On Their Own Terms

On Their Own Terms

Eight years into a challenging relationship, writer Krista Bremmer finds bittersweet beauty in a public exchange of vows.

Connections by Nagat Bahumaid

In our early years as parents, after we had gone to the justice of the peace and recited the Fatiha before our Muslim friends, I had dismissed the idea of a wedding. But as the years passed, I began to feel it was important for family and friends to witness our vows—and after everything we had been through, I could think of no better reason for a party than to celebrate the endurance of our love and commitment. Eight years after we met, we finally had a wedding celebration at a farm in the North Carolina countryside, on a late-spring day when the heat was beginning to press in. Our children were three and eight years old. We hand-lettered invitations for our friends: Aliya Rose and Khalil Zade invite you to celebrate the marriage of their parents. Was it too late for this? Would our friends think a celebration indulgent? Would they assume we hadn’t been married before? It didn’t matter. Something in me had shifted, and now the public ritual seemed important.

One of Ismail’s oldest friends was a reclusive piano repairman who drove his battered red truck all over the countryside, tuning and fixing pianos in church basements and well-appointed living rooms. Over six feet tall with thick glasses, bushy eyebrows, and a long gray ponytail, Carlos spoke rarely and only in staccato bursts. When something struck him as funny, he snorted and blushed like a gangly adolescent. Only when he was seated at a piano, with his back to the world, did he seem completely at ease.

For our wedding he insisted on hauling a grand piano on a flatbed trailer to the pine tree in the middle of the meadow where we planned to exchange our vows. “Seems like a heck of a lot of work for so little return,” said my neighbor skeptically, watching the 800-pound piano being hauled slowly over potholes and through tall grass. But Carlos could not be dissuaded. He was not one to stand in front of our guests to deliver a toast; nor would he offer us a prettily wrapped present. His incomparable gift was to lean over his piano as we made our way across the meadow that afternoon. As we approached, he cocked his head and seemed to listen for a message in the whispering breeze. Then he began to play. His fingers fluttered like butterflies over the notes; his music swooped and rose like a springtime cardinal.

It was a wanton, glorious act: a herculean effort for a fleeting moment of perfection. In the glow of a late-afternoon sun, Ismail and I walked hand in hand across that green meadow and into a pool of friends gathered in the shade of the pine tree. Their love washed over us like a gentle wave. We stood before a tree trunk my friend had garlanded with wildflowers. Our curly-haired son slept in my mother’s lap in the front row; our dark-haired, long-limbed daughter walked a few feet ahead of us scattering petals along the path. A Muslim friend waited beneath the tree to lead the ceremony, the wings of his white robe whipping in the breeze. An elderly neighbor who sold flowers at the farmers’ market and led the choir at the Baptist church sang us a gospel song a cappella. Our friend Jamal stood beneath the tree and recited a Rumi poem like a royal bard, turning his face toward the sun and sweeping his arms toward the sky.

My chest ached with the sweet pain of an overfull heart. When it was my turn to speak, a powerful and unexpected shyness arose in me. In a wavering voice, I thanked Ismail for showing me that love means surrender—and for giving me the incomparable freedom of being known and accepted as I was. I promised he would always have a home in my heart. When it was his turn, he thanked me for inspiring and challenging him, and he promised to keep growing and dreaming with me for the rest of his life. Our union felt as incongruous and unexpected as the shimmering black piano resting briefly in the shade of the tree—and it, too, required arduous work for fleeting moments of beauty.

After the ceremony we moved to the barn, where our friends had covered two long banquet tables with homemade dishes from their native countries: empanadas and baklava, kibbeh and Congolese stew. Our friend and his son played bluegrass as our guests ate. When people began making toasts, Aliya raised her hand, and someone lifted her up onto a chair so she could face the crowd. “I feel very lucky to be at my parents’ wedding,” she said. “Most kids don’t get to do that.” A ripple of laughter rolled through the room, but my chuckle was nearly a sob. Her words were a benediction; they threw open the door to gratitude for every turn my life had taken. Nothing about my life resembled the future I had once imagined—and for years I had grappled with resentment or regret because this path had never been easy. Now I saw that every single struggle had brought its own gifts; every unexpected turn had brought me to this moment.

Wendell Berry writes that guests at a wedding witness a death that shadows new life: Two individuals die into their marital union the way a soul dies into God. The day after my wedding, when I returned to the abandoned barn to begin cleaning, signs of decay were everywhere. Brittle flowers turned inward under the harsh midday sun. Ismail and I went from table to table yanking them from vases of cloudy water and dropping them into piles on the ground. The long banquet table, yesterday covered in offerings from a hundred friends, was covered now in crumbs and congealed spills that drew flies. Yesterday I had peeled this wedding dress from its plastic covering and slipped it over my scrubbed body, its pressed white layers hugging my scented skin. Today it had a blueberry smear across the skirt where a toddler had reached for me with a sticky hand, and a catch in the fabric where it caught the splintery edge of a wooden table. Its grimy hem skimmed over the gravel parking lot as I hauled it over my shoulder to my car. Today there were bottles to recycle, sheets to wash, payments to be made, children to be retrieved from the babysitter. The late-spring air prickled my skin like hot breath as we cleaned up the remains of our celebration. Today the heat was rising. Ours would always be a sticky marriage.

Excerpted from My Accidental Jihad by Krista Bremer. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 2014. Reprinted with permission.

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