy and exuberance, and the tension in my chest finally began to ease.
For our mother-son dance, my son had chosen an upbeat song by an artist I had introduced him to years earlier. It felt like a secret message, a connection that only he and I shared. “I’m so glad you picked this song!” I told him. Laughing, we found ourselves singing along with the lyrics, letting go and simply having fun.
I could feel tears on my cheeks, but this time they were tears of relief and happiness: the wedding was beautiful, truly everything my son and his bride had hoped for. And at last, I felt prepared to face the darker moments that awaited me in the months ahead.
Judith Teich earned a BA in English from Boston University and an MSW from New York University. A clinical social worker and health services researcher, she retired in 2018. Her personal essays have been published in JAMA, the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, Moment Magazine, and The Ravens Perch.