One last walk down the aisle
They brought a wheelchair, just in case.
But Jessica Wilkes wouldn’t have it.
As the wedding march played, the 27-year-old South Carolina woman took her father’s arm. Step by labored step, she walked down the aisle of Duke Chapel.
Her husband Joshua and their 1-year-old daughter, Kennedy, waited while a crowd of more than 50 friends and relatives watched her progress.
Step by step, jaw clenched, she made her way. She smiled.
It was her childhood dream come true.
Her father, Jack Sink, couldn’t have been more proud.
“I never doubted for a minute she was going to make it down that aisle,” he said. “She’s an amazing and determined young lady.”
Josh agreed: “Even in the worst of times, Jessica always does for everyone else.”
She married Josh about two and a half years ago. On Tuesday, they renewed their vows. Jessica managed little more than a whisper, but she managed. The words Chaplain Annette Olsen urged them to speak took on special poignancy:
“For as long as we both shall live.”
Jessica’s battled cancer since she was a kid. She’s paid numerous visits to the Duke Cancer Center. Most times, Jessica struggled back.
Doctors told her two weeks ago that they can’t do much more. No clinical trials. No miracle cures. Nothing can stop the inevitable.
She decided to make the most of it.
She’s always done that, said Melanie Conger, a family friend and executive director of the I’m A Kool Kid Foundation volunteer organization in South Carolina.
Years ago, after bouncing back from spinal cancer, Jessica lost her mother, Pat, to an automobile accident. Jessica worked as a teen counselor for the foundation. She traveled with Conger to dedicate a special treasure chest at The Children’s Hospital of Denver in honor of the victims of Columbine High School.
“That whole family has always been about celebrating life,” Conger said. “My heart is broken, but at the same time I’m glad she’s living her days to the fullest. She’s a remarkable lady. They’re a remarkable family. They’re a witness to the importance of family because life is full of unexpected surprises.”
They take the hits, Conger said, and then pick themselves up and keep going. Step by step.
During Tuesday’s ceremony, Josh and Jessica sat in chairs before the altar. He wrangled little Kennedy while helping Jessica tip her small vase of sand into a larger container. Her sand mingling with his signified the irreversible combination of two lives and two families.
Ed Sloan, a family friend, played guitar and serenaded the couple with Bette Midler’s “Wind Beneath My Wings.”
Chaplain Olsen fought back tears more than once during the exchange of vows.
“It’s a blessing to help them celebrate their dream,” she said afterward.
Mary Denson, a cancer center volunteer who’s also a survivor, crafted the flower arrangement for the ceremony.
“I think it’s wonderful any time we can make someone’s wishes come true,” she said.
It’s highly unusual for Duke Chapel to hold an event like this on such short notice. Sara Blaine Clark, who coordinates weddings for the chapel, first heard about the request on Friday. On Monday morning, hospital officials gave Clark the go-ahead to proceed.
“I work with 80 plus wedding couples every year,” she said. “It was really humbling to me to see a couple like this and be a part of an opportunity like this. It really helps put everything else in perspective.”
As the ceremony ended, Jessica walked back up the aisle with Josh and Kennedy. The morning took its toll, though. She relented a little more than halfway back. She took the rest of the trip from the chapel in the wheelchair with an oxygen supply.
Josh stood with her to receive guests who offered hugs, congratulations and good wishes.
“It was perfect,” she whispered. “Such a special occasion. I always dreamed of this since I was a little girl. I never thought it would happen.”
It’s not certain how much time she has left. They’re visiting the beach and then going home to Rock Hill, South Carolina.
They’re moving forward together for however long their forever lasts.
Step by step.
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