Pour One Out for All the COVID Weddings That Weren’t
In the background of the overwhelming and irreversible tragedy of the COVID pandemic’s death toll lie millions of disappointments over milestones that never were.
Before we’d even met in person, I informed my now-husband over text that “I’d rather die than have an actual wedding.”
A little over two years later, I’d find myself in a bleak sorority of thwarted brides who had to cancel an actual wedding because of mass death. God’s messed-up sense of humor involves wordplay.
I’m not unique. About 2 million couples were planning on marrying in the U.S. in 2020. In my social circle alone, there were at least three couples in the same boat—Brides of COVID. Some of us have boxes of unsent invitations in the corners of our office that we can’t bring ourselves to throw away. Some of us are out thousands of dollars. At least one of us had her dress specifically tailored to her body and, when the tailor tried to reach her about picking it up, went AWOL. Some of us eloped. One research firm estimates that couples that weren’t even able to have weddings in 2020 still owe $3.7 billion for their very special, very expensive non-events. On behalf of those people, I’d like to offer a very special, fondant-coated ‘Fuck you’ to 2020 as this year slithers off into history.
Because wedding planning can turn seemingly regular people into total fucking assholes, when I talk about this, when I think about this, I feel the need to remind people that I am not among the biggest wedding assholes out there (a small-time asshole at best). I’m not Texas-COVID-positive-groom-coughing-all-over-a-wedding-photographer selfish. I know that canceling our wedding was the right thing to do; I don’t regret it; I’d never equate having to cancel a party with losing a loved one; I know it could have been worse.
But loss of a life event is still a loss. In the background of the overwhelming and irreversible tragedy of the COVID pandemic’s death toll lie millions of disappointments over milestones that never were. Canceled graduations, grandparents who went a year without seeing their grandchildren, millennials who went a year without being able to see their aging parents, job losses, Zoom funerals, small businesses shut down when government relief wasn’t enough.
Now, when I think about my canceled weddings-plural, I’m torn between feeling sad and feeling foolish for wanting a wedding in the first place. Expectations lead to disappointments. That’s zen, right?
The American wedding industry, before all this, was a $70 billion behemoth. A strong argument could be made that it was, in that state, culturally carcinogenic. In the Before Times, the average cost of a wedding in this country was about $30,000, which doesn’t make much financial sense in a country where the median age for a first marriage is under 30 and the median net worth for that age group is under $12,000. If the money to finance a $30,000 party didn’t come from the couple’s parents, it came from somewhere—most likely, loans. And there’s no more romantic way to start a life together than in crushing amounts of debt.
Years of reading women’s magazines and attending friends’ weddings and watching planning turn seemingly normal human beings into lunatics taught me not to trust the industry. In addition to being devoted to a tradition with archaic, misogynist roots and being deliberately exclusionary of people who weren’t straight, the wedding industry was greedy. It was sneaky. They’d already figured out every possible way that a couple might try to save money, and they’d cut it off at the pass, and, in addition to doing that, they’d invented obligatory expenditures out of thin air. And once the Obergefell v. Hodges ruling lit up the last week of Pride Month in 2015, the wedding industry has been aggressively going after LGBTQ people’s money nationwide, too.
In the middle of the 2008 financial implosion, I’d listen to cash-strapped members of bridal parties complain about the extravagant expectations of a bride who wanted them to spring for a weekend in Nashville for a bachelorette party (In the years leading to this, Nashville’s population was, from what I can glean, 62 percent bachelorette party at any given time), and then help throw them a wedding shower, and then buy a $300 dress, and then take time off work to attend the “wedding weekend” that actually starts on Wednesday. And there were also all the spa treatments. And the wedding gift. Most of the demanding brides I knew or heard complaints about were women who I didn’t think were creative enough to be that innovatively greedy on their own. The wedding industry gave them license to demand this during a recession.
I would read wedding magazines fanned out on the waiting room coffee tables of dental offices and hair salons—when I could afford to go to the dentist or get a salon haircut in my lean twenties—and shake my head at the brain-puckering prices the industry had managed to normalize. A $600 cake? Are the eggs used in the batter gently sucked from the chickens by a member of the royal family? My generation can’t even afford houses and childcare. SMH. Not me. Never me.
Josh proposed to me in Italy less than a year after I told him that the idea of planning a wedding made me yearn for death. And less than a week after returning from our trip, we sat down and decided that actually, we did want to have a wedding. Not a “traditional” wedding, though; we were still going to outfox the evil wedding industry and outmaneuver its archaic roots. No church, no God, no white dress, no wedding party. Our reasoning was this: I was in my mid-thirties, and Josh was approaching 40. We were both among the last of our childhood and college friends to marry off, and sending out wedding invitations was sort of like issuing good time subpoenas. Wouldn’t a celebration with most of the people we loved in one place have been fun? Weren’t we going to have the very best time, celebrating the start of our life together with a big-ass blowout? Come to Los Angeles, drink a bunch of alcohol, dance around with all four of our extremely fun parents—and we won’t even make you go to church!
Then we found a venue—cheaper than we thought it would be. And a photographer whose work didn’t look anything like the washed-out cookie cutter wedding photos I’d seen populating Facebook feeds and wedding message boards. And a wedding planner who seemed to “get” us and our aversion to the stuff of rom-coms. And a wedding designer who, rather than upselling us on expensive centerpieces, helped us brainstorm ways for us to make our own. And a caterer. And I found my wedding dress. Less expensive than I thought it would be! Might as well also buy my second favorite dress, for a post-ceremony costume change. And did I say we found one caterer? Actually, we found two! One was a small catering business that specialized in Korean food for dinner, plus we hired our favorite local taco truck to roll up to the venue at around 9 p.m., just when people would be getting sloshed enough to crave tacos more than anything.
It helped that we had friends with skill sets that lent themselves perfectly to weddings and thus serendipitously money-saving wedding gifts. My ex-boyfriend-turned-dear-friend just happens to be an illustrator and designer, and, as a gift, made us beautiful invitations. Music was something we could take care of from some of the many musicians among our friends and family. Another friend owned a live events business and his gift to us was going to be letting us use lighting and sound equipment on the house. And another friend, who had just planned and pulled off two weddings herself—one in the States and one in her home country of Mexico—took me to the flower district in Los Angeles, introduced me to her “flower guy,” and was able to serve as a translator between us (the flower wholesaler spoke mostly Spanish and my Spanish consists of apologizing for not being able to understand Spanish, in Spanish). As a result of my friend’s tip and assistance, our flower expenditures were going to be about one-fifth what they’d been had we relied on a florist. One-fifth! We were winning this wedding planning thing, big time.
Before we knew it, our “small” wedding grew to a list of nearly 200 people we couldn’t imagine the day without. Who was that foolish woman who had, just a year before, jokingly compared the drudgery of wedding planning to the tragedy of death? Like Mariah Carey on J.Lo: I didn’t know her.
That December, Josh’s parents threw us a beautiful engagement party at a country club in his hometown of Pittsburgh. I’ve never belonged to a country club and I don’t know how to golf. The party was nicer than any party that had ever been thrown for me, probably by design. I’m much more comfortable celebrating other people than being the focus of celebration. My high school graduation party had involved three kinds of taco meats and an ice-filled kiddie pool to keep the taco accoutrements chilled, per my request. I’d never made a big deal about my own birthday or pressured others to do the same (one boyfriend tried; it ended in a fight). At our engagement party, there was an open bar and Christmas decorations were still up. People got dressed up—for us! There was a coat room. What an absolute trip. One of his parents’ friends got us a pair of crystal champagne flutes. They were so pretty I was afraid to take them out of their box (unless I’m having it with dinner, when I’m at home, I often drink wine out of a coffee mug).
We made a spreadsheet to keep track of thank-you cards. I bought $100 worth of Love forever stamps. I was just like one of the brides in the dental office magazines, sans a Pinterest board of “unconventional” cake toppers. My “fuck a wedding cake” position remained intact.
In January, I went in for my first consultation with a seamstress, a tiny Filipino woman with an airy studio on an upper floor of a garment district building whose Yelp reviews praised her like she was literally Jesus. I drank sparkling wine from a can, through a straw, as the woman stood back and took a look at the dress, and then reached down its bodice and palmed my entire right boob, situating it at one angle, then another. The wall was lined with her works in progress, the dresses of other women ready to be tried and retried. I felt myself reflexively begin to scoff at these wedding industry victims, before realizing that I was among them.
In February, headlines about a mysterious virus that had now caused a deadly outbreak in Italy crept onto American front pages, and I bought a pair of shoes with a feather made of rhinestones on the strap. I dropped a $6,000 check off to the caterers. Ha ha, don’t lose it! It’s our last check! I joked to the guy I handed the envelope to.
I had my hair and makeup trial the first week of March. “Make it bigger,” I said to the woman who was doing my hair. She giddily obliged. It looked exactly how I wanted it to look. I sent a selfie to my mother. “It’s big,” she said Midwesternly.
Less than two weeks later, California locked down, and I became obsessed with finding out everything I possibly could about the coronavirus. All of the ambient doom of the early days of the pandemic attached to wedding anxiety. I spent hours and hours reading scientific articles, doomscrolling through Twitter, reading every news story I could find. I wanted to figure out, first of all, if I or anybody I loved was going to die; second of all, if the virus could make my dog or cat sick; and, third, if there was any possibility that we would pull off this huge-ass party that had taken months of planning.
About a week in, reality dawned on me, whining quietly in the background at first, and then making noise I couldn’t ignore, like a car that needs its transmission replaced. I cried for days when I accepted that we’d have to cancel the May 30 event. Ugly crying. Sobbing crying, the type of crying that ends with hiccups. I hadn’t cried that way since my grandpa died. It wasn’t just the party—I knew that everything was about to be fucked up for a very long time. I was crying for that, all of the future cancelations, all of the doom on the way, all of the fear and frustration and presidential press conferences led by an actual idiot who couldn’t pass fifth grade science. And once I was done crying, I got depressed.
Once again, I consulted Dr. Internet. It seemed like people thought summer would be rough, but that there was hope for a semi-normal fall. I talked Josh into rebooking everything for late October, Oct. 24. The venue had it available. We moved our date, and sent out joyful announcements to our guest list. Guess the hell what! The party is still on!
A couple of weeks later, our venue emailed us to say that they were sorry, but all events were canceled until April 2021. At this point, I started to feel like I was losing my mind. What if, I thought, we’re living inside a simulation, and it’s glitching so hard that the CPU of reality can’t even process me having a wedding. Serves me right for allowing myself to be excited about something. Wait a minute: Did I cause this? Does the very act of hope send some kind of cosmic signal flare to a cruel hope-squashing deity?
Pity started pouring in as the day of the ghost wedding approached, and with each heartfelt expression of it, I would cry with a combination of gratitude and embarrassment that anybody was making any kind of a deal at all about a wedding canceled due to COVID, something that amounted to a spilled glass of water amid a biblical flood. The co-hosts and producer of the podcast I host surprised me with a “virtual happy hour” that ended in a courier dropping off a fancy to-go dinner for two at my front door. (Cried about that.) My group of college girlfriends secretly arranged a Zoom call on the day we were supposed to get married. (Cried about that, too.) We got flowers, gifts, bottles of champagne sent to us. We can’t wait to celebrate with you! Deep down, I wasn’t sure it would ever happen.
My WGA insurance expired. My partner got laid off. Pictures started surfacing on the internet of people in the middle of the country at pool parties, like nothing at all was happening. It made me feel crazy. I drank a lot. I slept as much as I possibly could.
I dealt with my grief and growing mental unwellness in two ways: one, by picking a lot of dumb fights with the one person I was allowed to spend time around (one culminated with me yelling, “You have no good plague ideas!” in a Trader Joe’s parking lot), and second, by joining every single wedding subreddit and poring over posts by brides-to-be who still believed that their August 2020 dream wedding was a go. Idiots, I’d say to myself, sipping cold coffee or lukewarm Prosecco in the dark, my own unshowered-because-who-cares body odor pooling around me, as the brides tried to comfort each other. I rarely posted, but when I did, it was to extinguish hope. “Cancel it now!” I’d reply to a woman who wasn’t sure if her September wedding in a major metropolitan city was going to happen. “Hate to break it to you people rescheduling for January 2021, but herd immunity to an endemic viral disease with no cure is completely impossible by then,” I wrote on another board, only to be admonished by a woman who thought she was having a 150-person wedding in October who told me that I wasn’t helping anybody. I was the Grinch of weddings, spreading joylessness.
Josh started playing a lot of FIFA 2021 on our PS4. We watched every single episode of Homeland, in order, over the course of a month, most of it while lying on our backs in bed like hospital patients. I watched The Tiger King, and then read enough about The Tiger King to get mad about it. I started working on a book proposal, showed my agent, immediately convinced myself that it was stupid, and stopped working on it. I started a novel, I stopped a novel. I started writing a pilot. I stopped writing a pilot. I could only work for a few hours before a voice in my head would take over: Yeah, but: Who gives a fuck? Who can argue with that? And then whatever I was working on was effectively dead.
Over the months, the tone of the “weddit” (get it?) boards changed. This summer, before the disease had spread to crisis levels everywhere, there were still some COVID brides confidently going forward planning ceremonies, albeit with bullshit “safety precautions” like having guests wear color-coded wristbands to signify how comfortable they are with social contact—red for please keep your distance, yellow for it’s OK to stand near me, and green for BRING ON THE HUGS!, as though the virus cares about color codes.
As Los Angeles struggled to climb out of lockdown, we got tested (negative), loaded up our car with some clothes and our dog, and drove all the way to Duluth, Minnesota, where we ate smoked Lake Superior fish on knäckebröd while my brother and sister-in-law almost convinced us to move there. Mosquitos and horseflies feasted on our arms and legs. We were the only two people kayaking on a secluded lake, we watched a swan and her three half-grown cygnets glide into the cattails. I thought about how weird it was that there is a ballet about swans, some of the biggest, stupidest jerks of the bird world. I shared a small birthday party with my nephew, whose birthday is three days before mine. The leftover birthday cake went into my parents’ fridge, and I grazed on it over the course of several days until all that was left were a couple of smashed buttercream roses. We kept extending the time we planned on staying. It was nice to be away from the place where I’d spent those days planning, anxious, freaking out, self-medicating. But we couldn’t stay away forever.
We ended up being away from the West Coast for a month, and when we returned to California, ash was raining down from the sky like evil confetti. The fire responsible for the rain of ash had been lit accidentally by a couple throwing a gender reveal party for their fetus. It all felt too on the nose.
Being back home meant I could abandon my cake-and-kayak lifestyle and get back to furiously scrolling through the wedding-related web. As summer became fall, rather than encouraging each other, the COVID brides of the internet started sharing screenshots from the Facebook bridal groups and chastising the selfish ding-dongs who’d believed they could optimism their way out of this, the brides who would do whatever they wanted anyway, even though their special day meant that everybody else’s sacrifices meant a little less. But there was a rage there. Like a pet chimpanzee who one day goes nuts and rips off their caretaker’s face, the brides had finally turned on weddings.
As fall turned to winter, one bride proudly posted about how she had surprised her immediate family with a festive wedding road trip to Orlando, where they’d take a vacation from the virus by going to a bunch of theme parks and hoping that the magic of the Magic Kingdom provides immunity to a virus with no cure. The post was removed after outcry. The condemnation in the comment section was full of beautiful dissonant rage, like a Krzysztof Penderecki choral piece titled “Read the Room, You Selfish Bitch.”
Among the brides of COVID, some of us wouldn’t let something as silly as a deadly virus stand in the way of Their Special Day, and—who could have predicted—end up spreading the virus around. Some of us still pushed forward with weddings during the height of the pandemic, putting all of our friends and loved ones in a very awkward position.
But I don’t regret canceling—if canceling a wedding sucked, I can’t imagine how much worse I’d feel if I’d gone through with it and accidentally killed somebody. In Maine, a rural wedding reception killed seven people who weren’t even there. A 300-person wedding in Washington state on Nov. 7 has now led to outbreaks in two nursing homes, which now have logged 23 deaths.
People are dying because of parties they didn’t even attend. If I’m going to die because of a wedding, the least I want is the opportunity to whisper rude observations to the person sitting next to me as I listen to the maid of honor make a rambling toast that is mostly about herself. A person dying because of a wedding should at least get to put on large novelty glasses and a fake mustache in a photo booth with the groom’s freshman year college roommate, whom they just met.
I hate that the worst people in America got to have their fun and ruin it for everybody. I hate that Mike Pompeo and his big weird neck threw a massive maskless Christmas party in a fancy hotel, and I’m spending the first Christmas of my life away from my family, just like millions of others this year. A lot of us are pretty mad about it, and that’s a good thing. Collective bitterness is community-building. It’s difficult to imagine the type of tacky compartmentalizing that would enable anybody to have a big princess party at a time like this. It’d be like celebrating a birthday party at a strip club on the night after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
But it’s not gratifying to see the plague-ignorers experience the consequences of their recklessness. The places that, just this summer, were having pool parties and fireworks displays and Sturgis rallies are now facing apocalyptic loss. There were no cases of COVID in my hometown of Frederic, Wisconsin, when we passed through this summer. Now, Facebook updates from people from my hometown are bleak.
Frederic has no hospital. There’s no hospital in the next town over in either direction. There’s a hospital half an hour away, but that’s not big enough for what’s happening. People who get sick are being sent to Fargo, North Dakota.
My mother, a high school principal, spends her days in an N95 mask, because in-person classes for high schoolers have resumed during the height of a pandemic, because nobody cares, as long as it’s happening to somebody else. Deer hunting season was Thanksgiving week, and every night, the bars were packed full of hunters masklessly imbibing. Meanwhile, young people who passed COVID to their relatives are now, in some cases, watching those relatives struggle to stay alive while hooked up to machines.
A lot of people involved in Weddingpocalypse 2020 lost a lot more than my now-husband and I did. One caterer hung onto the money we’d paid them and still refuses to refund any of it, but some couples were out tens of thousands of dollars for deposits on venues located in places where it wouldn’t have been legal for them to have their event. I’ve heard and read horror stories of venues offering their canceled couples midweek dates in 2021, as though after a year of financial upheaval, guests will be comfortable taking an entire week off work to travel to attend somebody’s event. Our wedding planner had to shut down her entire bicoastal event planning business and lay off her whole staff. People financially strained themselves for parties they never got to celebrate. An entire sector of the economy—albeit one with its own problems—got kneecapped.
More insidious than financial loss was the collective loss of being capable of feeling excitement for upcoming events. My ability to look forward to things—to anything—took a ding due to the pandemic’s never-ending fountain of tragedy and disappointments. Turns out, a lot of life’s joy comes from hopeful planning.
As for us, like many other couples, we ended up getting married, anyway, in an all-outdoor ceremony in a rural area, attended by immediate family only on Oct. 9, a couple weeks before the second canceled big wedding was supposed to happen. Our original photographer, in double face masks, was able to shoot the event safely. Nobody got sick. The seamstress achieved a feat of engineering and managed to get my off-the-shoulder dress to stay up. We didn’t end up putting ourselves in a financial hole, didn’t end up bickering about that one couple on the guest list that I actually can’t stand, and now, I don’t have a pile of thank-you notes to handwrite. It ended up being a happy day. Almost feels silly to think about how much I cried about the original plans falling through. The wedding was never the point; the marriage was.
I spend a lot of time thinking about other people who thought they were having a wedding and then weren’t, something so universal yet so individual during a global crisis. And, as nature heals and society readies itself to return to some form of passable normal, so too does my hopeful planning tendency make itself known again.
What if we planned another wedding? I found myself thinking the other day. Not for Josh and me specifically, but for all of us COVID couples, the couples who made the hard but smart decision to scale back? Think Lollapalooza, but a wedding reception for thousands of vaccinated guests. We could all toast each other, smash cake in each other’s faces, dance to club hits from the early aughts, pose for photos using sanitized props, and the couples with the most discouraging 2020 stories could offer Fuck You toasts to COVID while the rest of us cheered supportively. The wedding reception to end all wedding receptions, for those of us who ran into the mother of all scheduling conflicts.
If anybody’s up for it, I know a flower guy.