“Will you be my wife? Will you take me for the rest of my life?” That was how Jason asked me to marry him. Today, I wonder if he had any idea when he said those words that our marriage would last just days. I lost Jason this past September to incurable brain cancer, but planning our wedding was hands-down the best thing we did together. I wouldn’t have changed the experience for the world.
We had just about every obstacle thrown at us from the moment we met. I met Jason in 2009 while I was still married to my ex-husband, who was in the military. When my ex was about to be deployed to Afghanistan, he asked Jason, his Army buddy, who was in remission from a treatable form of brain cancer, to keep an eye on me and make sure I was okay while he was away.
We started spending a lot of time together while my husband was away because I really didn't know anyone else around the Georgia military base we lived on. We’d watch movies and he'd listen to me vent about issues with my husband; he was like a girlfriend I could talk to about anything.
And, while it might be hard for some to believe, it made my ex happy to know I wasn’t just sitting around the house alone. Jason and I were strictly platonic. I fully believed in the sanctity of my marriage and was looking forward to my husband’s return.
A few months after my husband came back from Afghanistan in 2010, we moved from where we were stationed in Fort Stewart, Georgia to El Paso, Texas. But Jason stayed in Georgia until he received his medical discharge from the Army. After that, he moved to Ohio. We stayed in close contact and talked almost every day over the next few years. My ex encouraged the friendship and was fine with the fact that we spoke on the phone often. It wasn't an issue for us.
The summer of 2015 was a hard one. My ex-husband told me he wanted a divorce and that he didn’t love me anymore. I immediately looked to Jason, my best friend at this point, for support. It wasn't long after my ex told me he wanted a divorce that Jason asked me to move to Ohio with him. He said he would take care of me until I got on my feet. After about a month of staying with Jason, he confessed he’d been in love with me since the day we met. Instantly, I realized that I’d been in love with him all along, too—even when I was still married and doing everything I could to make my marriage work. I knew in the back of my head that life would be easier, happier, and more fulfilling with Jason because he always treated me right.
A few months later, on November 21st, I was in the living room about to go upstairs to bed when he called my name from the kitchen. I told him I was tired and wanted to lie down, but he asked me to come over to him. We were standing in the middle of the living room and he held out an engagement ring and asked me to be his wife. I cried and said yes as he slid the ring on my finger. Then he put on our song, "I Love The Way You Love Me" by John Michael Montgomery, and we danced around the living room. It was one of the most beautiful moments we shared together.
Not long after that, I reached out to Kimberly Lehman, of Love, Laughter and Elegance wedding and event planning, and started making plans for the big day. We decided to get married the following November.
In March of 2016, four months after he proposed, we found out Jason had a more aggressive form brain cancer than before. When Jason started falling into a sleep so deep that he wouldn't wake up no matter how loud we yelled or how hard we hit him, we started to get worried. But it wasn't until walking and eating became a problem for him that we saw a doctor and came to terms with our worst fear—incurable stage 4 glioblastoma brain cancer. They operated and were able to remove 90 percent of the eight-inch tumor, but three months later it grew back and filled 60 percent of the crater.
The first thing that went through my mind was that there was no way I could live without him—he had to fight this. The second thing was that this shouldn’t stop us from getting married. We told Kimberly that Jason was sick and that doctors predicted he had somewhere between a few months to a few years to live. Kimberly immediately got to planning our small ceremony, which we wanted to share with close family and friends on September 21st, 2016, about six months after his diagnosis. She even changed our contract to pro bono.
After getting our engagment photos (pro bono from April Ely of April Ely photography), we planned to use our home for the ceremony and reception and had decided on purple, black, and ivory as our colors. When we discussed options for decor, florals, and cake, Kimberly said she had much of the decor and accessories already in inventory and that we were welcome to use them. We decided on the menu and a music playlist, designed the invitations, and figured out what Jason and I would wear. Kimberly ordered custom accessories for me, including an embellished birdcage veil, jewelry, and a sash for my gown. The gown itself was simple and elegant, slim fitting, with ivory lace and a halter neck. It looked beautiful on me. For Jason, we decided on a dark trouser, light shirt, and a black and purple polka dot tie and pocket square set. It wasn't a typical choice for a groom, but it was as close as he was going to get to his real dream of walking down the aisle dressed as Michelangelo, the Ninja Turtle.
The biggest challenge in planning our wedding was working with Jason’s various medical issues. We were already on an abbreviated schedule, as most couples plan their wedding within 12 to 18 months of their engagement. Jason and I were both in and out of the hospital for emergency issues and, eventually, a local skilled nursing facility after Jason had a stroke and complications stemming from his brain tumor. I was constantly by his side. Kimberly kindly helped me with errands on a few occasions and kept in constant contact with me to see if there was anything she could do to help us.
As our wedding date drew closer, I had a gut feeling he wasn’t going to make it. And in early September, a hospice worker told me that she guessed he only had days left to live. The hospice worker and I talked about doing an impromptu commitment ceremony that day. It wouldn’t be legal, but it would be spiritual for us knowing that, in our eyes, we would be husband and wife. I called Kimberly that morning and asked her if she could help. I told her that the hospice had found a pastor who was willing to do it for us at 4 p.m. that day. Within just a few hours, she got my dress, managed to order flowers, and found a local photographer, Gabrielle Lute, of Life Since You Photography. She even arranged for one of the hospice staff to provide sparkling juice for toasting, created a bouquet of silk flowers for me, and gifted us with a ring pillow, a keepsake garter, toasting flutes, and a photo album, as mementos of the day.
We held the ceremony at our house because he was bedridden. Though he was lucid enough to know what was going on, he couldn’t talk very well. I was dressed in my gown, with my flowers in hand, and Jason was resting comfortably. The visiting pastor read a biblical passage and spoke about the relationship we shared. I used vows from the Corpse Bride—yes, the Tim Burton movie—which I tweaked enough to hold meaning for us.
“With our hands,
We will lift each others sorrows.
Our cups will never empty,
For we will be each others wine.
With this candle,
We will light our way in darkness.
With this ring,
We will be one.”
We played our favorite song, and there was not a dry eye in the room. Once our vows were made, Kimberly presented everyone with a glass of sparkling juice and we toasted our love.
Even though it wasn’t what we originally planned, I couldn’t have asked for a better ceremony. When it was over, people started filing out to give us some privacy. I asked Jason if he was happy and if the ceremony and the fact that we were now married in God’s eyes was everything he wanted. He said, “Yes, I’m happy. I love you.” That was the last thing he ever said. It was the most beautiful day of my entire life.
Jason died days later on September 9th, 2016 at 6:38 a.m. He was 30 years old. He fought as hard as he could and I know he didn’t want to leave. I stood by him through the whole thing—from making sure he had all his medications, going to his appointments, to cleaning up messes, to wiping his butt, and laying across his chest as he took his last breath. I was there every step of the way and I wouldn’t change it for anything in the world.