March 27, 2013 - Weddings can be major productions that take months to plan and cost thousands of dollars.
The wedding of Leah West and James Allen will take place April 6, with less than three weeks of preparation and a budget of almost zero.
Still, the happy couple will have on their special day something money can't buy and only time can provide —the presence of Leah's father, Steve West, who is dying.
"Every little girl wants her Dad to walk her down the aisle and have her Dad give her away," said Leah, 23 and a 2008 Brandon High School graduate. "My dad is my best friend. Throughout my life, my Dad has been my rock. He went to every parent-teacher conference, every choir concert, every youth group thing I had. I knew if I had something going on, I could just tell my Dad and he would be there. Now it is important that he be there for this."
An April wedding wasn't what Leah and James intended, but life, as they well know, doesn't always go according to plan. Leah was the single mother of Elijah, now 2-years-old, when she was introduced by a friend to James, who has sole custody of his 5-year-old daughter, Kaylee.
They spoke on the phone and chatted online before going on their first date last May, when they took the children to see the movie, "Madagascar." As they left the theater, it was pouring rain and James forgot where he parked the car at Great Lakes Crossing.
"I thought he was a total dork," laughs Leah. "He's running around out in the rain, but I am a really big nerd, too, so I thought it was awesome. We are fairly forgetful when it comes to things like that. Once I got home from that date, I thought a lot and I had a really big crush on him and it didn't take long to realize he is absolutely amazing. He's perfect."
James would later tell her from the moment he saw her for the first time, he knew she was the person he was going to be with. In January, surrounded by his family in the living room of his parents' home, he bent down to one knee in front of Leah and declaring his love, asked her to marry him.
His mother had a camera, but again, the moment doesn't always unfold as imagined and not all the subjects were positioned perfectly. The pictures would be blurry, but Leah's acceptance of the proposal was clear.
In choosing their original wedding date, they took many factors into consideration. They wanted weather that was not too hot and not too cold. Leah doesn't like odd numbers, so they wanted a date that fell on an even number. Most of all, they wanted time to get themselves into a better financial situation. While James works in the stockroom at a local retail store and Leah is a teacher's assistant, their income is meager and James and his daughter live with his parents in Waterford, while Leah and her son live with her father and stepmother, Maryann, in Groveland Township.
James and Leah ultimately selected May 10, 2014 as their wedding date, figuring that would give James the time to find a job that would support their new family. What they didn't know was that time was already running out for Steve West.
Leah's father was first diagnosed with lung cancer in October 2010. He fought it successfully with chemotherapy and was declared in remission, but the disease came back. He beat it again, with chemotherapy and radiation, but the cancer returned and this February, after he had emergency open heart surgery, the cancer advanced.
Earlier this month, following one of his doctor's appointments, Steve, 51, sat down with Leah and Maryann and explained the doctor had given him two to three months to live.
Suddenly, it became very clear that a dream wedding isn't about the weather, the date, the dress, the food, the cake, the venue. What would make the day perfect and unforgettable was sharing their love with the people they love. What mattered most for Leah and James was that, whenever and wherever they said their vows, her father would be there to share in their joy.
"It is extremely important for my Dad to see me married and for him to see I am with someone I love and who will take care of me and that me and my son will be OK," said Leah.
Julie Graveldinger, Leah's friend who has known her since she was in the St. Anne Youth Group, stepped up to help make a wedding happen on very short notice.
"I want to help her create a memory forever," said Graveldinger. "I don't want her saying in two years, 'I wish I would have done it then to have my Dad there.' This way she will always have this memory with her Dad. It might not have been what she initially thought of for her wedding, but it will be special in so many other ways."
Graveldinger booked the Old Town Hall in the village for the wedding and reception, at which there will be 50 guests, mostly family. She and Leah put calls out on Facebook requesting to borrow certain items, such as white Christmas lights and tulle for decorating. Leah's sister's friend, a professional photographer, offered her services for free. A florist has been found. People are offering to provide warming pans and Crockpots and make the food that will go in them. A DJ will provide music for the reception for free. Leah's uncle, an ordained minister, will conduct the ceremony.
Leah was looking at thrift shops for a dress when Graveldinger told her, "You will not wear a Salvation Army dress."
Instead, she found dresses online for half-off and now Leah will walk down the aisle with her father in a long, strapless wedding gown.
"I didn't get to try it on, but I am completely happy," said Leah. "Neither James nor I are picky people and we are just so grateful we are getting so much help. It's a beautiful dress, I couldn't ask for anything better. Julie is working so hard to make everything happen and everyone else is coming together to make sure this happens for us. I am so lucky we have so much support."
"It's really sudden, but I think that it is going to be wonderful," he said. "I love Leah a lot and I thought we were going to get married next year, but I think it's really great and I think we are blessed to have so many people helping us and it's important to have her Dad there for our wedding. It's awesome. I'm really excited."
Steve is happy his daughter has found James, whom he calls "a real nice young man." He is thrilled he will see her get married. And even though he, most of all, may know that life doesn't always go according to plan, he has hopes that his family will be happy in the coming years.
"God will take care of them and it's nice to know that Leah will have someone else to take care of her," Steve said.
He expects that walking her down the aisle may be a little tough.
"I've always been a big part of her life. I remember taking her to school the first day and this will be closing a chapter, because my little girl won't be so little anymore… Of course, she's a woman now, but I still look at her as my little girl. Now it's time to pass the torch to her husband. I am really proud of these kids. I hope they have a wonderful life together."
And perhaps despite the twists and turns that alter events, a wonderful life— like a wonderful wedding— can still be planned.
Susan covers Brandon Township and Ortonville