I wonder at what Robin sees as she ushers me through the jewelry shops, the Irish shop, the store with its 60s paraphernalia. The streets in New Hope, Pennsylvania are tree-lined, The restaurants have charm, The engagement rings we finally choose are hand-crafted. But how closely does what I feel match what she sees?
She guides me down to the canal. Today, on this rare day, I am in the lead, her arm hooked around mine, as if we were any other strolling couple. No walking with her in front, me off to her flank with my left hand on her shoulder. The white cane is still in my right hand, but this is our betrothal day, a day for traditional roles, of man and woman, as best we can portray them.
As we walk, she describes sundry forms of spring verdancy – swatches of lawn, ivied trees, jaybird and cardinals in flight. We walk along the waterway, approach the place where it enters the Delaware and I picture the reflection of life on its face.
“How wide is the canal?” I ask.
“You could throw a ball across it. Easily.”
And now I’ve got scale and color to add to the memory-images of canals and wide-porched homes from my three decades with sight which preceded this one without.
“Let’s step aside,” she says as a beleaguered tow-horse draws a tourist sightseeing skiff toward us. There’s a respectful “hello” from Robin to the animal, and then we walk on until she pauses, searches out a suitable spot, says “Let’s move a little farther up.” After a few more paces, she says, “This is good.” We step off the tow path and onto a strip of patchy grass.
Physically, this is not one of my better days. Heat, pollen allergies and perhaps something in my breakfast augment the constant dis-ease of a body with malfunctioned organs. I toss my white cane to the ground and lower myself to one knee – the victory stance of a quarterback in the last moments of a winning game or a hero about to be knighted. Then I take to both knees in a gesture of supplication and prayer. I unpocket the ring with its turquoise inlays, find Robin’s hand awaiting mine. I reach out and say, “Will you be my wife, Robin Parks?”
We have been together for a year now, and she is intimate with my body in disrepair. Eyes and kidneys taken by decades of mishandled diabetes, a donor kidney tucked into my abdomen, constant blood-glucose monitoring and three insulin injections each day – I can scarcely fend for myself.
Yet, my body is translucent to her, she sees through the dark glasses, past the bruises and scars, around the damaged and missing organs. She sees something beyond the reach of myopic microscopes and all those colored plates in Grey’s Anatomy. There is something in me that cannot be measured, and it is all for her.
Ever-so-quietly she says, “I will marry you, Sean Toner.” Her voice is strained, tearful perhaps. And during the moment I hear tears of bliss, not fear. But we both know Death has been loitering, glancing at his Rolex, ever since I was a toddler. Now he will be the third wheel in our marriage.
I kiss her hand and slide the ring on.
She returns the ring-gesture by slipping mine on my finger. Then she helps me to my feet.
We stroll along the canal, eventually decide to head back to the bed and breakfast because the heat and low blood-sugar levels are wearing on me. We come upon the horse again. His breath is heavy with the exertion of drawing a great weight. I know his type. He is a Roscinante who, in his off hours, daydreams of being Trigger.
* * *
Our autumn wedding day is overcast, confettied with spritzes of rain. But this does not deter us. Robin pulls into the chapel entrance of Saints Peter and Paul Cemetery, circles the building, and heads up the central drive to my family’s plot.
A few thousand will soon witness our exchange of vows. They are lined, row after row, gathered together in kinship groups, toe-to-toe with other attendees – all are attired in their sartorial best. They must delight in the sound of Robin’s approaching Subaru, my muffled classic rock emanating from the closed windows. The Who or Joe Walsh must be a welcome relief to the ceaseless stillness. Music, lively music, is the only respect I can give to the deceased, and I’m picturing so many ghosts mouthing the lyrics, faces broadening into wan smiles. Robin and my wedding is a gala event for a lawn full of seniors, reunited couples, even the rare little ones.
Life’s been comparatively good to me, so far.
“Remind me what we’re looking for,” Robin says.
“Second or third intersection. Right hand corner. Maybe one row back.”
“I’m looking for ‘Toner’?”
“No. ‘Toppitzer’. My Aunt Catherine.” I do not need to remind Robin that my aunt was a mortician, spent much of her life among the dead, brought many to this place. But listed under the seraphed sweep of her name are a half dozen other extended family members, people I know and still love: my grandfather Jack, an advertising executive who died of Parkinson’s, my uncle John, a Vietnam War codebreaker and later, an attempted bank robber, and my grandmother Mary, the woman who gave me shelter from my violent father, who substituted for my abused and madness-driven mother, who gave me a safe home when I lost my kidneys and eyes in my late twenties.
We pull to a stop. I hear Robin undo her seat belt and adjust herself as she, presumably, seeks out the grave site and says, “Let me come around to make sure you’re not stepping out into mud.” She cuts the engine, the song dies out and she climbs from the car into chill and a landscape of etched granite and autumn grass. She opens the back door, removes the cake fashioned from carnations I sent her earlier in the day, then comes around for me.
With my hand on her shoulder, Robin leads me around pockets of mud and over uneven grass. We come upon Granny, placed in the midst of the Ciarrocchios, the Ruffos and the O’Briens, doing her best – as she always did at serious gatherings – to entertain a crowd of stiffs.
Robin says, “Hi Mary,” and then a “Hi Kitty,” to my mortician aunt, who she knew only by reputation. Robin moves away from me and the slight whisper of fabric and flower petals tell me she’s placed the cake at the grave.
When she returns, Robin says “Feel,” as she draws my hand above her ear where’s she’s tucked one of the carnations.
I saw for nearly thirty years. I know endearing when I see it.
We stand, holding hands for a few minutes. Robin is studying the names on the family plot, I’m seeing the ghost of my grandmother’s face as it was in the last of my sighted days. I’m expecting a sign from our shared time — a cardinal from her sunflower-feeding days, something buzzing off the page of her beloved Yeats’ “Lake Isle of Innesfree, and its “bee-loud glade.” Instead, I hold the umbrella against the drizzle while the two of us stand alone.
No presiding officials are needed – my SSI health benefits are gone if I earn or marry an earner. We have no need for a presiding emissary of God – Robin is half-Jewish, half-other, and all-secular. I was raised Catholic, but I’m more into Jesus the hippie-Philosopher and his “Do unto others,” and part a follower of Monty Python’s Life of Brian and its “Blessed are the cheesemakers.”
As for family, Robin’s schizophrenic mother has long been deceased, her abandoning father a sociopath. My mom prefers the term “eccentric” for herself, and my dad, like Robin’s, is a man without empathy with added tendencies toward physical and psychological abuse. Robin’s sisters are on the west coast, my sister resides in Boulder, and my extended family of cousins have all relocated to South Jersey and then down the coast after my grandmother’s death. Ours is a quiet party.
“Are we ready?” I ask.
“Who goes first?”
“I will,” Robin says. “Move the umbrella closer over me while I read my vows.” Then she unpockets the index card she has her vows written on and swears “In the presence of this beautiful and awesome universe,” to make me her husband in the traditional ways, in the “for better and worse” and the “for richer and poorer” ways, and “in sickness and in health.”
Her words float there, under the shielding umbrella. They settle upon me, are absorbed by me, become part of me.
“And when death parts our bodies, still will you be my husband, and I your wife, until the end of time.”
These are not uncommon vows. They are spoken on so many sunny days, in posh hotels or serene park settings, by kids in their twenties and by remarrying middle-agers. Here, now, the words of love have taken on new meaning, have attired themselves in defiant optimism.
I have come to our wedding moment with an advance vow, to myself, not to joke away my tension, to reign in the one-liners and glib asides that are my tendency during times of excitement. And though I often tend to be baroque, colorful and filligreed, I am to-the-point, laconic, manly in my vow to her. “Upon my grandmother’s grave, I swear to love no other, to be with no other, forever.” Then I remove the ring from my pocket, take Robin’s hand, and slip it on. I repeat, “Forever.”
Robin takes my hand, holds it for a moment, and places my wedding ring on my finger. She draws me to her with a few words, a “You may kiss the bride” kind of thing, and when our lips meet I’m as always an adolescent boy sharing my first kiss, and the sensation is exciting and a little surprising. I am amazed at and frightened by somebody wanting me.
We stand together for a few minutes, the drizzle sounding like a cascade of rice, the clouds are our wedding party.
“Guess there aren’t any birds. No cardinals or anything.”
“I’m sorry,” Robin says.
“Not even a crow? There were tons of crows in Granny’s neighborhood.”
“I’m really sorry,” she says.
Soon, Robin says, “Goodbye Mary. Goodbye Kitty.”
I say, “So lonnng, Granny,” the way she drew out her goodbyes to me. “See you Kitty.”
Robin leads me back to the car, starts up. The music is on, old friends like Frampton or Fogarty strike up the dance. When we head down the lane, I’m feeling a little melancholic. Maybe planning our wedding on the anniversary of my grandmother’s death, at her graveside, in the rain, wasn’t my best idea. But I hold firm to my purpose. This was an event for spirits more than bodies.
Robin says, “There are two balloons in the sky.”
“Hot air balloons? Today?”
“No. Two silver party balloons. Spinning. Like two gray-haired ladies waltzing.”
I find this hard to believe. October? In the intermittent rain? “Who’s having a party outdoors today?” I ask. And, with a tone that hints at knowing, add “Who would dream up a thing like that?”