Reverend Karen Fox stood before her sister knowing her sibling didn’t have long to live. She turned to the small gathering in the Grey Nuns Community Hospital chapel and delivered a moment of levity in a wedding ceremony filled with joy and sorrow.
“Given that it’s taken 28 years to get here, does anyone really think these two should not be joined in matrimony? No? Right answer!”
And with that, Heather Fox, 60, got her final wish to marry her long-time partner, Mark Hartford, just three days before the cancer that was ravaging her body claimed her.
“She knew it was her last hurrah, and she gave it her all. She was over the moon to have that wedding,” said Karen, who flew in from Ontario to preside over her sister’s service.
“We were all choked up. It was happy, so joyous and so sad because it was at the end of her life. We were all saying hello to this new couple, but we also knew we were going to have to say goodbye.”
It was the first patient wedding at the Grey Nuns hospital since COVID-19 arrived in Alberta, says chaplain Christine Enfield, who provided spiritual comfort to Heather while she was in the palliative unit until her death on July 12. When Heather shared her desire to marry Mark, the hospital team, including chaplain Trevor Ellerby, rallied to make it happen, says Christine.
“Anything that’s building quality of life or building meaningful memories — we do our best to support that.”
The ceremony, which was small in size due to pandemic safety restrictions, and the outdoor reception that followed were important to the bride, who was so weak at her wedding that she was in a wheelchair and could no longer hold her head straight. Family and friends, who were unable to attend, joined the ceremony and reception via Zoom.
“It is sad, but in many ways she was quite happy,” said Mark. “We were just so happy we got to have the wedding.”
While the couple had talked about getting married over their 28 years of being together, it never happened. Then Heather collapsed in early May and the local hospital in Edson sent her to the Misericordia Community Hospital in Edmonton, where she was diagnosed with colon cancer that had spread. She spent her final months in the Grey Nuns hospital, and the desire to marry was reignited after a chance conversation about marriage with a man visiting his wife in the same unit, she explained in an interview just days before she died.
“I felt very strongly that I wanted to get married, and Mark felt strongly he wanted to get married. We wanted it to be a celebration of life,” she said. “We told Christine that we wanted to get married, and she said she would do everything she could to make that happen. Everyone has helped so much.”
Heather recalled the kindness that surrounded her in the end, citing how she and Karen had gone for a late night walk in the hospital when she spotted a white blouse hanging in the gift shop window. A nearby hospital screener let the Associates of Caritas team know Heather was interested in wearing the blouse at her wedding. The Associates of Caritas gave the white flowing blouse to her as a gift.
“The blouse is so beautiful. All the people here are wonderful. It doesn’t matter if it’s the nurses, chaplain or someone cleaning the floors, staff are so good to you as a person and respect your dignity.”
In her final weeks, Heather connected with family and friends and said her farewells. She described it as the happiest time in her life.
“So many people at the hospital made it happen and took such good care of her,” Karen said. “That’s what I think my sister realized — just how much she was loved, even by strangers. So many people made a difference, and for that I’m forever grateful.”
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