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I flew 10,000 miles to buy my third wedding dress
'I flew 10,000 miles to buy my third wedding dress - and it had nothing to do with style'
The first time I got married, I chose my wedding dress in 50 minutes, while my husband-to-be was in a radiotherapy session.
The second time I got married, I didn’t even buy a new outfit. Instead, on the morning of my wedding, I pulled an old white sundress from the back of my wardrobe. I’d worn it once before – to my first husband’s funeral.
When I'd picked my first wedding dress – a Vera Wang gown bought off the peg – my mum wasn’t even with me. At the time, I was living in Dublin, where my fiancé, Eoghan, was born and where he was undergoing treatment for stage-four skin cancer, which had quickly invaded his entire body.
When I got married the second time, I was living in England, but I didn’t call my mum to discuss dress options. I suspected that, if I did, her answer would be: ‘You don’t need a dress because you shouldn’t be getting married.’
She wasn’t just trying to protect me but also the kind, caring man who had proposed to me, eight months after we met at the gym. She didn’t want him to become an accessory in my grief – but sadly he did.
It has now been eight years since I was widowed at the age of 23, when my husband, Eoghan, died three weeks after our wedding day from malignant melanoma, which had spread to his liver, lungs, pancreas and finally to his brain.
In those eight years, I’ve moved through every stage of grief. I’ve been angry, I’ve been in denial, I’ve moved between guilt and gratitude.
I’ve wondered whether my recovery would have been easier if Eoghan hadn’t put a ring on my finger. I’ve loudly proclaimed that I would never, ever get married again, not only after burying my first husband but also after being divorced from my second.
I certainly never imagined that, at the age of 31, I would be planning a third wedding. But when my fiancé, Kurt, turned to me at the base of a mountain in Peru and said four words that I’d heard twice before, it was like hearing them for the first time. ‘Will you marry me?’
Unlike my previous proposals, this one didn’t come with a disclaimer: ‘I know that I’m dying but…’ or ‘I know that you’re not over him, however…’
Kurt was simply asking because he wanted to be near me, forever, and I answered yes because all I want is a shared future.
There was only one problem – that future is based in Australia, where I emigrated five years ago after being offered a job in Sydney.
Although my parents are flying over for the big day in February, they would be 10,000 miles away during the preparation stages. They’d miss out on choosing the venue (the beach), picking the music (a jazz band) and, of course, helping me to find the perfect dress.
You could argue they got off lightly, as they just have to turn up and enjoy it. But I know what it’s like to feel distanced from a wedding, when you’re meant to be a vital component - and it isn’t as good as it sounds.
In the lead-up to my wedding to Eoghan, we were so totally absorbed by his treatment that his friends and family arranged our entire day for us.
I will forever be thankful for their generosity, but on the day it meant I felt strangely detached from the big white wedding that I’d had little control over.
I did have some part to play, but my tasks weren’t exactly enjoyable. I still have a to-do list I wrote two weeks before my nuptials. It reads: ‘Get morphine, borrow wheelchair, find out if the tailor can come to the hospital for suit fitting.’
Image: beach wedding dresses
Because you have to give three months’ notice to get married in Ireland, we also had to go to court to ask permission to accelerate the process. I’ll never forget standing in a courtroom making my plea: ‘We need to get married in June because my fiancé is not expected to live until July.’
It wasn’t exactly the wedding I fantasised about when I was a little girl playing dress-ups with my mum’s veil.
That’s why, on the night Kurt proposed, I made a decision and before I could change my mind, I booked a return ticket to Heathrow.
When I Skyped my mum to tell her I was coming home, she reacted in the way I expected: she tried to talk me out of it. ‘It’s too far,’ she said. ‘You don’t have to. Just shop without me.’
I saw straight through her. It wasn’t about the distance (10,560 miles) or the cost of the ticket (£1,400). It was about the emotional toll that me coming home could have on both of us.
It is the same reason that, as my plane touched down on the tarmac at Heathrow, I felt a surge of nerves and apprehension rather than excitement.
There’s a reason that, in the past five years, I’ve only been back to England for three weeks in total. Let’s face it: it’s a lot easier to deal with my past when I’m a long-haul flight away from the evidence.
Like most parents’ houses, my mum and dad’s is full of detritus from my youth, but I’m not just talking about old toys and sports trophies. In my parents’ garage is the wooden framework of the bed in which Eoghan was sleeping when he had the stroke that finally killed him.
In their spare room is a plastic tub of his clothes, including a plastic bag of possessions the nurses removed from his body.
'I didn’t travel 10,000 miles just to find a bargain. I flew home because I needed to be with the one person who truly understands where I’ve come from. My mum'
At the back of their wardrobe is a big cream box containing a heap of taffeta – my Vera Wang wedding dress – which still has grass stains on the hem, from where I fell to my knees after a hotel guest wished me ‘a long and happy life with your husband’, after seeing that I’d just got married.
These reminders aren’t just tough for me, but my entire family. Even though I live so far away, my mum and I are too close for comfort in some ways, because we’ve both been through similar experiences.
When I was 17, my father was diagnosed with cancer of the lymphatic system. For nearly a decade his prognosis looked bleak, as chemotherapy and radiotherapy were both ineffective.
It is only thanks to a stem-cell transplant that he is now is remission, but the years of worry took their toll on my mother in particular.
To this day, she is terrified of answering the phone in case it’s bad news, and struggles to get excited about any positive events in case she jinxes it (for a while my dad kept relapsing every time they booked a holiday).
I know my wedding announcement disarmed her, not because she disapproves of Kurt (she’s met him and they clicked instantly), but because she struggles to trust life when it is going well. She is constantly waiting for it all to come crashing down around us.
Yet this is exactly the reason I wanted to go home and shop with her. We’d had so many years of commiserating - wasn’t it time we celebrated?
This is the point where I should probably talk about the dress-shopping experience itself. How our personal shopping suite at Selfridges was the size of my apartment; how they laid on champagne, laid out La Perla underwear, and how I fell in love with a white caped gown by Valentino (which I didn’t buy in the end).
I did, however, find an equally beautiful dress (with a more affordable price tag). But, to be honest, the outfit itself wasn’t really important to me. I didn’t travel 10,000 miles just to find a bargain.
I flew home because I needed to be with the one person who truly understands where I’ve come from.
My mum is the person I called the night before marrying Eoghan, when I didn’t think that I had the strength to say “I do” to a man who was dying; the person who dressed me and washed me before the funeral, who listened without judgement when I said I wanted to die with him.
In years to come, when I think back to our shopping trip, I doubt I’ll remember the Jimmy Choos I oohed over or the Erickson Beamon ear cuff I might have bought.
I will remember laughing with my mum at the nerdy backpack she was wearing and hearing her whisper to the stylist, “She’s been through so much. She deserves this.”
'In that tiny moment I was convinced that my fiancé was dead, even though I’d spoken to him 10 hours earlier'
In movies, the mother-of-the-bride always cries when her daughter walks out of the changing room dressed in white. But our emotional outpourings were far less clichéd.
My tears fell the morning after our shopping trip, back in my parents’ house, when I tried to phone Kurt in Australia and he didn’t answer. In that tiny moment I was convinced my fiancé was dead, even though I’d spoken to him 10 hours earlier, and I was flung back into my past with such force that it paralysed me.
As I sobbed and sobbed my mum cried with me – not because she believed that it was true, but because she knew that I believed it.
Over the next few days we talked honestly, for perhaps the first time, about the choices that I’d made since being widowed – the good, the bad and the ugly.
I confessed that I woke up in the night to check Kurt that was still breathing and how I was terrified that he’d die on his stag do in a freak accident.
Together, we sat and Googled “Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome” and I agreed to get back in touch with my therapist, who I had convinced myself I no longer needed.
We talked about my three weddings: the sadness that surrounded my first, the loneliness that motivated my second and why the third felt so right at last.
They say it’s best to go wedding-dress shopping with your mum because she’ll tell you the truth, even if it’s hard to stomach.
I didn’t need styling advice from her, but I did need some emotional home truths. Only she could lift my veil and step into my shoes.
I could easily have found a wedding dress in Australia, but on my wedding day I know I’ll feel more special because of the advice my mum gave me – which has nothing to do with what I’m wearing.
Oh, and before I left home I put my old wedding dress on eBay. It’s finally time to clear out my closet…
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