Video: Couple weds in hospital so father can give away bride before he dies
When the flutist and cellist played "Here Comes the Bride" at her wedding last year, the roles were reversed: Christie Pearce Rhodes escorted her father, George Pearce -- pushing him in a wheelchair with an IV bag and into a hospital's chapel.
It sure wasn't the wedding she dreamed about, but the wedding certainly was about a love story worthy of a dream. And the Ledger-Enquirer offers it to you on this Valentine's Day.
Christie, 22, graduated from Northside High School in 2011. Her husband, Parker, also 22, graduated the same year from Starr's Mill High School in Fayetteville. They met as freshmen at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta.
Part of their Orientation Day included volunteer work at Grant Park. As they waited in line for the Chick-Fil-A lunch the students were given, Christie remarked to the guy standing next to her, "I hope they don't have waffle fries, because they're terrible cold."
Beyond the irony of ending up working at Chick-Fil-A, Christie laughed at that line being the first words she spoke to her future husband. But they were effective enough to spark a deep discussion about French fries, which led to a friendship, which led to a courtship. Besides, Parker added, "They served us potato chips, and everything was OK."
Both majored in communications. They sat next to each other in their literature class, Narratives of the South, on the first day of the 2011 fall semester. Parker was struck by Christie's intelligent answers to the professor's questions. . "I thought that was admirable," he said. "I could never think of things to say."
Parker also thought Christie was beautiful and fun. "And she knew all about football," he said, "which was impressive."
Thankfully, his roommate had a big-screen TV, so Christie often visited. And, thankfully, both are Georgia Tech fans. Christie's father and brothers graduated from Tech, and Parker's father worked as a statistician during the Yellow Jackets' football games.
But it was Parker's ability to comfort Christie that sealed her attraction.
One night, she was upset about something and went to Parker's room. "I knew he'd be the one to talk to me, and he fed me pizza, and he let me just cry it out, or whatever I did," she said. "He's just dependable and honest."
Their friendship became a romance their sophomore year, when they had more classes together and started studying together. They had coffee in the bookstore where Parker worked. Their first date was a trip to Stone Mountain for a pumpkin festival the weekend before Halloween in 2012.
That frigid afternoon atop the mountain, Parker warmed up Christie with hot chocolate and a smooch.
"We had a memorable kiss," she said.
"In the past," he said, "when I had dated people, it would always be nerve-wracking, trying to come up with the perfect first date and everything. It felt easy and like everything could be OK."
A complication, however, arose two months later, when Christie went to England on a study abroad program at Oxford University for the spring 2013 semester.
"We were apart longer than we had been together right at the beginning of our relationship," she said.
But they stayed connected through Skype dates. Most nights, Parker read to Christie as she fell asleep. Their favorite was "The Lord of the Rings" series. Occasionally, he read her one of the assigned books she needed to finish for a class.
Parker continued his thoughtful gestures upon Christie's return. He greeted her at the Atlanta airport with flowers, Oreos (her favorite cookies) and a journal with entries marking each day she was gone.
They grew closer through their junior year. As seniors, Parker felt ready to propose. First, he asked her parents and brothers for permission.
"It was very convincing that he was sincere and that he loved Christie and he valued her dad's permission," said Christie's mother, Carol Pearce. "We already loved Parker, but we knew at that point he was going to be the right one for her."
Then he waited for the right moment. It arrived Nov. 1, 2014.
Parker had remembered Christie offhandedly mentioned she would like to dance with him one day in a parking lot. He also had remembered Bruce Springsteen is her favorite musical artist and the parking deck they use for Tech football games is on Spring Street. But while the Jackets were on their way to a 35-10 victory over Virginia, they left in the third quarter because Christie was too cold. Parker wisely delayed his plan to propose in that lot; he figured it was more important to immediately ease his beloved's discomfort.
As they drove back to the dorm, the sun was setting and the car's heater warmed Christie's mood. Parker decided to go for it. He spotted a parking lot next to the bell tower at Oglethorpe.
Parker had Springsteen's "Be True" cued up on his phone. He pushed "play" and asked Christie to get out of the car. They put to good use those dance lessons they took for someone else's wedding as Springsteen sang:
"Well, Baby, you be true to me
And I'll be true to you."
Parker told Christie, "A long time ago, I made a promise that we would dance in a parking lot together, and I remember every promise I make you, and I want to keep fulfilling all those promises. I want to make you another promise today."
He got down on one knee and proposed as he pulled the engagement ring out of his coat pocket.
"I was trying not to cry the whole time, because I didn't want to look really pathetic," Christie said. "I've never been one to think of anything spectacular out of a proposal. I always thought it was supposed to be just a special moment between two people. It doesn't have to be elaborate, so it was perfect."
They planned to wed Oct. 18, 2015, in the Ida Cason Callaway Memorial Chapel at Callaway Gardens.
"I knew I wanted to get married there since I was a little girl," Christie said.
Meanwhile, her father's health continued to decline, nine years after a quintuple bypass and an O-ring was placed in his aortic valve. The strong medication that kept his heart beating started destroying his liver, Carol said.
George was an engineer at Swift Denim for more than 30 years and then an analyst at the Columbus Water Works from 2007 until January 2015, when about 30 pounds of fluid had built up in his body because of his weak heartbeat. "His hands were like Mickey Mouse gloves," Carol said. So his Columbus cardiologist referred him to Emory University Hospital in Atlanta.
After he arrived for his Feb. 24 appointment, George never went home again. During the next two weeks, his symptoms got worse. He had delusions and memory loss.
On March 4, a Wednesday, Christie left work early to visit her father in the hospital. Carol also was there when three doctors walked into the room. One of them said, "Mr. Pearce, we need you to know you are a very, very sick man. We know that your daughter is planning to get married in October. Unfortunately, we don't believe you're going to make it."
Carol recalled, "We were sick."
"Yeah," Christie added, "I was sick to my stomach."
Christie and Parker had been talking about moving the wedding from October to April to increase the chances of George being there, but the doctors emphasized his condition was more urgent and George likely wouldn't be able to leave the hospital.
"I'm a daddy's girl," Christie explained. "I needed him to give me to him."
"And your daddy needed that as well," Carol added. "Daddy needed to pass that mantle from his shoulders to Parker
The solution was clear.
Christie stepped out of the room to call Parker: "Want to get married on Saturday?"
Parker didn't hesitate.
"It was kind of our only option," he said.
"We didn't have to talk about it," she said.
Carol confirmed the hospital's chapel would be available for a 2 p.m. ceremony. They had two days to prepare.
Parker's mother, Gloria Vaughan, took Christie shopping for her wedding dress at Macy's in Lenox Mall.
"I found the perfect dress there," Christie said. "It fit like a glove. They had three left, and one was in my size. It had a black mark on the bottom. Everybody was like, 'Aren't you freaking out about that?' I'm like, 'No, they're going to give me 15 percent off for it.'"
It became 100 percent off for Christie when her mother-in-law paid the bill.
"I got tons of love and support from my family, friends and co-workers, and everyone, especially Dad, was excited for the wedding day," Christie said.
In her bouquet, Christie put handmade flowers she had created out of pages from an old "The Lord of the Rings" book, one of the copies Parker used to read to her. The handmade flowers were intended for the wedding planned for October, but, lo and behold, she had finished them early for some reason.
Her father "marveled over them," she said. "He thought they were incredible."
George faded in and out of coherence, but any talk of the wedding plans boosted his alertness and focus.
"He absolutely loved Parker," Christie said, "which made me so happy and so sure we were doing the right thing."
Friday, the night before the wedding, Carol noticed George shift from mouth-agape unresponsiveness to a peaceful sleep. About 20 minutes later, he awoke with a sparkle in his eyes.
Carol: "Well, hi!"
Carol: "Do you know where you are?"
Carol: "Do you know who I am?"
George: "Yes, of course, you're Carol."
Carol: "Tomorrow's the wedding day."
George: "I know."
Carol: "It's really exciting."
Saturday morning, Christie's brother, Michael Pearce, brought their father his suit coat, and Christie brought him a navy blue sheet to cover his legs in his wheelchair. Parker donned the suit he wore for his sister's wedding and the silk tie Christie gave him. Christie got her hair done and a manicure with one of her bridesmaids in the Emory Conference Center Hotel.
"We tried to make it a wedding day," she said.
When he saw his daughter in her wedding dress, George's physical weakness overpowered his strong emotion, so he didn't say much, but his face brightened.
Nurses lined the hallway as Christie wheeled her father to the elevator leading to the chapel. Carol watched her daughter and husband and thanked God for such a gift.
"He allowed George to be with us," she said, "and I use that word very meaningfully. He was with us at that time."
When the musicians started the wedding march, Christie bent over the wheelchair, kissed her father on his forehead and said, "It's time to go."
"I was crying before I got there," Christie said. " I was just so happy."
The Rev. Tommy Bradford, now associate pastor at Solid Rock Church, officiated at the wedding. He was associate pastor at Cornerstone Church of God, where Christie attended as a child.
Bradford led the gathering of about 18 guests in a prayer that said, in part, "This is a very special day. Not only are we uniting these two in holy matrimony, but, Father, this day within itself has given us a true vision of what family is all about, and we're grateful for that today."
Then the pastor preached about love:
"Love is patient. Love is kind. It does not envy. It does not boast. It is not proud. It is not rude. It is not self-seeking. It is not easily angered. It keeps no records of wrong. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails."
When the pastor asked, "Who gives this woman to be married to this man?" George summoned the strength to speak up and said, "Her mother and I."
Parker told Christie during his vows, "I can spend every second trying to do half of what you've done for me, and I couldn't do it, but that doesn't mean I won't try, every day, for the rest of my life. We've had many great moments together, and it is my promise that we will have as many moments as there are in the night sky. I love you, Christie."
Fighting back tears, Christie told Parker during her vows, "I've been around true love for a long time. My parents have supported each other through everything. It's hard to find something like that, and I didn't think I would, but every single day I see the love in your eyes and I know you'll continue to be there for me, and I promise the same to you, every day. I love you, and I treasure every moment we have together."
They took communion with a hospital roll and grape juice.
After the ceremony, as Christie hugged a guest, she summarized the hastily planned wedding: "It was perfect."
She later explained, "It wasn't anything extravagant, or even orthodox, but I can tell you that everyone there was so full of love. I have never felt so much love."
George soaked in the scene - and beamed.
"My dad was at my wedding," Christie said, "and I didn't think he would be there. He didn't say much, but you could see it in his eyes."
Parker felt a range of emotions.
"I didn't know what kind of state everybody was going to be in when they came in, so I was kind of relieved and happy and excited just to see everybody to make it into the room and to see that something hadn't gone terribly wrong," he said. "It was relief and excitement and joy and everything, all of the emotions that someone would normally would feel in the months and weeks and hours before getting married, all in 10 or 15 seconds."
Carol put it this way: "The mood of the families - we became one family - went from what would be absolute devastation to the joy of this union, to the point where it brought all of us through a very, very, very difficult time."
Despite his diabetes, doctors allowed George to enjoy a piece of the wedding cake Parker's mother bought. Christie, who fed the slice to her father, hadn't seen him eat cake in about 10 years.
"They told him anything he wanted to eat, they would cover it with insulin later," she said.
George told his daughter the ceremony was beautiful, but he urged her to still have the "big wedding" she had dreamed and planned. Christie promised.
About 10 minutes after Carol had wheeled George back to his hospital room, he slipped into incoherence again.
"There was a two-hour window where he was the clearest he had been," Christie said.
"Only God does those things for you," Carol said.
Eight days later, George was moved to the hospital's hospice floor, where he could eat anything he wanted. He ordered a Subway Cold Cut Combo with extra black olives. Parker promptly brought it to him.
That was George's last request. His condition fell so fast when he was taken off the heart medicine, he never ate the sandwich.
As they sat beside George's bed into the next day, Christie and Parker told him they would buy a house with a guest suite so Carol could stay with them. It was another promised they kept.
"Even though he wasn't talking or responding," Christie said, "he would look into our eyes when he occasionally woke up, and I knew he was listening."
Marion George Pearce III died March 16 from congestive heart failure. He was 61.
Christie and Parker now live in Newnan. She works for internal communications agency Ken Willis Inc. as a contractor at Chick-Fil-A's home office in Atlanta. He is a substitute teacher in Fayette County.
They indeed had their "big wedding" in October, an affirmation ceremony at Callaway. Christie called it "a celebration of love and family."
Parker's grandmother unexpectedly died five days before the ceremony. Just like the wedding in March at the hospital, this ceremony also served as a salve for wounded spirits.
Christie concluded, "It was God's plan the whole time."
Mark Rice, 706-576-6272. Follow him on Twitter@MarkRiceLE.