By Norris Burkes Sep 26 2021
I’ve officiated dozens of weddings in my 30 years as a minister, but few were as fraught with risk as the one I performed some years ago in the acute care unit of the Sacramento VA Medical Center.
It all began when a nurse sent me to a room reserved for our more seriously ill patients. Inside, I introduced myself to a man in his 50s, small in stature and well-worn in the face. Sitting beside him, a woman held his hand under the bedcover.
“Your nurse tells me you want to get married,” I said.
The couple locked their starry eyes on each other and nodded in affirmation.
“When?” I asked.
“Now,” they said in unison.
“I don’t know if that’s…”
“Don’t worry, Chaplain,” the woman said. “I’ve researched it online. I know it can be done.”
“Well, I’m not sure…”
“Chaplain,” the groom interrupted. “I’m dying.”
I paused to carefully consider the risk. Before I could agree to this, I’d have to run it past the hospital director for the Risk Management department. She’d need answers before she’d allow me, a hospital employee, to officiate this ceremony on hospital grounds.
She would ask, “Are they really in love? How long have they known each other? How long have you known them?” Her cynical concern would be over whether or not this woman was just after the patient’s pension.
Even if the woman’s intentions were sincere, Risk Management would need proof that the patient’s pain medication wasn’t affecting his decision-making capability.
“Why now?” I said in a thinly disguised version of, “Why have you put it off so long?”
“We’ve planned it several times during the past two years, but his lung cancer delayed all attempts,” the bride-to-be said. They’d even managed to get a wedding license once before but saw it expire when medical appointments and family drama interrupted.
“We’re tired of delays. Today seems like the right time,” she said.
The woman outlined a step-by-step process of the requirements. First, we’d need a doctor’s notarized signature. Then she and I had to go to the county clerk’s office for the license. After that, we’d return for the hospital ceremony, then circle back to the clerk’s office to finalize it all.
After I agreed, the paperwork was easy enough to accomplish on our end. The doctor signed off, so the Risk Management department had no objection. However, the woman lacked transportation to the county clerk’s office.
“I’ll take you,” I said, even though I knew the Risk Management folks would have a coronary if they knew I was transporting a family member in my personal car.
I did it anyway.
By late afternoon, I finally stood before the couple as their officiant. The bedridden groom wore a rose on his chest. The bride managed to freshen her look with a little makeup and a discounted bouquet from the hospital gift shop. A dozen hospital staff members stood as witnesses.
A few minutes into the ceremony, I asked the couple to repeat after me their promise to stay together “in sickness and in health…till death do us part.”
Without hesitation, they echoed the traditional vows. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
Promising one’s love is always risky and this couple knew that truth better than most. They knew what sickness and health meant — and within a few months she would experience what it meant to be parted by death.
At the end of the day, they’d appeared “before God and this company” to declare their eternal love, he with his literal dying breath.
And for me, as it turned out, I avoided the biggest risk of all — the risk that comes from not doing the right thing.
Contact Chaplain Norris at firstname.lastname@example.org or 10556 Combie Rd. Suite 6643 Auburn, CA 95602 or voicemail (843) 608-9715.