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Left at the Altar
My Story of Hope and Healing for Every Woman Who Has Felt the Heartbreak of Rejection
By Kimberley Kennedy
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2009 Kimberley Kennedy
All rights reserved.
The End of Forever
We never know the good we have till constant friends depart And leave us just with half a life and half a heart.
—Katharine Tynan Hinkson
It was a beautiful morning that day in late April. Of course, it always seems to be a beautiful day when you are in love. The sky is a little bluer, the birds' chirping sounds a little sweeter, your favorite songs always seem to be on the radio.
But that April day was even more beautiful than all the others because this was the start of my beautiful wedding weekend, the beginning of my life with Lew.
This was the day of the wedding rehearsal, and my home was filled with all the hurried prewedding preparations. Wedding gifts were arriving, friends were coming in from out of town, the phone was ringing, my mom and I were excitedly packing for my honeymoon. In the midst of all that, like Julie Andrews dancing around with those draperies in The Sound of Music, I would grab my wedding dress hanging on the armoire and stand in front of the mirror, imagining myself walking down the aisle as Lew gazed at me lovingly from the altar.
I was a grown woman silly in love, and I wanted to remember every single second of this amazing day. This was a story we would tell our children and our grandchildren over and over again.
Anyone who has been a bride knows how intoxicating a time it is before a wedding. As the bride-to-be, you feel as if you are the center of the universe. Everyone is buzzing around you, giggling and happy. Nothing sad from the past is important; all that matters is right now. For my family and me there had been a lot of those sad times, but things finally seemed to be going our way, my way, and I just knew that all that sadness was finally behind us.
Of course, the object of all that anticipation was Lew. He was the man I was about to call my "husband." I could not wait to say that. I could not wait to say I was his "wife." And so, as I left home that sunny April afternoon, I was on top of the world because every minute was inching me closer to him, closer to our being husband and wife.
Inside the church was the typical wedding rehearsal scene: the organist asking last-minute questions, the priest wanting to know about a scripture reading, everyone talking and laughing. I was wearing a long cream-colored halter dress that my mom and sister and I had bought on one of our many prewedding shopping trips. It was so pretty, and I remember hoping Lew would think so too.
The church was lovely, aged, and stately, a typical Episcopal church from long ago. It smelled old, which I liked, I guess because it gave off a whiff of permanence and stability, just as a marriage should be. It was so lovely that it occurred to me that, if the flowers somehow never arrived tomorrow, it would be beautiful enough as it was.
And the joy! I had never felt such joy. Everyone I loved most in the world was about to be inside this church. I truly was on a love-high, my heart admittedly racing a bit from all the excitement. This was my wedding, not my sister's or my friends', mine. Don't get me wrong; being a bridesmaid is great and such an honor (I should know; I have had plenty of experience), but finally it was my turn. My turn to get the groom and the happy ending.
Lew was late, but then he was always late, so I wasn't really concerned until a few moments later when his sister came in. In stark contrast to the happy people who had already arrived, she was pale and obviously shaken. She came up to me and said that Lew needed to see me ... and in that moment I knew. Lew, the priest, and I went into her office. Before Lew said a word, I begged him not to do it, not to say it.
He was clearly distraught, and when he was finally able to speak, he looked directly at me and simply said, "Kimberley, I just can't do it."
I just can't do it. Five little words that would change my life forever.
I have given a lot of thought about how to describe the way I felt at that moment, but I guess anyone who has had a sudden shock or death of a loved one knows how it feels. At first I felt numb, stunned, as if I were having an out-of-body experience. Did he just tell me he could not go through with our wedding? Surely I had not heard him correctly. I must have misunderstood, or maybe this was not even real. I was just having a nightmare. But as the numbness wore off, my heart began beating so fast that it must have snapped me back into the horrible reality. He had said it. "I just can't do it." Lew was not going to marry me.
As my body began shaking and my eyes welled up with tears, I could see in his eyes that this time I would not be able to reassure him, that I would not be able to change his mind.
Still, I tried.
Even as I pleaded and begged, I knew it was in vain. I remember looking over at the priest, who clearly had never encountered this kind of thing before, standing there in nearly as much shock as I was, hoping she would have the words to fix this, but all she could do was look back at me with this profound sadness.
A thousand thoughts went through my mind. Mostly I just wanted to see my mother.
Lew never went out to tell our families and friends that this rehearsal, this wedding, was not going to happen. He left that up to his sister, who also informed those waiting, as I found out later, that they could still join their family at the club for dinner where his unknowing parents were waiting to host the rehearsal dinner. When I learned that, I was stunned and hurt that she was still willing to party while my family, friends, and I were so devastated.
The next night, I also discovered, his family tried to secure the band that was to play at the wedding reception for a gathering at his home for his out-of-town guests. And I should also mention that one of us did go on our glorious honeymoon to the south of France. And he took his brother.
My memories of the rest of that night and next day are hazy. We were all in such shock, but my family and friends never skipped a beat. They mobilized in such a way as to comfort me while, unbeknownst to me, canceling the wedding and calling all the guests. I remember thinking that this must be what it would be like at my own funeral. Everyone tiptoeing around, speaking in hushed tones, wondering how this could happen to such a wonderful girl, how no one deserved such a horrible thing.
People brought in food and drinks, and my bridesmaids slept on the floor to be near me. As I sat there sobbing on my sofa in my beautiful, long cream-colored halter dress, one of our family friends, a doctor, gently tried to get me to take a sedative, which I did not want to do. I just did not want a false sense of well-being. It was strange, I know, because most people would have wanted to be knocked out at such a time. But for me it was as if I wanted to feel the intense pain I was going through. Maybe it was my brain trying to help me accept what had happened, and the only way to do that was to feel it. Still, as hard as I tried to refuse, everyone there tried harder to get me to swallow it; there would be plenty of time for feeling the pain later. So I eventually took their "painkiller."
The most vivid memory I have is the strength of my mother. Sitting there in her wheelchair, her arthritic body bearing the weight of her child's heartache, she was stronger than anyone there. But the hurt in her eyes was profound. Her own life had been racked with pain, emotional and physical, but she will tell you that watching her daughter's heart be broken was the worst pain she ever endured.
Images and Fragrances
Kathleen is right. It did take a while, probably because the shock and pain were so intense. But my sister's recollections, so strong even today, show you how hurt we all were.
Anyway, you should also know that Lew never called to check on me. By Monday, word had gotten out that I had been left at the altar, and, as Kathleen said, it became great fodder for the morning and afternoon radio shows. While I certainly got the better end of the gossip, it was humiliating for me, and I am sure it was embarrassing for my family. When the newspaper called for a quote, my family decided it was time to get me out of town. I know it was for the best, but being with my mother, my sister, and a bridesmaid was not what I had been expecting to do that week. All I could think of was that I should be on my honeymoon, that I should be with Lew.
I do have some vivid images in my mind of that day, including my postpartum sister yelling things at my fiancé that should never have been said in a church, the grief-stricken face of my younger brother, the strength of my mother, friends on the phone canceling my beautiful wedding, bridesmaids sleeping on my living-room floor. I don't think of those images much anymore, and I rarely incorporate them into my verbal story. I think that is because the hurt of my family and friends was so intense that to conjure them up brings back pain I would rather not remember.
But the one image I cannot suppress, even today, is not really an image at all. It is the smell of fresh flowers. My house had been filled with flowers that morning before the wedding. And of course, they were waiting for me like memorials at a funeral when I arrived back home that evening, and to this day I cannot smell gardenias without feeling sad.CHAPTER 2
The Chapters of My Life
I know that love is blind, but does it have to be deaf and dumb too?
I have told my story so many times that it usually feels as if I am talking about somebody else, except, of course, on those PMS days when I remember it was me and feel sad. I tell it for two reasons: one, a lot of people heard about it and are curious for details; and two, I want the listener to know that at my age I have at least gotten really close to getting married.
The response is predictable. It begins with amazement, since very few people actually know someone who has been left at the altar, and it ends with that look of pity since now they do. And I find that, contrary to most good storytellers, I do not have to take liberty with the facts to make it interesting. No, in this case what actually happened is a good story on its own.
To really understand the story, though, you need to know how I got to that night at the altar, how my past, particularly my college and young adult years, contributed to what happened. I would love to be able to tell you that I am completely blameless in this terrible event, but I think we both know that would not be true. No, I contributed all right, but that's something, unfortunately, I can only now understand in hindsight.
Today I think of my life in four chapters—some shorter, some longer, some fun and easy, some sad and difficult:
1. Childhood to junior year in college
2. Junior year to Lew
4. After Lew
Simple, compartmentalized, controllable, the fall and redemption.
Childhood to Junior Year in College
My younger sister and brother and I grew up in a traditional, all- American household. My mom was a homemaker, my dad an airline pilot. My parents were a beautiful, bright, and sparkly couple whom everybody loved and who always made me proud. We lived on a cattle ranch in a one-caution-light town, an hour and a half south of Atlanta, where my grandfather, a very successful businessman, had retired: lots of land for kids to be kids, Cecil's General Store just down the road, the kind of place where you never locked your doors.
We all were active in our little Presbyterian church in the nearby town. My parents instilled in us good old-fashioned values, such as respect and responsibility and the importance of taking care of people who were not as fortunate as we were. As kids, we were involved in all the things you might expect: piano, ballet, Little League, horseback riding, golf, and tennis. But somewhere around thirteen, my mom said it was time to figure out which one of those things I had a passion for and zero in on that. Instead of letting me be mediocre at a lot of things, she wisely decided it would be better for me to be really good at one.
I chose tennis, and she was right. What I learned by having a goal, working hard at it, and then excelling at it were important life lessons that would serve (no pun intended) me well. Becoming really good at tennis gave me an incredible sense of confidence and a firm belief that, if you want something badly enough, you can get it, but only if you work hard and never give up. The premise held for a long time.
Between tennis practice, matches, and tournaments, I was a regular teenager: good student, student body treasurer, Beta Club president, senior favorite, editor of the newspaper, and Upson County's Junior Miss. And boys? I went to the proms and dances with boy "friends," but I was never boy-crazy like so many of my friends at that age. Boys were okay; I just had too much else going on, too many plans for the future to give them a whole lot of thought. No, giving them a lot of thought would come much later.
It was a perfect way to begin life, I'd have to say. But the best part about growing up in the Kennedy household was that I always felt loved. Safe and loved. Protected, nurtured, supported, invincible.
Junior Year to Lew
It is too bad we all have to grow up and learn that nothing is ever truly perfect. And it is too bad we cannot always learn it in small increments, instead of through the tsunami that hit my junior year in college. That was the year my mother's rheumatoid arthritis made its major assault, knocking her off her feet, literally. She had been diagnosed with the disease the year I was born and had lived fairly normally with it for nineteen years, so this took us all by surprise.
Perhaps it hit my dad harder than anyone else, and he coped with it in a way that pulled the rug out from under all of us and our once-ideal family. He left Mom later that year. He would probably say that he did not leave us kids, just Mom, but he did. He would come and get my little brother on occasional weekends when he was not flying, but he never offered to come and help out at all or to support Mom or us in her now-mounting doctor visits and hospital stays, although he did support us financially. It must have been a very frightening prospect, being the oldest child with a sick mom and two younger siblings, because I told him that if he left us, I would never speak to him again. I don't think he believed me, but I meant it. And for seventeen years I did not speak to my dad.
My final two years in college were tough. Thankfully, I had chosen a small, women's liberal arts college outside Atlanta, Agnes Scott, because I ended up driving home every Friday afternoon and driving back to school late on Sunday night nearly every weekend. My mother and I had always been incredibly close, but when her illness hit so hard, it bound us together even tighter. There was no way I was going to allow her to go through that and the loss of her husband alone. I also went home every week to make sure my siblings, especially my ten-year-old brother, had some sense of normalcy in their lives. It didn't hit me until years later that I never mourned the loss of my dad in my own life. I guess there was just too much else to worry about.
Fast-forward through my twenties and into my thirties, and my family managed to right ourselves after my dad left and learned to cope with Mom's progressing illness. Once you accept an illness such as arthritis as a way of life, you just deal with it the best way you can. Do I wish it hadn't happened or that my dad had been there to support us, even if he wasn't married to Mother anymore? Of course. But we did it. I did it. And I think we are all better people for it.
Excerpted from Left at the Altar by Kimberley Kennedy. Copyright © 2009 Kimberley Kennedy. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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