Julie Kluge yells up the stairs to her daughter: “Emilie, hurry up! Grandpa’s on the phone, and he’s in Kentucky!”
I look around the house. Pictures I took at Julie’s marriage to Robert Kluge on October 30, 1999—a wedding that, like Cat and Larry Pearce’s, took place at Woodend—sit in little frames on a ledge along the top of the family room. Bride and groom standing under wrought-iron chuppah. For years that picture hung on my wall, too, at the top of the stairs leading to my studio. The serenity it captured made it one of my favorites. Brides traipsing up those stairs to meet me would ask about that wrought-iron canopy, and I’d go back to my 1999 desk diary and dig out Julie’s contact information.
Hanging on another wall is Robert and Julie’s ketubah, a Jewish marriage contract. It reads, “And each said to each other: I promise to be your partner in the times of joy and in the times of trouble, to provide for and support you in trust and in love.”
Now, 13 years after the wedding, Bob has been gone for more years than the couple was married.
As Julie talks on the phone to her father-in-law, into the kitchen pops six-year-old Emilie, who—in pink shirt, pink headband, pink shorts, and pink socks over her soccer shin guards—looks like a deranged holdout from a 1988 Jane Fonda exercise video.
Her brother, Ethan, nine, is more reserved, with long eyelashes and a quiet intensity. He’s a talented athlete who happens to have an athletic-footwear fetish. “He’s the sneaker version of Imelda Marcos,” Julie says.
As the family’s nanny helps collect pieces of sports gear, Julie explains the plan for the afternoon: “Elvira’s taking Ethan to swim practice while I take Emilie to soccer, and then she’s going to take Ethan to his soccer practice and we’re going to meet them there. Does that sound good?”
It sounds good. A minute later, we’re piling into cars.
“I was nine weeks pregnant when he died. He knew that I was pregnant. But nobody else did.”
“My pictures always come to mind first,” Julie says as we sit in picnic chairs watching Emilie run around the field. “Well, what first comes to mind actually is what a beautiful day it was. It was the 30th of October, and it was 75 degrees and sunny. In fact, whenever my girlfriends call to wish me happy anniversary—because they always do—they say, ‘We remember what a beautiful day it was.’ ”
She met Bob in the early ’90s, when they were legal assistants at the law firm Kirkpatrick & Lockhart. As courtships go, theirs was long. “We met in ’92,” Julie says.
I remember she earlier described Bob as the kind of guy who would deliberate for six months before buying a $500 TV. “Wow,” I say, “so that’s seven years of—”
Julie finishes the thought, laughing: “Torture? Yeah, seriously. Everybody, including his parents, used to say, ‘Are you ever going to propose to her?’ ”
Julie and Robert married on that glorious day in October 1999. But for as long as their engagement was, it took only a few days for the roller coaster that would mark the next 5½ years to begin. Bob got sick on the honeymoon in Italy.
“At the time, we had no idea what it was, but when we were in Florence, he couldn’t leave the room. He was laid up with stomach cramps and nausea. We thought it was just some random virus. It lasted two or three days. So I saw Florence by myself.”
In the spring of 2000, Bob finally learned what had disrupted his honeymoon a year earlier. It’s called paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria—roughly translated, blood in the urine at night. Julie and Bob went to work finding a doctor, employing the same diligence used for television purchases. They settled on an expert at Johns Hopkins. But as months turned into years, the nausea attacks that had once been months apart came faster and faster.
“It sucked for him,” Julie says. “But had he continued to have just those attacks . . . .”
Eventually, other symptoms required a massive intervention. “We opted to have a bone-marrow transplant,” she says. “His liver was being destroyed.”
Two days after the transplant, and not quite six years after their wedding, Bob Kluge passed away. An infection had doomed the procedure, and sepsis spread fast. The following year, on March 1, 2006, his daughter, Emilie, was born.
“I was nine weeks pregnant with her when he died,” Julie says. “He knew that I was pregnant. But nobody else did.”
You want a happy story? I’ll give you a happy story—first because a glance at my spreadsheet tells me that most of my couples are still married, and second because this was the one I most associated with sadness.
I photographed Kara Simmons’s wedding to Brian Johnston two years after Cat and Larry got married. It was October 4, 2003. I remember only one photo I took that day. Kara is holding a picture of her mother taken on her mother’s wedding day. She’s holding the photo, which she would carry down the aisle minutes later, because her mother couldn’t be there with her. Couldn’t help put on her veil. Couldn’t whisper words of wisdom. Kara’s mother, Eva Walls, had died of breast cancer nine years earlier.
But my memory of Kara’s day isn’t Kara’s memory. I think of the picture because it speaks to me every time I look at it, but to Kara it’s just another blip. The photo hangs in my studio because of its inherent melancholy, but Kara is way beyond melancholy.
“I don’t think I could have imagined on October 4, 2003, how happy I would be nine years later,” she says, “how wonderfully life would turn out and what amazing things it would have in store.”
Like all brides, her recollection begins not with the forest but with the trees: “I remember that Robert De Niro was staying in the hotel. And that everybody kept coming up to me saying, ‘Did you see Robert De Niro? He’s at the hotel!’ And I kept thinking, “Enough about Robert De Niro! You should be asking about me! I’m the bride!”
At the very least, it would have been nice if one of these friends had gotten De Niro to sign her ketubah, she jokes. But what Kara truly remembers has nothing to do with Hollywood stars who happened to be staying at the Fairmont. “I remember the moment I entered the room and Brian had this look on his face,” she says. “This look of excitement and joy and love. And I remember I wanted to etch this moment and that look in my mind. Pure bliss. I get chills thinking back to that moment.
“I remember, of course, you taking the picture of me with the picture of my mom, and I remember feeling the loss and loneliness of not having her there. That moment when you were snapping that photo, I was thinking, ‘Hurry up, Matt, ’cause I can’t keep it together much longer.’ ”
A few minutes later, Kara was walking down the aisle with her mother’s photo. “What I thought was really touching was that even though my mom and dad had divorced and Mom had remarried, my dad showed me later that he had a picture of my mother in his jacket pocket, too. I was so grateful to him for knowing I needed that.”
Her son, Evan—named after his grandmother Eva—was born on July 20, 2010. “I’m always at a loss to describe him,” Kara says. “He’s amazing in a way that words don’t justify. All I want every day is to spend time with him and Brian.”
After a moment, she adds, “I wish I could go back and tell my 18-year-old self”—her age when her mom passed away—“that things would all be okay.”
It’s a common refrain for this attorney with the dream job, representing as counsel her beloved alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the school that provided her with comfort in the days and weeks following her mother’s death in 1994.
All she says is “I’m so fortunate. I’m so fortunate.”
Cree Pearce suffers from a rare genetic problem, so rare that only about 100 people worldwide have been diagnosed with it. Most children with the condition experience developmental delays, lack of language, some degree of autism, and seizures. Another disorder Cree has puts him at risk for tumors of the brain, spine, and acoustic nerve.
“It’s de novo,” Cat says. “The luck of the draw. It’s a genetic mutation but not hereditary. It happens during the first couple of weeks when the embryo is developing.”
Cree will need MRIs every year for the rest of his life, and he now has epilepsy. “They threw that in just for kicks,” his mother says.
“The important thing is to keep your sense of humor,” Cat says, her voice breaking. “It’s not easy. You never know what’s going to come—you never know what you’re going to get hit with next. But not for one minute would I trade anything we’ve been through for him. For as long as we have him, it’s a gift. And for all that he will go through, he teaches us every day that every little thing is a miracle.”
How far off does her wedding seem now?
“Eons. But you know something? Marrying Larry was one of the smartest things I’ve ever done. Seventeen years together and I’d do it all over again. The grove and the trees. The vows. It took me a year to write them, and they came out exactly the way I wanted.
As a nurse calls out for two more children (“Mario! Robert!”), Cat begins reciting those vows—words she probably hasn’t spoken since that morning in 2001.
You’re the center of my world and my best friend.
I know that every day we have together is a gift.
You are intelligent, creative, funny, and sweet.
Stubborn, frustrating, challenging.
You make me crazy and you make me laugh, normally at the same time.
I wouldn’t change that about you. You’re perfect for me.
I can’t promise you that our life together will be easy, that we won’t disagree or argue or feel like quitting sometimes.
But I know the best things in life aren’t easy.
And I know we have what it takes to make it work.
I do promise to share with you the best part of myself.
I will support you and believe in you . . . .
A nurse’s voice interrupts: “Pearce. Cree Pearce.”
“Well, that’s most of it anyway,” Cat says. “And look how accurate it was.”
A few minutes later, the family is inside the surgical unit. Larry makes a request of the doctors and nurses before he and Cat hand Cree over. “All I ask is that you take good care of him,” he says, leaving it to his wife to cut the tension.
“Promise me you won’t damage the one thing on his body that works perfectly,” she says.
“What’s that?” the doctor asks.