I've been a bridesmaid six times, so when it came to my own wedding I was pretty sure I knew what to expect. For the most part I was pretty spot on, but I'd be lying if I said there weren't a few surprises.
If I had to narrow it down, the top five biggest surprises of the day would be:
5. The (friendly) scuffle over who got first dibs on the pork pie cake, which ended with two members of the wedding party rolling around on the floor. This takes last place on my list because I only associate with people who take buffet food very seriously.
4. The mosh pit that broke out on the dance floor when the DJ (legend) played Killing In The Name. Someone stomped on my maid of honour's toe so hard that it damn near broke, but she carried on windmilling anyway because that's my girl.
3. At the end of the ceremony, when the registrar announced us to all assembled as husband and wife for the first time, she called my husband by the best man's name. Cue all of our family and friends (myself included) dissolving into laughter. Wow, we got some mileage out of that one.
2. My seventy-nine year old grandfather downing his first Jäger Bomb.
1. Wait – hold up a second.
Out of everything, there was one moment so surprising, so unique not just on the day but in my life, that I still can't believe I didn't imagine it. To explain it, I have to take you back twenty-seven years before the start of my marriage, to the end of another one.
When I was four, I found out that I'd be living in two houses - one I'd share with my mum, the other with my dad. I don't know if anyone ever explained the "why" of it to me; I only remember being excited about the new house, and badgering my mum about how long it would be before I got to see it.
After the move, though, I realised quickly that I was navigating new, uncertain terrain.
Before I go any further, a disclaimer: I am not complaining. I was loved, wholly, not just by my parents, but also by my grandparents and a small army of extended family. But if I don't give you context, you won't understand.
The divorce marked the beginning of nearly thirty years of silence between my parents. And I do mean silence - in all that time, I have no memory of them speaking to each other. On custody handover days, one parent would drop me off at my grandparents' house, where I would wait for the other to collect me after a safe amount of time had passed. If schedules forced their paths to cross, one would wait on the front porch while the other stayed behind the closed living room door. School parents' evenings and plays were arranged so that they could attend at different times, or else they would take it in turns, alternating events.
Like a lot of kids of divorced parents, I found myself with a foot in two different worlds. Acceptable behaviour in the eyes of one parent would draw ire from the other. The same school report could get me rewarded in one house, grounded in the other. Stepparents and their families drifted in and out of my life, bringing their own rules and expectations. Their arrival also heralded some uncomfortable conversations: at the age of eleven, I worked myself into a panic attack wondering how I would break the news to one parent that the other was remarrying.
These experiences in my formative years had both good and bad points, but by far the biggest impact it had was my need to compartmentalise. Mum was in one world, dad in another, and the thought of those two areas of my life colliding always caused me an undue amount of stress.
So, jumping to the much more recent past: I was recently engaged and fantastically happy. My fiancé and I were having a blast planning the wedding; we were both pretty laid back about the whole thing and just wanted everyone to have a good time. The only thing that threatened to make me hyperventilate was the prospect of my parents being in the same room together for a whole day.
This had only happened on one other occasion that I could remember: my graduation day. I won't go into the details because they've already been chewed over enough by my family, and frankly any further discussion would be exhausting. Suffice it to say that it was the single most awkward experience of my life, and this is coming from someone who once had to be rescued - by winch, in front of a crowd - from a treetop adventure experience (another story, another time).
The seating plan nearly claimed my sanity. If I put them both on the top table the atmosphere would be unbearable, but I couldn't stand the thought of hurting one of them by putting them somewhere else. Eventually, I sacked off the seating plan altogether and decided to let everyone fend for themselves. After a lot of talks with my maid of honour, often over tequila, I adopted a "screw it" attitude: they would be civil to each other or they wouldn't, I didn't care. Admittedly, I spent a lot of time reminding myself not to care.
The big day rolled around, and to my surprise, I mostly didn't care. Everyone around me was smiling, laughing, dancing. I was giddy with love for my new husband, not to mention the shots that were pressed into my hands every few minutes. I didn't remember that I was meant to be worrying until my maid of honour told me that my dad and stepdad had stepped outside to talk.
I hitched up my dress and prepared to run. My two dads had never exchanged words before (despite having spent my entire graduation day within a few feet of each other - yes, I told you it was awkward), and my stepdad had rather forceful opinions on what he called my dad's "disrespectful" attitude towards my mum.
But before I could move, my maid of honour laid a hand on my arm. Everything was, she assured me, all good. They were drinking together, smoking cigars, laughing. We stared at each other for a moment, eyebrows raised so far they could have disappeared into our hairlines. Then we laughed, hugged, and I thanked her for bringing me the news that my life had just gotten a little bit easier.
My surprise at that news was nothing compared to the event that followed, which brings me back to:
1. My dad hugged my mum and thanked her for giving me to him.
Now, I appreciate that after the broken toe, food fights and mosh pits, the number one spot on my list might be a little anti-climactic. For me, though, it was little short of life changing. I knew that I'd been carrying a weight around with me, but I didn't realise just how heavy it was until I put it down.
Don't get me wrong, I know they won't be visiting each other for afternoon tea. But I know now that when I have my first child, both of my parents can be there. When that child celebrates their eighteenth birthday, graduates, marries, has children of their own - my parents can be there. I know that, for the important moments, I can have my family - my whole family - there, in all its beautiful, dysfunctional glory.
My parents will probably never read this. I'm certainly never going to show it to them because I know parts of it would hurt them, and I never want to do that. Just in case they manage to stumble across this corner of the internet, though, and recognise themselves in this story, I have to give them a message.
Guys, from the bottom of my heart, thank you.