save us

A few days ago, my husband and I had a fight. Not the elegant sort, with clever asides, balanced arguments, witty repartee—this one was a mess. Sprawling, unwinnable, every point misfiring, every compromise null. It was a fight that pared away all our kindness and dignity and left our sharpest corners exposed. We almost couldn't bear to sleep in the same bed.

The next morning, our wedding video arrived.

*

Eight months before our wedding, we sat on the living room floor as a doctor emptied a syringe of pentobarbital into our puppy's hind leg. We'd spent half a year at war with her lymphoma, but even after several rounds of chemo the tumor in her chest had continued to grow, nudging aside her heart. As we held her and the poison snaked through the tube, the crushing futility of our love loomed up and swallowed us whole.

Until recently, I hadn't realized that our wedding was how I mourned. For months, our little New York apartment was buried under the debris of my maniacal crafting—mulberry silk, scraps of paper, tubes of silver sealing wax. My sister called it "the wedding sweatshop." I hand-lettered every invitation, sign, menu; stitched the binding of every booklet and pouch of confetti; learned how to make soap, do calligraphy, and arrange flowers; painted watercolor portraits, maps, and the tiny dog figurines that served as reception place cards. I futzed around in Illustrator and Ableton, making mood boards, mixtapes, a monogram for rubber stamps. I researched the area obsessively and played travel agent to all our vendors. I hurled myself at our wedding, as if by smothering it with effort I could somehow prove my love wasn't impotent.

This was exhausting to everyone around me, especially my fiancé. His strengths lie in hospitality, not crafting, so watching me trying to exorcise the demons of my grief one escort card at a time was baffling and isolating. As a friend phrased it (bluntly) at a dinner party, "Our wedding was about us, Jess's wedding is about Jess." Infuriatingly, at the time, he wasn't wrong.

Thankfully, Luke and I found ways to collaborate. We worked on the menu together. We wrote a recipe book for our guests that included wine pairings and our favorite things to cook. Slowly, we emerged out of our private sadness to find we were in the same shadowy place. We learned to grieve together and in the process gingerly learned to love each other again. 

Our loved ones flew in from Canada, Myanmar, Italy, and the UK to join us at Château le Mont Epinguet, a charming 18th-century château in the heart of Normandy. Everyone stayed on site, gamely sharing communal bathrooms and kitchens—it felt like the world's most epic, wedding-themed summer camp. Luke and I cooked dinners (with plenty of help) and our wonderful officiant Richard—the chaplain from my college in Cambridge—made us pancakes in the mornings. We drank a lot of wine, savoring the weak wifi signal and the rare opportunity to be surrounded by all the people we loved. Our vendors tagged along on cider tastings and foraging missions, and by the end felt like part of our family. 

Luke and I were nominally the centers of attention that week but I often felt as if I was hovering outside of the action, enjoying it from afar. I saw my sister deep in conversation with the woman I'd lived with in Sierra Leone, the chaplain sharing stories of his childhood in Nigeria with Luke's high school buddies ("The Dudes," Richard called them), my dad chatting with my ex for hours (the latter not even squirming to extricate himself). I saw their expressions shift as they slowly recognized in one another all the things that bound them to us—as if they'd started chatting with a stranger only to find themselves catching up with an old friend. It was a wonder to witness, and somehow our photographer Nirav managed to capture exactly these moments. We were so incredibly lucky to have him with us (his wife had given birth only a few weeks before).

Of course, it being a wedding, not everybody got along, which is important to acknowledge. There's altogether too much pressure heaped on a single day (by us, by our families, by the tyrannical gods of the wedding industry). Every wedding has its own disasters. In our case, old tensions seethed under the general harmony like groundwater; occasionally, they sprang forth in messy ways. It may sound cheesy but Luke and I were actually grateful for these melodramas—we had no choice but to take refuge in each other.

Disasters aside, everyone offered up their time and their talents generously: our florists spent hours hacking away at brambles so that we could access the ceremony space; our parents kept the pantry stocked with food; Luke's cousin led morning yoga classes on the lawn; a groomsman DJ'd and a friend sang a Mozart aria; our photographer and videographers braved a five-hour drive (and the world's shittiest pizza) to come with us to Étretat the night before the wedding. We ended up with a well-deserved speeding ticket as we raced back to camp at midnight, rap-singing all of Feed the Animals to keep ourselves awake.

The morning of the wedding (traditionally, chill-time for grooms) Luke heroically baked our wedding cake because we'd completely forgotten about it the night before. The warm, calvados-soaked scraps he sent up to the bridal suite were the best thing I'd ever tasted.

We said our vows in the ruins on the château grounds. Butterflies (actual goddamn butterflies) crowded the bushes outside, wild blackberry curled in through the windows; the upper floors had long ago collapsed, leaving fireplaces floating in the middle of the walls. Light filtered in softly from all sides.

To me, it illustrated a truth that underpins all weddings (perhaps all marriages): Time may lay waste to our plans, but it can also turn the wreckage into something uncanny.

*

As Luke and I sat together and watched the video, still raw from the last night's argument, we were astonished. Somehow, our friends from Produzioni Evergreen had seen past all the nuptial antics and family drama and understood the heart of our relationship.

The film they'd made was haunting. Two intermingling voices recite a poem by Jacques Prévert, sometimes in unison, sometimes alone, speaking frankly about the beauty and brutality of love. It might seem a touch sombre for a wedding video, but every time I see it, I'm struck by its wisdom. This love, the speakers say, is violent, fragile, tender, desperate, trembling like a bird, alive as the summer, cold as marble, cruel as memory, beautiful as the day. In the end, they beseech their love directly:

Much later in a corner of the wood
In the forest of memory
Arise suddenly
Give us your hand
And save us.

Beaucoup plus tard au coin d’un bois
Dans la forêt de la mémoire
Surgis soudain
Tends-nous la main
Et sauve-nous.

It's a prayer Luke and I will need often as we navigate married life, but as we reflect on everything that brought us to that château in a remote corner of France, we are filled with gratitude—for love, for friends old and new, for family, for each other. 

Photographs by (the incredible) Nirav Patel.