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.