It wasn’t the wedding they had planned, but Christian Fennell’s and Jaylan Mitchell’s ceremony in a hallway Friday at Longview Regional Medical Center was exactly the wedding they wanted.
She had the perfect dress, and they had each other, their parents and a guest who likely wouldn’t have been there if the couple had waited for their planned nuptials in August — Fennell’s grandmother, Susan Gohlke.
“I wanted to be able to have that with them and not suffer anymore loss,” Mitchell said Friday, recalling the conversation she had with Fennell just a day earlier, as they were driving to the hospital to see Gohlke. They’d just learned that his grandmother, who’d been hospitalized with suspected pneumonia, actually has lung cancer that has spread throughout her body. She’s been placed on end-of-life care and is not expected to live long.
Mitchell lost a grandfather who was important to her when she was in fifth grade, and Fennell lost his other grandmother just a few months ago
“It’s hard enough for me to get married without (my grandfather) there. As far as I’m concerned, she’s my grandmother, too, because I love her so much,” Mitchell said. “I couldn’t bear for us to get married without her there. ... I never really was super-obsessed with having a large wedding. I just wanted to wear a pretty dress and marry the man I love with people I care about around.”
She raised the idea that they get married at the hospital right away so Gohlke could be there.
“(Fennell) said he had been thinking about it that day, but that he didn’t want to rob me of my wedding,” she said, but she told him, “as long as I get to marry you and have our parents there, you’re not going to rob me of anything.”
Fennell said his parents divorced when he was young — they’ve remarried now to people he describes as his “bonus” parents. His single mother didn’t have a lot of money for child care when he was little, and his grandmother drove from Carthage to care for him at least twice a week, he said.
“She just loved, and she really taught me how to love and how to be nurturing,” Fennell said. “I’m an avid coffee drinker because of her. Most of what I know about cooking and stuff came from her. ... She is a very strong woman, and so she taught me a lot about strength and perseverance as well.”
Fennell said that when he talked to his grandfather, Patrick Gohlke, about his grandmother’s diagnosis, he just kept saying how sorry he was, how much Susan Gohlke, who has vascular dementia, would want to be there.
“We decided, yes, she can. She will be there. We’re going to make that happen,” Fennell said.
They raised the idea of a hospital wedding Thursday with the nurses working in Gohlke’s area at the hospital.
Longview Regional Medical Center spokeswoman Libby Bryson said that in this time more than ever it is important to the hospital to “facilitate compassion and genuine connection toward patients, families and visitors.”
“When the request was asked to move the wedding ceremony, given the families circumstance, to the hospital, there was no hesitation that this was something that our hospital valued too and wanted to bring to fruition,” she said. “Overwhelmed with the desire to show they care — our nursing team stepped right in to help coordinating details and ceremony decorations. ”
Mitchell’s parents, JaLynda and Carl Mitchell of Deport, and his parents, Trish and Eric Kaunitz of Gilmer and Rex and Amy Fennell of Longview, attended, and the pastor officiated through the video conferencing application Zoom.
While Mitchell spoke Friday morning, she was at Fennell’s father’s house in Longview, waiting for her nails to dry as she prepared for their wedding. He was at his mother’s house in Gilmer.
Their family had planned a special moment for him to see her in her dress for the first time, since they wouldn’t get to have that moment in their wedding, when Fennell would see her in her dress for the first time as she started walking down the aisle toward him.
Fennell and Mitchell, who grew up in Deport, are studying theater at Texas A&M University-Commerce, where he is an undergraduate and she is a graduate student. They met in August a year ago, started dating in October and got engaged in February.
Fennell described meeting her during a show they were both part of. They would hang out with other cast members after rehearsals.
“We would stay up extra late and have long conversations, just talking about anything and everything. We talked a lot about our faith, our interests and hobbies and childhood,” Fennell said.
Gideon Ajagbe was Fennell’s youth pastor when Fennell was in high school in Gilmer, and it was important that Ajagbe perform the ceremony, Fennell said. When the couple decided to change their plans, they called Ajagbe to see if he could conduct the ceremony virtually from Georgia.
In addition to Ajagbe’s Zoom appearance, Mitchell said about 50 other people, including their wedding party, friends and other family members, watched by Zoom or through Facebook Live.
Fennell’s wedding ring is the ring that Mitchell’s grandfather wore. Her wedding ring is one her father gave to her mother for their 16th anniversary.
Her dress is the one she had planned to wear for their August wedding: It was by coincidence that she had planned to pick it up at David’s Bridal in Tyler on Thursday anyway, after she’d had it altered, including adding some lace to it for the sake of modesty.
She’d originally found the dress while looking online before looking at it in person.
”I told Christian, ‘It’s just like you. It came out of nowhere, and I fell in love with it,’” she said.
They had already used artificial flowers to make their wedding flowers, and she took some of the extra lace from what she had added to her dress and included it in the corsage and boutonnière they gave to his grandparents on Friday. A family reception at his father’s house followed with a cake that Mitchell’s mother made, and his grandparents paid for them to have their honeymoon at a hotel in Longview this weekend.
They’ll keep their planned August date to celebrate with friends and family at her family’s home in Deport.
It was a whirlwind 24 hours, Mitchell said, but it showed her just how much they are loved by friends and family who supported them through their change in plans.
“It is kind of a roller coaster of emotions, but the way I feel and the way she feels is that we wouldn’t have it any other way,” Fennell said. “Everybody has rallied and come together and helped us put this thing together in a day.”