Wedding on the oncology ward

A meditation on the hurried-up wedding of my youngest and the occasion of International Women’s Day

by Ken Sehested

Introduction: It is right and proper to retrieve and celebrate the memory of women of significant achievement who model excellence, infused with righteousness, for us all. However, the vast majority of such women (and men) are highly contextual, inconspicuous, and will only be known to a handful of witnesses. Kathy Waters is one of those.
        The following is a meditation, circulated to friends, after the collision of trauma and joy surrounding my youngest’s wedding. I did not realize until now that these events from 14 years ago coincided with International Women’s Day.


Friday morning, 8 March 2002

Some of you know I’m supposed to be on a four-day hike on the Appalachian Trail. I did drive up two nights ago to the trail head at the Tennessee border, for dinner with my hiking friends and divvying up our supplies and equipment in preparation for an early morning start. But then I called home to check on Kathy.

Kathy Waters, age 50, is Jeffrey’s Mom and future mother-in-law to our youngest, Alayna. Kathy has battled colon cancer for over a year, including surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. Late last year the tumor returned, and she underwent additional chemo treatments. Then, last week, she developed severe abdominal pains and had to be hospitalized. The doctors suspected that scar tissue from the previous operation was causing bowel obstruction. The operation was underway as I drove the winding mountain road to Hot Springs.

Jeffrey is as close to his Mom as any 21-year-old I’ve ever known; and, since he and Alayna began dating nearly one year ago, Alayna and Kathy have also developed a very close relationship. Kathy’s passion has been to live long enough to participate in the scheduled 15 June wedding.

Unfortunately, scar tissue wasn’t the problem in Kathy’s colon. Cancerous tumors ran the entire length of her digestive system, including her stomach. Her kidneys have already begun to fail. Bile is being suctioned via a tube going through her nose. Her mortality prognosis has been revised from months to days. The doctors don’t expect her to leave the hospital.

So this afternoon we’re having a wedding at the hospital in Shelby. Alayna had already picked out her wedding dress, and the seamstress agreed yesterday to work all night on fitting alterations. Nancy has been at Kathy’s bedside for much of the last 36 hours. The hospital has provided a little-used room, big enough for an aisle so I can accompany Alayna during processional music—Kathy’s surgeon volunteered to play, his first public performance—and accessible enough for Kathy’s bed to be wheeled in. The Waters’ pastor has planned the service. The extended Waters family is gathering. Nancy’s soul-mate, my dear friend, and Alayna’s unofficial godmother, Lynda Weaver-Williams, is driving down from Richmond.

So this afternoon we will have something like a combined wedding and funeral service. I doubt there’s liturgical precedent for such. My baby’s getting married, and a new relative, for whom I’ve developed much affection in a very short time, is dying. How do you simultaneously bless and curse God?

I am split open, like the psalmist described. “I think of God, and I moan; I meditate, and my spirit faints. Thou dost hold my eyelids from closing; I am so troubled I cannot speak. I consider the days of old, I remember the years long ago. Will the Lord spurn forever? Has God’s steadfast love ceased? Are the Lord’s promises at an end. Has God forgotten to be gracious, divine anger sealed off from compassion?”

We are in need of your intercession. Goddamnitalltohell is the reluctant but instinctive prayer on my lips. “Thy way, O Lord, was through the sea, thy path through the great waters; yet thy footprints were unseen.” (Psalm 77)

Yet “faith is the evidence of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” In the hours to come the breath of yet another of God’s faithful will be taken, “not having received what was promised, but having seen it and greeted it from afar” (Hebrews 11).

I’m not sure I have the courage of such vision.

Hail Mary, full of grace, be with us now and at the hour of our death.


Sunday evening, 10 March

Our matrimonial celebration Friday night was more wonderful than I could have imagined. Oh ye—oh me—of little faith. Alayna and Jeffrey, more composed than I recall being in a similar situation, rose to the occasion. Alayna was as unbelievably stunning in her wedding attire as any father ever beheld. The staff at the Cleveland County Regional Medical Facility were wondrous in their provisions: a small conference room, festively decorated for the occasion, and a couple of them hovering, eager to take on any last-minute details. Somehow they managed on short notice to find a candelabra—and a full-length mirror for Alayna’s preparation. Kathy’s surgeon did a wonderful job in his first public performance as instrumentalist.

As their wedding gift the staff provided a lavish spread of foods and drinks for the reception, along with two settings of dinnerware in the chosen pattern. As true as it may be, any sweeping critique of medical institutions in the U.S. will in the future be qualified with the memory of last Friday. The word “majestic” was invented for such moments. Angels were incarnate in these healthcare professionals.

The hero of the occasion, though, was Kathy herself. She was wheeled her down in her hospital bed—she’s still unable to sit up because of Wednesday’s surgery—and parked to one side at the front. Her delight, despite the discomfort of pain and drowsying effects of morphine, gave us all permission to experience the joy of the occasion. She patiently endured dozens of photos and words of greeting afterwards. I’ve rarely encountered anyone with such strength of character and serenity of spirit. Regardless of the conflicting evidence, she is obviously a woman who knows to Whom she belongs.

Lord, I believe; help thou my unbelief.


Thursday, 21 March 2002

We buried Kathy Waters yesterday, just minutes after the vernal equinox. A proleptic planting on the outbreak of spring, with threatening, overcast skies sprinkling gentle rain as the final amen was said. The modest, 212-year-old Oak Grove United Methodist Church, in semi-rural Rutherford County, was standing-room-only for the first time in members’ memory, as if in rehearsal for Easter morning’s assurance of death’s deposition.

Kathy planned the details of the service with family members and her pastor during the days preceding her death last Saturday evening. Unfortunately for us, Nancy and I left for a previously-scheduled week-long journey shortly after the hospital wedding of Alayna and Jeffrey. We learned after arriving in Boston that Kathy had requested both of us to speak at her funeral. So, while the rest of the family stood vigil by her hospital bed, we stood vigil by the phone. By mid-week she had slipped into unconsciousness, and we were calculating the travel rearrangements needed to return quickly. Is it so improbable to think Kathy lingered out of kindness, just long enough for us to complete our journey?

This is the characteristic kindness that marked her personal and public lives. Kathy began her career as a bookkeeper, then graduated to bank loan officer. After being laid off following a corporate takeover, she found work answering phones at the county’s social services agency. Her bosses had the sense to recognize what they had, and Kathy eventually became a caseworker for abused and abandoned children. One of those, a nine-year-old who spoke of Kathy as her “white Momma,” was among the crowd lined up to pay respects to the Waters family during the funeral home visitation Tuesday evening. She was accompanied by her new foster father, representative of many reconstructed families Kathy brokered.

For pastoral reasons Nancy and I decided it would impose too many words, and too many unfamiliar faces to the home-church crowd, for both of us to speak at Kathy’s funeral. What was appropriate was for one Momma to echo the hopes and assurances of another. And Nancy’s commentary, along with that by Kathy’s pastor, brought the kind of illumination for which sanctuaries were invented. Within sheltered walls amid the grove of ancient oaks, hope pushed back the shroud of anxious fear provoked by mortal predicament. The goodness of Gospel news was proclaimed again: The burial work of human hands does not exhaust the promise of Creation.

After prayers were lifted, hymns sung and assurances offered, Kathy’s casket was wheeled up the aisle, through the sanctuary threshold, down the steps and across the lawn, whose walkway was lined by church members as if a gauntlet. Only this one’s design was not to harass, hinder or harm those who pass but to encourage and intercede during this final journey crossing the county highway dividing the congregation’s sanctuary from its burial ground.

And there the planting proceeded, under bare oaken limbs outstretched in the kind of hope known only to the anguished, with concluding assurance from Psalm 23 witnessed by rolling Piedmont hills, in green pasture, beside still waters. Surely, goodness, and mercy, shall follow.

©Ken Sehested @