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Wedding from the Heart: Gwen Helbush on Her Most Poignant Wedding

Wedding expert Gwen Helbush shares a wedding she created for only eight guests, and why it is unforgettable.

Big weddings can be breathtaking--the floral, the dining room, the bevy of guests.

But small weddings can be heart-stopping. That’s because their intimacy makes them more poignant. They touch our souls.

The Spring 2017 issue of Special Events looked at the biggest and smallest weddings that prominent wedding designers have created over the course of their careers. Gwen Helbush, CWC, founder of wedding planning company Where to Start in Newark, Calif., shared the story below. Rather than run only excerpts of her comments in that issue, we chose instead to run her story in its entirety here.—The Editors

Special Events: Tell us more about the smallest wedding you ever did.

The smallest wedding was for eight people; it was the hardest wedding I’ve ever done.

In 1999, I started working on Jane and Joe’s wedding [not their real names]. They wanted 250 guests--“the whole big thing!” Jane said.

I met with Jane, Joe, and Jane’s parents, Betty and Bob, at their home. They told me all their dreams, what they wanted the day to be--"a joyful celebration, that is what we want.” They said their budget was $50,000 and they wanted to marry in her parents’ large and beautiful back yard.

Jane said, “There is one other thing you should know, Gwen--I have a heart condition. It is under control, the doctors say I’m doing well but I thought you should be aware.” I replied, “Thank you for trusting me with your condition; we will make you a beautiful wedding.”

I didn’t think too much more about Jane’s situation; we moved forward putting all the lovely pieces of their dream wedding together.

Then three weeks before the wedding, I got a call from Joe. His voice was shaking. Jane has been in a car accident and she is in the hospital. I said, “I’m on my way.”

When I arrived, I found Joe, Jane’s parents and Joe’s parents in the waiting room. They told me the car accident had put too much strain on her heart; she would need a heart transplant to survive.

I hugged them all and told them not to worry about anything; I would take care of postponing the wedding.

Joe asked if we could speak privately. We went into the hall, he took my hands, looked into my eyes, and said, “I love Jane; I need to marry her. I don’t want to give her a deathbed hospital wedding. Can you help us?” I took a deep breath, said, “Yes I can.” He hugged me tightly and said, “I knew you wouldn’t let us down.” I excused myself and told them I'd be back later.

I went to my car and wept. Then I washed my face, applied mascara and headed to the hospital administrator’s office. Fortunately, he was in and willing to talk to me. I explained the situation and asked if he would be willing to allow me to walk the hospital to see if I could come up with a plan to give Jane and Joe a wedding. He said he would do better; he would walk with me and, with Jane’s family’s permission, set up a meeting with her doctors so they could help us make this happen.

As we walked, I noticed there were rooms under construction. I asked if there were any on the floor where Jane was that were close to being finished. We found one that was going to be a large conference room. It was empty and had large windows overlooking the bay. I asked, “Can we use this room?” I was told, “You absolutely can; what else do you need?” I replied, “I don’t know yet, but if we can use this room, I’ll figure it out.”

I took an hour, went for a walk to think, and as I walked, the plan came together in my head. I spent four hours calling every professional involved in Jane and Joe’s wedding and explained what happened and what I wanted to do. Each and every one said, “What do you need and how can I help?”

I went back to the waiting room, hugged Joe and asked him, “How would you like to get married tomorrow?”

We worked all night to transform the empty conference room with fabric, ribbons and bows (no flowers as Jane was on oxygen), centered the aisle on the windows, and set up a table with a two-tiered wedding cake and sparkling wine. The string trio originally booked for the original wedding played softly in the corner. The dressmaker worked all night to modify Jane’s dress so we could get her in it without moving her too much. Her mother, sister and I did her hair and make-up and dressed her. There were six guests: Jane’s parents and sister, along with Joe’s parents and brother.

When we were ready to begin, the pastor asked everyone to stand. Jane’s cardiologist and I rolled her bed from her room down the hall to the conference room, her father picked her up and carried her down to Joe; her father held her through the ceremony. When the pastor pronounced them wed, Jane’s father gently handed her to Joe. They kissed, Joe carried her back, placed her gently in the bed, and climbed in with her, then we rolled them back down the hall to her room. The doctor checked her carefully, and then we left them alone for a while as their families ate cake, drank wine and danced for joy.

This wedding had the fewest guests, but it was the hardest, most painful wedding I have ever done.

Three days after the wedding Jane died. The hospital was not able to get her a heart in time.

Jane’s father called me shortly after Jane passed away. He asked, “Have you canceled all the wedding plans yet? Not yet, why? We want to celebrate Jane--not memorialize her. Can we adjust everything we planned for the wedding--the food, music, etc.--to make it a celebration of Jane?”

Yes, we can, and we did.

Big or small, for a wedding planner, the work is the same: Keep your cool, never say no, and count on your colleagues.

Question: What advice would you give to others when creating a tiny wedding? Keep it simple.

Question: Is there anything you would have done differently? Not one single thing!

Gwen Helbush, CWC, is founder of Where to Start wedding planning, based in Newark, Calif., and co-founder of the Bay Area Wedding Network.

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