My husband, Davis, and I recently celebrated our 17th wedding anniversary. Long ago we traded in our lazy 24-year-old days for the trappings of mid-life, including career changes, parenthood and a move halfway across the country.
When I woke up this year on our anniversary, I played our wedding DVD (converted years ago from grainy VHS) for my husband, our daughters and my visiting sister and nieces. We all laughed at the opening montage of baby pictures: me in front of a kiddie swimming pool, my husband with a stuffed cookie monster on the potty. We laughed at the videographer’s trick to slow down the footage at odd moments, to strip the color and leave us all black and white — gray really — caught in the flashes of an unnaturally slow strobe light.
We pointed out our favorite aunts, family friends and baby cousins who’ve grown into adults in the years since they shuffled on our dance floor. My daughters, ever alert, were very impressed that we had gray limos to carry us from the church to the ceremony. How did you ever afford them? they asked. We shared stories of the open-minded priest and the long-winded rabbi that married us. The girls thought it was cool that we broke a glass with our feet, and they made a face when we kissed a long time.
It was like watching a great romantic comedy, until I noticed something. So many of our guests who were pictured toasting, eating, clapping—were gone now. My uncle was the first to die, just two months after we were married. Today, three uncles and an aunt have passed away, as well as two grandmothers, the only grandparents alive on our wedding day.
When we were married, on June 19, 1999, all four of our parents were there, alive and beaming. Seventeen years later, only my mother-in-law is left. My mom died in 2005, hit by a Ford F350 truck while crossing the street. My dad died from heart disease in 2010. My father-in-law died last year, after suffering for nine years with terminal brain cancer.
Back then, my parents were smiling. I cry as I watched the father-daughter dance to “Wind Beneath My Wings.” I remember groaning when my dad suggested that cheesy Bette Midler song. However, 17 years later, I would do anything to hold him close while she sings “Did you ever know that you’re my hero?” I also cried during my in-laws’ dance to Barbra Streisand’s “Evergreen.” After watching my father-in-law struggle for years to walk, or even remember what he ate for breakfast, it was shocking to see him smiling and healthy, happily dancing with his wife.
Punctuating the reception are short clips of our guests offering congratulatory words: A friend giddily recites a meatball recipe; my cousin offers future babysitting services; the flower girl, an adorable vision, thanks us for including her.
I rewind one message, over and over. My mom looks directly at the camera with her signature smile and says, “You’ve always been a wonderful daughter, Kelly. You’ve been my sunshine. And Davis, you’re now like my son. Definitely. And together, you’re going to bring a lot of joy into my life.”
My dad follows-up with, “Kelly and Davis, I hope you have a wonderful honeymoon and you’ll always be happy.” Then, they look at each other and smile, as if approving something that flies between their words.
Between the tears, I listen to my dad’s words. Really listen. “Always be happy.” I reach for a tissue and pat my eyes. I know my parents wouldn’t want me to be crying — they wouldn’t want me to watch the video of such a happy day through a veil of tears shed for what is to come. Even though they’re gone, I am their sunshine. And I can be happy, even when, a moment later, the old video slows down again, a trick of the tape, and turns the images into a painful gray.
Kelly Haramis is a writer, actor and editor. Formerly a Chicago Tribune journalist, she has performed her one-woman show, “Double Happiness: A Tale of Love, Loss, and One Forever Family,” in Chicago, New York City, Orlando and Montreal. Kelly lives in the Chicago area with her husband and two daughters. She can be found @kharamis.