by Helen Rafferty

I’m forty-four, I’m a bridesmaid and for a while I was cranky as hell about it. And before anyone reminds me what an honor it is to be chosen for the role, allow me to list a few of the accompanying trials. Let’s start with the dress – a pale lavender number with a halter top and no back. A young and voluptuous J. Lo or Beyonce would look great in this little number. But pale and freckled gals like myself should always pass on pastels and my skinny frame means the dress hangs where it should hug. Truthfully, I look ready to be stuffed into a pine box and carried down the aisle.
Or maybe the main issue was the bride, a full decade younger than me and confident that married life will be a dream. With over twenty years of marriage under my belt, I faced this innocent joy the only way I could – by keeping my oldest living bridesmaid’s mouth shut, employing lavender duct tape when the urge to issue dire warnings grew too strong.
Why was I chosen to zip myself into a prom dress a quarter century too late? My cousin, Joan, has always been more like a younger sister to me. I baby-sat her, yakking on the phone with my friends then putting her to bed before six so I could eat ice cream and watch the Partridge Family in peace. Joan’s ability to ignore the ugly side of life showed itself even then, I guess – she loved me.
Having made the aforementioned personal investment in Joan’s development, I felt justified having her spend huge amounts of time helping me take care of my kids. Mom could kick back with a drink by the pool while Cousin Joan played Marco Polo in the water for hours with my little ones. Joan willingly took my place for Monopoly – God, I hate board games – and never complained; even though she was invariably stuck being the banker while my kids devolved into cheating and fighting. To this day, Joan always seems happy to keep everyone around her happy. So sweet and accepting, I was convinced Joan had no armor built up against the harsher realities of life. I knew it was selfish to depend on her always being there for me when I needed a sympathetic ear or my daughters needed a playmate. But I convinced myself that Joan needed to be around my stressed out, cynical self for her own good – maybe I could toughen her up a little by example.
Then, Joan and her boyfriend John announced their engagement. I really like her charming, soft-spoken fiance but part of me was instantly alarmed – even before I saw the lavender dress. This might not be a good development if I wanted to keep Joan as my go-to bf, babysitter and protégé. And how the heck could my dear, sweet, malleable cousin handle the rigors of grown-up life without me?
So I was cranky about the bridesmaid dress, the wedding plans, the shower and bachelorette party. It all reminded me that I was too damn old to deal with a young woman floating so high up on a pink cloud that any smidgen of harsh reality would bring her crashing down.
Then, three weeks before the wedding date, Joan’s fiancé collapsed. A faulty vein that had been hidden away in his brain decided to expose itself in a most spectacular fashion. He was rushed to Cornel Medical Center in Manhattan for emergency surgery. I got to the hospital the next day. There was my cousin, Joan, holding John’s hand, consulting with the doctors and reassuring hysterical relatives. Me, I stood at the foot of John’s bed, crying and useless.
Over the next three weeks, Joan ran back and forth from the hospital, managing John’s care, negotiating with his employers and fighting for his admission into the best rehab center. At the same time, she patiently fielded dozens of calls from friends and relatives telling her what to do. Most of them, myself included, advised her to face reality and call off the wedding. Joan listened, smiled and said, “John will be okay by then.” Aunts and uncles joined an army of first, second and third cousins in a low-key but overwhelming display of group disapproval. We listened grimly, eyebrows raised, when Joan mentioned the last minute details she was taking care of for the big day, even as she handled everything else that was going on. It was just like Joan to not see how hopeless the situation was.
The family waited for Joan’s wedding plans to collapse right up to the moment she walked down the aisle on her brother Brian’s arm, on schedule, three weeks from John’s admission to the ER. Two hundred people held their breath until the bride and groom met at the altar. It wasn’t until the rings were on the bride and grooms’ fingers that the church full of friends and relatives felt relieved enough to cry.
So I was wrong: my sweet cousin is stronger and tougher than I’ll ever be. And I was wrong – we all were – about the wedding. It went off without a hitch, complete with a martini bar, bagpipers and an extended version of the ever-popular Chicken Dance. I was right about the lavender dress, but no one can be wrong about everything.
Not even a cranky, skinny, pastel-phobic bridesmaid.

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