I first met Tonya on a Monday evening as I was preparing to go home for the day. Her mother had been admitted to Bruns House earlier that afternoon. Tonya felt it was important we know in advance that she would likely be wearing a white dress and not to be alarmed—she was just planning to be married! This is how I learned about Tonya’s engagement to Sho.
Tonya emigrated with her parents from Taiwan in 2003, along with her sister Esther and their brother Jimmy, who was just a toddler. Her fiancé Sho is from Japan where his parents still live.
Tonya and Sho’s wedding plans were already underway when a challenging series of events occurred. Tonya’s mother Debbie had been battling cancer when the family planned a trip to London in August 2018. Debbie had arrived ahead of the family when she received the news that her husband had been hospitalized due to a stroke. As Debbie flew back to the United States, she experienced a pain crisis related to her own cancer. Upon arrival, she was immediately hospitalized, but in a different hospital than her husband.
Tonya’s father was eventually discharged to a sub-acute facility where he remained in a vegetative state with a tracheostomy. The family’s attention then turned to caring for their mother at home. When it became clear that this was more than they could manage, Debbie was taken to the hospital where it was determined that the best place for her was the Bruns House for end-of-life care.
The wedding plans were now accelerated to ensure that Tonya’s mother would be able to see at least one of her daughters get married. Tonya explained why this was significant. Debbie’s own mother had died before seeing Debbie get married, so Tonya was in a position to prevent that from happening again.
At this time, Tonya and her sister were not only caring for their mom but also managing the family business – two family-owned and operated preschools. Tonya had a job of her own, while Esther was a student at UCSB. Their younger brother Jimmy was in high school. Esther would stay with Debbie at Bruns House while Tonya remained at home with Jimmy, trying to keep his world as normal as possible. In the mornings, we would see Esther in the kitchen making tea and working on her laptop—juggling between her own schoolwork and business obligations like managing payroll. Despite their heavy responsibilities, both daughters were always ready with a smile and expressions of gratitude for the care and support their mother was receiving.
So, when Tonya approached me that Monday evening, my first instinct was to help with their wedding plans. Tonya said she and Sho would get the marriage license the next day and work out the rest from there. Recalling all the various events we have held at Bruns for our patients and families, I let Tonya know they were welcome to have the wedding at the Bruns House—either in the garden, weather permitting, or indoors. Tonya was not expecting the offer and asked several times if I was being serious.
The plan continued to evolve as Tonya quietly put everything in place. They got the marriage license on Tuesday and I heard from our evening shift that Tonya had brought in a few dresses on Wednesday to try on for her mother and sister. Our music therapist Brittany worked with Tonya to arrange the music for the ceremony, music meaningful to both Tonya and her mother. I was also thrilled to find out that we could provide a professional photographer for the event!
Even more meaningful was the fact that the day of the wedding would also be Debbie’s birthday. This meant that every wedding anniversary would also be an honor to her memory. Last but not least was the cake which they decorated on the spot. Everything seemed to be coming together seamlessly—it may have set a record for what can be accomplished in just three days.
This wedding came at an opportune time for the Bruns staff. The house had been full for quite some time and there had recently been several emotionally challenging patients – including Tonya’s mother, at just 57 years old. Hosting a joyous event gave a much-needed boost to the staff.
The Thursday of the wedding arrived and once again Tonya was hard at work. She and Sho set the dining room table with photos, flowers and treats for their guests and hung a wedding banner above the French doors. Our staff helped in various ways, too. Our licensed vocational nurse Prab did the bride’s and her mother’s make-up; team assistant Dawn and volunteer Lynn helped with the veil; we set up chairs with an aisle down the middle for the bride to walk down. The nurses helped Debbie into a wheelchair and Esther wheeled her out. She was ready to respond when the minister asked who was giving away this bride. She was able to whisper, “I do”.
The bride was beautiful, the groom handsome and the mother glowing. The day was full of joy, laughter and tears, as well as the typical wedding day glitches – Tonya’s shoes were not delivered, so she stood at the alter in flip flops! It didn’t matter — the mother of the bride was glowing with pride.
Debbie died just five days after the ceremony with her three children at her side. The minister and wedding guests returned to Bruns that day to share a brief memorial in the patient’s room. It was moving for all of us there that day to see the love of Debbie’s family and friends in another context. We all shared a moment of silence with them as they sang “Amazing Grace.” It was a truly magical experience at Bruns House.