October 23, 2015

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 a few years ago in the acute unit of our local VA hospital.

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 weak 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 and nodded in affirmation.

“When?” I asked.

“Now,” they said.

“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 consider my answer, not so much from the spiritual side, but from what our risk management department would say. They’d probably ask if the couple was in love or if the woman was just after the patient’s pension.

Even if their intentions were sincere, risk management would never allow it if doctors thought the patient’s pain medication affected decision-making capacity.

“Why now?” I said in a thinly disguised way of asking, “Why have you waited until now?”

“We’ve planned it several times during the past two years, but his lung cancer delayed all attempts,” she said. They’d even managed to get a wedding license once before, but it expired 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.

The paperwork was easy enough to accomplish on our end. The doctors signed off, so the risk management department had no objection. However, the woman lacked transportation to the clerk’s office.

“I’ll take you,” I said, even though I knew our risk management folks would have a coronary if they knew I was transporting a family member in my personal car.

But I did it anyway.

By late afternoon, I finally stood before the couple. 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 witness.

A few minutes into the ceremony, I asked the couple to repeat after me their promise to stay together “in sickness and in health…’til death do us part.”

Without hesitation, they echoed the traditional vows. Suddenly, 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’d discover what it meant to be parted by death.

At the end of the day, they’d stood “before God and this company” to declare their eternal love 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.