The Art of Showing Up


I woke up in a cold sweat
one night a few years after my 1997 wedding. It wasn’t for the usual reasons—my toddler crying for me from her crib, the baby inside me kicking and inducing nausea or sciatica or both. It was because I had a sudden memory of my friend David.  He was standing in the grand entranceway of the historic landmark building in Brooklyn where Andy and I were having our reception, and he looked charmingly disheveled. He had just arrived from Boston, where he was in his first few intense weeks of law school, and I hadn’t been entirely sure he’d make it to the wedding. But there he was, casual laptop bag slung over his pinstriped suit. “I’m sorry I missed the ceremony,” he told me, a little breathless. He had the look of someone who had just sprinted a few city blocks. “But I’m here now,” he shouted with his famous enthusiasm. “So congratulations, J-RO!” For what had been the millionth time that glorious October afternoon, a wave of gratitude swept over me: I can’t believe you made it! You got on a train for me even though you just started school! You sprinted city blocks for me! You called me by my favorite nickname!

That moment with David was so meaningful that I was still thinking about it years later, in the middle of the night. Before long, though, my 3 a.m. fog lifted, and the gratitude gave way to guilt. His own wedding had taken place the weekend before and I hadn’t attended, even though I had RSVP’d yes a few weeks before. At the time I made this decision — to not go to the wedding — all my excuses seemed legitimate, in the way that only a History’s First Parent can justify as legitimate: My daughter was on Day 2 of an intense stomach flu, I was pregnant and exhausted dealing with her illness as well as a full-time job that was stressful, you know, the way all jobs are stressful. Also, here is where it gets dark, it was David’s second wedding. His first marriage had been doomed from the start — the birdseye maple cutting board we sent them for a gift was returned two months after it had been ordered — and by the time his second wedding rolled around, I hadn’t been in touch, hadn’t met his new fiancée, and figured I’d gone to his first wedding, so I’d done my duty, and of course he would understand. And also I was pregnant! And I was tired! You know, just like nine out of ten humans are. He would understand.

I never found out if he understood. But given that I never saw him or talked to him again, it’s a safe bet to assume he probably didn’t. Because here’s what I know now: If you don’t show up to a wedding, you are sending a message about how much you value the bride’s and groom’s friendship and happiness, and it’s next to impossible to redeem or forgive yourself after the fact. I would find out through a mutual friend — a better friend than I was — that David’s divorce had been traumatic, and his second wedding, the one I didn’t attend, was a nonstop rager of joy and redemption. The attendees gave them a five-minute standing ovation in the church.

I had been an awful friend, and the worst part about it was that I should have known better. The most treasured memory I have of my own wedding was greeting people on our receiving line, and, with each air kiss, realizing the lengths they had gone to in order to be part of our day. Like David, guests had come from all over the country to be there for us. They had braved airport security, arranged babysitters, boarded early morning trains, shopped for clutches and strappy heels, pored over lists of china and flatware and chip-n-dip platters, spent money and time booking hotel rooms and hair appointments. All for me. For us. This was the kind of gratitude I knew wouldn’t come again soon or easily, and it was overwhelming.

As was the remorse I felt after my big no-show — so much so that it forced a switch-flip somewhere in my brain. From that point forward, if I was fortunate enough to be invited to join a couple on one of the most important days of their lives, I would do whatever I could to show up. Of course there would be extenuating circumstances, but all conflicts and excuses would have to pass a rigorous self-imposed litmus test, i.e. “Have I done everything possible to get there?” You’d think it wouldn’t have taken more than three decades to register Peggy Post 101, but eventually I made sure to apply my new rule to other milestone circumstances — engagement parties, bridal showers, baby showers, big birthdays, bar mitzvahs, and especially funerals, which deserves another essay entirely. 

As if the wedding couple’s appreciation wouldn’t be reason enough, I found my new rule had selfish benefits, too. A few weeks after my big turning point, when I was five months pregnant and still running on fumes, I fought through the excuses and found myself across the country, on top of California’s Mt. Tam, wearing a Massimo-for-Target maternity dress borrowed from a coworker (no shopping!) and observing my college roommate’s commitment ceremony with her longtime girlfriend. They were both clad in long white satin gowns, their veils blowing in the Marin winds, with a spectacular view of San Francisco in the distance. When would I ever be witness to something that dramatic again? A year later, with two kids under two, I set my alarm for 4:00 am and drove six hours solo to a friend’s wedding in Vermont. I was dreading the long trip, but before I even turned on to I-87 North, I realized that this was going to be as good as a honeymoon in Bali: Six hours of alone time. No needy backseat babies begging for “Spaghetti with Freddy.” I cranked Lucinda Williams and any music that wasn’t sung by a cartoon character, and dreamed of the next morning, when I could sleep in maybe even past 7:00. 

Because I started saying yes, I got to sit next to a famous presidential biographer while eating Old-Bay seasoned blue crabs, and drink from pitchers of beer while overlooking Baltimore’s Outer Harbor. I got a tour of beautiful Columbia, Missouri — somewhere I’d never have gone otherwise — and saw the childhood home of a favorite coworker. When a high school friend of mine got married in the Berkshires, my husband and I stayed in an Inn that we liked so much, we returned there the next year just because.

Mostly, though, saying yes allowed me — allows me — to give a couple that I-can’t-believe-you-came-for-me moment that so many people gave us, and slowly, very slowly, pay back the gratitude debt I owe to David…and the universe.

This essay first appeared in Brides.

Photo Credit: Maison Meredith for Wedding Wire

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20 Comments

Jenny

So many people have told me about this and I’ve never listened. Thank you so much for reminding me.

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Laurie Mobley

It really stays with you! I always appreciate your recommendations – hoping for summer book picks soon!

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Annie

I love this, Jenny. So much! And now you have to tell us – what’s the inn in the Berkshires?

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Katie

So lovely. I always think about the importance of showing up to wakes and funerals. But this is another event that I should deem as important to show up for.

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Tracy

Call David. People are more forgiving than you would ever think. I had a selfish summer with a friend and regretting it immensely. When I found her on Facebook, I was so happy I could apologize and she was just happy I called. I have never regretted it. Another friend purposely lost touch with me while at a low point in her life. I don’t care – I just wish that one day she would call me or email me.

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Jenny

You are absolutely right. I half-heartedly tried to find contact info for him, but failed, probably out of fear and guilt. Getting my nerves up again after writing this….thank you for your story.

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Diane

This is so important. I remember two friends running into the church, just as we were getting to the end of the walk back down the aisle…and I remember a frantic L train journey from Blue Hill to the Brooklyn Brewery so we could be there for two sets of friends on the same night.

And today, I’m thinking of the other side of the equation, being there for a friend when she says goodbye to the love of her life, tomorrow.

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Heather

I loved this – it’s so important to rally around our loved ones as they celebrate or grieve, and presence creates such touching memories. “You love me. You were here.” Pragmatically though, it’s super frustrating to plan a wedding or birthday party and have people RSVP yes then not show, or not RSVP at all then show. The couple who pays a by-the-guest meal fee could save the money paid for their absent guests’ meals for their honeymoon/school debt/car fund, etc. I attended a birthday party where five children arrived unannounced, meaning there were suddenly not enough prizes or goody bags. By all means, be there if you can, and of course, emergencies/life can get in the way. Informal gatherings will have more flexibility. But as a general rule, help people celebrate by letting them now you’ll join them so they can plan accordingly. (This isn’t directed at Jenny and your article so much as at the entire event-attending world…perhaps I need at stay at that charming inn to help me calm down!)

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Kristin

While I love the overall message of the story, I feel that it is putting even more pressure on mothers, who already push themselves to be good at everything and get everything done, to the point of major stress, illness and even clinical depression.
“My daughter was on day two of an intense stomach flu; I was pregnant and exhausted dealing with her illness as well as my full-time job.”
These are valid reasons to decide not to attend an event, even if you RSVP’d. (Also-I can’t imagine the wedding couple wanted you to bring your stomach flu germs to their reception….)
I understand being hard on yourself and making these sound like small issues you “should” have overcome… but I’m curious… is this how you want your daughters to feel? Is this the advice you would give them? Or would you want them to take care of themselves and their little ones and not feel guilty for making that choice?
We need to be teaching our children responsibility AND self compassion, and show them that these can go hand in hand.

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Jenny

Kristin. Thank you for your comment. I actually would give my daughters this advice. (And also my sons if I had them.) Obviously there will be exceptions (of course!) but I believe maintaining friendships and engaging in your community *is* teaching self-compassion. Those are the relationships that will sustain us and carry us through our hard times (not only our happy times.).

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Alice

What a beautiful piece! My brother got married at the weekend, and he definitely had a few of those “I can’t believe you came for me!” moments- including a school friend who travelled all the way from Sydney, Australia to the south-west of England, just to be there. On the flip side, two people just didn’t show up- no word, nothing- and you could tell that he and his new wife were upset not to see them (as was I, it meant I was sat between a nine-year-old and an empty chair!).

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Regina

I love your writing, Jenny! Fantastic piece. I’m 35 with two small children and often need reminders how, even though I’m exhausted, always showing up for people is a good choice. Thanks!

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Lo

Jenny, I deeply admire the way you write about and live your values. And while the point of your essay certainly resonates, I am troubled by the line, “If you don’t show up to a wedding, you are sending a message about how much you value the bride’s and groom’s friendship and happiness.” I am getting married in less than three weeks and have thought a great deal about and experienced a range of emotions as I have navigated the fraught processes of creating guest lists and receiving RSVPs from family and friends. While I whole-heartedly agree that showing up is one of the best ways to demonstrate the importance of a relationship, I do not believe that the inverse is true. The friends and family who will not be joining us at our wedding don’t love us any less or differently than those who will; whether I know why they will not be joining us or not, their reasons are not a referendum on how much they care about me, and it seems like we’d be setting ourselves on a pretty difficult road through life to believe that they are.

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Jenny

Lo – I agree with you. I think it’s different if someone declines an invitation to your wedding because they live on the other side of the country or because the timing and budget doesn’t allow for it. There are always going to be legitimate reasons, of course. In retrospect, I think that line you quoted could have been more strongly tied to the idea of not showing up because it was just sort of inconvenient on my end. Thank you for your comment, and most important, CONGRATULATIONS ON YOUR WEDDING. Make sure you tell one server that his/her job is to make sure you get a bite of all the food during cocktail hour. 🙂

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Lo

Thank you so much! And yes — our venue is a restaurant/bar we picked because of the food, so I definitely plan to enjoy it!

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Sabrina Johnson

Thank you – I have periods in my life when I make excuses for not showing up – and I’m not a parent, not even to a four-legged child! I rationalize this flaky behavior by telling myself that I won’t be missed…but I know it’s not true. After reading your touching blog post, I know it’s important — for we are all important parts of one another’s lives.

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