Beliefnet
This is the third installment in an engagement-to-wedding journal by Michael Kress.

Our parents threw us an engagement party recently. It was wonderful, amid our busy lives, to be able to take an afternoon and just celebrate with family and friends, those who mean the most to us. It was a time to feel blessed, a feeling we've had so many times during our engagement.

Two people were absent from that party, though, and they were on our minds throughout the day: my grandfather, who was very ill, and my Aunt Miriam, who stayed in Washington, D.C., to care for him. We knew the end was imminent for my grandfather, and it was hard to escape that thought, no matter how lost we got in the festivities, joys, and blessings of the day.

Two days later, on my birthday, my grandfather died.

When we got engaged last spring, Stephanie and I both hoped that Poppa Jack, as the family called him, would be able to attend our wedding. As he grew sicker in recent months and his cancer returned, our prayers turned to the hope that he would at least be alive for our wedding, even if he might not be able to physically make the trip from D.C. to New York. But in recent weeks, we were left hoping Poppa Jack would at least survive past our engagement party. He did that, allowing us to celebrate on Sunday before he slipped away quietly in his sleep two days later.

We will feel his absence greatly at our wedding. At my brother's wedding nine years ago, I remember feeling deeply touched as all four of our grandparents walked down the aisle. Few of my friends have had a similar privilege, and I hoped I would be that lucky. Sadly, neither of my father's parents will be there, my grandmother, Esta, having passed away three years ago. The losses make me cherish all the more my maternal grandparents, who will proudly walk down the aisle July 1, when I, their second-oldest grandchild, get married. But when it comes to that moment during the ceremony when Poppa Jack and Grandma Esta would have walked down that aisle, I will feel their absence acutely.

Poppa Jack wanted so intensely to be there. Recently, when his doctor asked him what he had to live for, among his few answers, I am told, was my wedding. And at the funeral, several family members told me that meeting Stephanie was one of his great joys during his last few months. Whenever I spoke with him, he would have me relate the details of the wedding again and again: where it was, exactly where in the New York area that is, how one gets there from D.C., and so on.

And among his most prized possessions that he kept in the basket of his walker in his final months was the latest article I wrote about my engagement, which he would show to any visitors.

In a strange coincidence, Stephanie's grandfather, her last living grandparent, also died on her birthday, five years ago. It also turns out that both of our grandfathers died on the same date in the Hebrew calendar. It is an eerie parallel, one that is completely random but seems to hold some hard-to-define meaning for us both. When I spoke to Stephanie that morning, she immediately began to enthusiastically wish me a happy birthday; we were still riding high from the engagement party and were excited for our plans to go out and celebrate my birthday. But I had to cut her off and inform her that Poppa Jack had died. Our conversation turned from one of celebration to one of grief and logistics--how to get to the funeral, when we would return--and later we began discussing how we might memorialize my grandfather at the wedding.

In addition to the natural sadness of my grandfather's death, we've found that it's also given us pause in various aspects of our wedding planning. Just days after his funeral, Stephanie and I were writing the text of our invitations. We'd decided long before to list the names of our grandparents at the bottom of the invitation. Writing it out, though, it was difficult to look at the list without realizing that a name was missing, that a week earlier Poppa Jack would have been included.

Because my grandfather died in the midst of the long-scheduled time we'd set aside to do much of our wedding planning, his loss helped put everything into perspective for us. It is easy to get lost in the myriad choices, the details and specifics of the wedding reception, but ultimately these mean so little. We knew this intuitively all along, of course, but it is easy to treat each decision as if the fate of the wedding rested on it. Even that week of my grandfather's death, we found ourselves quibbling or agonizing over minor points, and only later, in the quieter moments, reflecting on what is truly important.

Of course, we want our wedding to be beautiful, fun, and meaningful for our families, all our guests, and ourselves. We want it to reflect our tastes and values, but in the end it is not the number of pictures taken or the variety of the food during the cocktail hour that will define our wedding, but rather the love and commitment we'll be coming together to celebrate and the presence on that special day of those who mean the most to us.

After Grandma Esta died, Poppa Jack was never the same. The loss of his wife of 59 years had sapped the spirit and life out of him. We wish that Poppa Jack could have attended our wedding, but at the same time, we feel a certain happiness for him, that he is finally back with the one he loved through so many decades. And as Stephanie and I celebrate our engagement and wedding--and contemplate the meaning and significance of it--theirs is a powerful example to keep with us.

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