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Why Brides and Grooms Need to Take 'Til Death Do Us Part' More Seriously -- A Love Story

Apr 22, 2014 | Updated Jun 22, 2014

Most brides and grooms do not think ENOUGH about the vows they are taking on their wedding day. I know this to be a fact because it's the single-most procrastinated item for all of my clients. They always put off planning their wedding ceremony, but that's stupid. Because the whole point of going to the altar, so to speak, is to exchange those vows.

The whole party afterward -- the dress, the rings, the gifts, the music -- that's all icing on the cake. The vows you exchange with your soon-to-be-spouse are the substance. Too many couples forget that. I'm going to tell you a very personal story that will help you understand why I believe your wedding vows are so important.

Last Wednesday, my family buried my grandmother, just a month shy of her 90th birthday. But this is not a sad column; this blog is a love story.

My grandmother was buried wearing the same beautiful pink silk suit in which she married my step-grandfather, Art Christie, 20-plus years ago. And she looked almost as beautiful as she did on that day. I asked my mother why she chose that outfit for her mother, and her reply was certain: Art had insisted on it.

Remember, my friends -- love and marriage aren't just about the good times. Marriage is about "for better or worse" and "in sickness and in health." And while my grandma and Art had more than 20 wonderful years together, the last five were painful for all of us as my grandmother deteriorated into a state of dementia that required full-time nursing home care for the past four years. But Art maintained his vow of "til death do us part" in a manner that is to be admired by all married couples. He set an example of what those vows we exchange at the altar really mean. Brides and grooms should all read this before they get married.

The nursing home where my grandma lived was located literally down a walking path from my mother's house. As the only child who lived in the Washington area (Art's kids are out of town too), the daily burden of responsibility fell on my mother. With that said, my grandfather Art visited my grandmother almost every day she was in the nursing home for years, and fed her lunch and visited with her. It was their special time together, and it was a priority to him. He was her primary caregiver.

She was his wife til the day she died, and a part of his everyday life, regardless of her mental state or health. And when my grandma got to a point where everyone worried about the toll it was taking on her husband (in his late 80s himself), suggesting Art might want to move someplace closer to where his own children lived, he wasn't at all interested.

How would he visit Ellen every day? Or even every week? She was his wife, regardless of the current situation. He was in it to the end. He never recited their wedding vows to me, but it went through my head when I heard about his decision. Art believed in the vows he had taken "in sickness and in health" and "til death do us part." And sadly, this wasn't his first rodeo with a terminally-ill spouse.

But let me back up and tell you how my grandma and Art fell in love. I think they had known each other for most of their adult lives and socialized for years in the same circles. I know my grandma and Art's first wife were friends while she was alive. And it wasn't until long after they were both widowed that they began "keeping company."

My grandmother had been alone for a very, very long time. She and my grandfather divorced when my mother was a child, and she didn't remarry until after I was born. I remember my "Poppy" vividly, although he died when I was tiny. Theirs was another true love story with a tragic ending.

My Poppy, a confirmed bachelor, was madly, deeply and truly in love with my grandmother in the way you see in movies. And they had a beautiful wedding (or so I've heard) and took off on a fabulous honeymoon. Upon their return, he wasn't feeling well. Not long after that, he was diagnosed with cancer. And back in the 1970s, that was a death sentence for too many people.

Grandma nursed Poppy in their apartment until the day he died. I remember going over there with my mom when they were still removing the hospital bed. Grandma also believed "in sickness and in health" and "til death do us part" meant something. I remember not being allowed to attend the funeral (I was about four) and being furious that my cousins a year or two older had been able to go. But mostly, I remember that after Poppy died, my Grandma changed. She had a truly broken heart. She was still fun and smart and a wonderful person, but she was deeply wounded inside.

I was the only grandchild fortunate enough to grow up living so close to her that I had my own key to my grandmother's house, and I could ride my bike there without going on any forbidden major roads. I grew up in a volatile household (not my mother's fault), and my grandmother's house was an escape for me and I was always welcome -- even if she wasn't home.

She was a doyenne of Washington society, and she volunteered at her church and the gift shop at Suburban hospital, and she belonged to a number of ladies' groups and clubs. She hosted numerous fancy affairs (perhaps where I got my party planning streak?); my grandmother's house was definitely the first party at somebody's home where I ever saw a back deck tented with outdoor heaters and hired, jacketed waiters and bartenders attending the guests. Ellen Griffith Pumphrey Brewer Christie was all class. And I heard that word used over and over again in describing her as people chatted at the luncheon at Congressional Country Club after her funeral service.

I reference all of my grandmother's married names above because they are all very, very relevant. As Ellen Griffith Pumphrey, she bore and raised four fabulous children who all grew to be successes in their own chosen realms. Those four children all went on to marry and give her a total of eight beautiful grandchildren (an even split of girls and boys). Those eight grandchildren have all married and when my grandma died, she was the proud great-grandmother of 11 beautiful great-grandchildren. So the legacy of her first marriage will live on forever in our family even though her name changed.

For me and several of my cousins, Poppy was the only grandfather we knew, and he was the love of her life, and for most of my life I knew my grandmother only as Ellen Griffith Brewer. Lloyd Brewer's small family was our family too, and his brother (our Uncle Charles) was notorious for his holiday dinner stories of his cats dying under strange circumstances. As Uncle Charles aged (he was also a confirmed bachelor), my grandmother took care of him as though he were her actual brother. It was as if she lived her vows to Lloyd every day of her life, taking care of his family and supporting his favorite charities and doing what she would have done as his wife had they had the years together of which they had been cheated. Again, my grandma believed in "til death do us part."

Poppy died when I was tiny, and yet I never remember my grandmother dating when I was growing up. Our extended family spent significant time together -- not just holidays, but every one of my cousins spent a week at her house every summer giving me endless time to spend with them. Through all of this, I don't remember my grandmother ever having a gentleman escort who wasn't a relative at any formal event we attended. That doesn't mean that she didn't -- it just means that if she did, she was exceptionally discrete, and I had no clue. But I don't think she was ready to open her heart to another man for a very, very long time until Art came into her life years later after he had lost his own wife.

I went away to college in 1991, and I didn't come home the first summer after college because of a campaign job in Ohio, but every time I visited, this nice gentleman named Art was joining us for dinner at grandma's or at the club or at my mom's house. Highly suspicious! He was fun and witty and he made my grandmother blush and giggle.

Back up, my grandmother was amazing, entertaining and sharp-witted -- but she didn't giggle and blush until I saw her with my soon-to-be-grandfather Art. In fact, she was a stern grandmother and while she had a fabulous sense of humor, she was rarely frivolous with her grandchildren. Grandma enforced proper manners and taught appropriate etiquette. She took us to the Kennedy Center, the National Zoo, the Smithsonian and to tea at fancy hotels. But she didn't tickle us or tease us. It just wasn't the way she was... until she met Art. And he could get away with anything!

Art and his wife had raised three sons, all about the same age as my grandmother's children. I'd say my aunts and uncles (steps and original) ranged from their mid-40s to mid-50s when grandma married Art. Through the marriage, we grandchildren even ended up with two "Uncle Dicks" in the family. We gained a new cousin who was much younger (but seemingly wiser) than all of us, and the families became one, again. Much the same way the Pumphrey family and the Brewer families knit together almost 20 years earlier, we joined up with the Christies in the same way. The only difference was one more card table for the "children" in the living room on holidays because there were more of them.

Grandma and Art were a very happily married couple. The family joke was the fact they seemed to replace their mattress annually and had installed a ceiling fan above their bed in the new home they purchased when they married (c'mon, they were "old" and it was funny to us grandchildren.) Both wanted to start fresh together and to make sure they had enough space for their families. As always, my grandma had a basement with ping pong table set up to keep the hordes of grandchildren at bay when the weather didn't permit outside escape.

And together, my grandma and Art built yet another combined family that grew to love and care about one another. Oh sure, some folks are closer to others, but at the end of the day, we are all family, "til death do us part."

I think this is where the tricky part comes in. Grandma and Art both honored their vows to a spouse whom they loved very much, "in sickness and in health" and "til death do us part" in the most literal way that those words were meant to be interpreted. They each set an example, more than once, about making those words mean something. But even after all of that, in the end, only one is left. Alone. Because he honored those vows not once, but twice, in his lifetime to women he loved very much.

There are so many of us who are watching our parents and grandparents suffer the loss of their spouses now. Let's face it -- getting older sucks. Facebook is starting to scare me as I see that in real life, people seem to lose loved ones every single day, and not just the elderly ones. Life is all about love and loss. But the very, very lucky people fall in love, and stay in love, "til death do us part."

Somehow it just doesn't seem fair. Not one bit. It doesn't seem right that, after sticking together through thick and thin, and hanging in when the going got rough, that one half of the team should be left behind. You hear about couples who were married 60 years and then die within weeks of each other -- and it makes sense that the one left behind wouldn't want to be there alone. But in the case of my grandfather Art, he's had several years to slowly adjust his life and he is in excellent health. We plan to keep him around a long time. But I'll still worry about him. We all will. Because we know how much he loved our grandmother Ellen Christie right up until the very end.

So when brides and grooms don't take planning their wedding vows seriously, I think it's a disservice to the institution of marriage at large. You don't have to use the traditional words, but when I hear them vowing to "pick up their underwear off the bathroom floor" in front of a minister, I truly wonder if they have really thought through the step they're in the process of taking. Vowing to "learn to cook" or "try skydiving" isn't what marriage is about, folks. It's about sticking together through financial problems, family problems and health challenges... "til death do us part."

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Rest in peace, Grandma. Thank you for setting such a good example.