Sunday, March 22, 2020

Love (and Marriage) in the Time of Coronavirus

Yesterday was supposed to have been the Big Day for Corinne and me. It was supposed to be the day our friends and family came to New Orleans to celebrate our wedding. We had spent well over a year (and many thousands of dollars) meticulously planning the entire experience: the venue, the food, the music.

Of course, none of that happened yesterday. Neither we nor our friends nor our families went to New Orleans. We did not have a ceremony. We did not eat and dance at a reception afterwards. The wedding that we so carefully planned did not happen.

We had been approaching the wedding date with a background awareness of the Coronavirus situation, but it wasn't until a couple of weekends ago - when SXSW in Austin was canceled and the first guests informed us that they would probably not be attending out of concern for their safety - that we began to become truly concerned. Over the following days more events were canceled - the Rodeo, sports - and more of our guests expressed concern about traveling to our wedding. We found ourselves among those with upcoming wedding plans who were agonizing about what to do: continue as planned, even though many people - our parents included - might not be able to attend due to the risk involved, or cancel, disrupting everyone's plans at the last minute and potentially incurring thousands of dollars in lost deposits and cancelation fees.

However, after Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards decreed two Fridays ago that schools be closed and that all public gatherings larger than 250 be canceled, we saw the writing on the wall. Even though our gathering would be smaller than 250 people, we knew things would only get worse as the number of positive Coronavirus cases in the New Orleans area increased. We couldn't ask our guests to put themselves at risk by attending our ceremony.

So we called our wedding off.

After hurriedly working with our venue and other vendors (all of which have been awesome!), we tentatively rescheduled for a date in July of this year and informed our guests as quickly as we could.

There's no telling if the Coronavirus situation will have passed by July - Louisiana is being badly affected by the virus outbreak right now and some epidemiologists are forecasting that it will take 18 months before this plague is brought under control - but it's the date the venue had available. Even if the Coronavirus threat does pass, there's no guarantee that the society and economy on the other side of it will even let us have a wedding. We're very worried about our vendors - our venue/caterer, our baker, our photographer, our deejay - and can only hope that they make it through the difficult weeks ahead.

Sure enough, last Monday the Centers for Disease Control suggested that all events of fifty or more people - weddings included - be canceled. That same day, the Mayor of New Orleans ordered that all "public and private gatherings" be canceled and that people not gather in groups larger than "the number of people in a reasonable household" in order to reduce social interaction and transfer of the virus. Had we not postponed our wedding, the decision would have been made for us.

But that's not the end of this story.

As the seriousness of the Coronavirus situation unfolded over the last week, Corinne and I began to discuss the need to be able to make legal and medical decisions for each other, should the need arise. We also found ourselves in a defiant mood: why should we allow this pandemic to interrupt our plans for our relationship?! It didn't hurt that we also had in our possession a marriage license from the State of Louisiana that would be valid through the end of the month.

So we made a few phone calls, and last Friday morning we drove from Houston to Lake Charles, Louisiana to meet our pastor, Tommy Dillon (the rector at St. Margaret's Episcopal Church in Baton Rouge) at a park on the south side of town. A couple of our friends drove separately and met us there in order to serve as witnesses. My son was with us as well, but unfortunately our parents were not as they are elderly and high-risk. (There were seven of us total, so we complied with the Governor's most recent prohibition of gatherings of ten people or more. We were careful not to touch each other and sanitized our hands frequently.)

It was raining, so we ended up having a brief ceremony underneath a picnic pavilion, with our bottles of hand sanitizer serving as paperweights to keep our marriage documents from blowing away and my son serving as photographer. It was not the most romantic setting, but it was nevertheless a moving and meaningful ceremony.

Afterwards we bid our pastor and witnesses farewell and drove to the Calcasieu Parish Clerk of Court to file the marriage license. All the bars and restaurants in Lake Charles were closed, so we couldn’t celebrate there. Corinne and I drove back home in the rain as husband and wife.

Even though we are now legally married, we still want to have our full ceremony in New Orleans with all of our family and friends. Corinne still plans to get her hair done and wear her wedding dress. We still plan to serve delicious food and dance to party tunes at our reception.

But as of right now, who knows when, or even if, it will happen.

UPDATE: Episcopal News Service interviewed Rev. Dillon regarding his ministry during the COVID-19 crisis. He used Corinne and I as an example of his work:
With the situation changing swiftly and unpredictably, Dillon is working with those he serves to meet their needs in a flexible way. He was scheduled to marry Corinne Perez and Thomas Gray of Houston, Texas, in New Orleans on March 21, with a full Eucharist and a reception. When those plans were canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Dillon encouraged them to get married anyway, recognizing that a couple’s legal status would be critically important in the event of a medical emergency. 
“I talked to them and I was like, ‘You know what? This is a time when the wedding needs to happen. Because, no matter what happens, you need to be legally married,’” Dillon said. “And so I said, ‘Let’s make this happen." 
The couple had a Louisiana marriage license, so Dillon suggested they meet in Lake Charles, Louisiana – near the border with Texas, and about halfway between Houston and Baton Rouge – on March 20 and have a big celebration with friends and family later. In keeping with health officials’ guidelines on physical distancing, it was a very small service: just Dillon, the couple, and a few friends as witnesses, who drove in separate cars. Standing by a picnic table in a park, Perez and Gray became husband and wife. 
“It was one of the holiest weddings I’ve ever officiated at,” Dillon said. “I said, ‘The kingdom of God is right here in the middle of this pandemic.’”


Anonymous said...

Congrats, Thomas! Long time reader of your blog ... so long that I can't even remember when, but probably 08/09, when I was moving to Houston and read somewhere it was a recommended Houston blog and I threw it into my RSS reader. It's been one of those weird, early internet experiences where I feel like I've gotten to know you even though we've never met. Glad you're staying safe, and happy to read about people persevering--however that looks--in these trying times.

Thomas said...

Thank you! I really appreciate your readership as well as your comment. You stay safe too!