April 10, 2013 - Ortonville- To have and to hold, for better, for worse.
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After a nearly year-long courtship and 2-month engagement, Leah West and James Allen married on April 6 at the Old Town Hall in the village, decorated for the occasion with white tulle and ivy, sparkling lights, and purple flowers.
Dressed in a black suit and gazing at his bride in her white gown as they stood together before more than 50 guests, James felt his heart skip a beat. "She looked so beautiful in her dress," he says simply.
James then spoke the words he had written for Leah, using each of the letters in her name.
"L is for Love. Love is one of the strongest emotions a person can feel and to be in love is to be two souls bound by one heart," he began. "E is for Everlasting— an everlasting bond between two people through good times and bad…"
Leah and James Allen are already feeling the strength of that bond through some of the worst times. The couple's whirlwind wedding was planned in three weeks with the assistance of friends, family, and even complete strangers in a caring community driven with the goal of allowing the bride's father, dying of cancer, to see his daughter wed the man of her dreams.
In a cruel twist of fate, Steve West would be present at the wedding only in the hearts of those who loved him. Two days before the wedding, he suffered a heart attack. The night before the wedding, his family gathered at the hospital to say goodbye.
Father Gerry Frawley from St. Anne Church gave a wedding blessing to James and Leah at Steve's bedside. The priest told the family not to feel guilty about what didn't get done, but to share the good times, which, Leah said, is what her Dad would have wanted. He had accepted he was dying and his only fear was for his family's well-being after his death.
Leah held her father's hand and assured him they would take care of each other and still be a family and James promised Steve he would care for Leah and Elijah, her 2-year-old son, and with those promises, Steve West died.
"My Dad would not have wanted us to stop the wedding," said Leah on Monday. "He would have wanted us to keep going and make the best of the day we could and we did. Despite his passing, we enjoyed the wedding. It felt like he was with me. He told me, 'Don't cry when I'm gone, because I will be in a better place than you are.' My Dad was a very faithful man. I carried that with me as I walked down the aisle."
She carried something else with her, too. Just two weeks before his death, Leah asked her Dad if she could have one of his shirts that no longer fit him. He told her "Of course," she recalls, and when she chose one he had worn often, he told her it was his lucky shirt.
Leah cut a piece of that shirt into the shape of a heart and it was sewn to the inside of her wedding dress with blue thread. It was her "something old, something blue," and perhaps it was lucky, too.
Leah calls her wedding day beautiful, perfect with the exception of her father not being there.
"I really just want to say, 'Thank you,'" she said. "There were a lot of people that helped, I'm not even fully aware of everyone that pitched in… People I don't even know sent me cards and people donated things. It makes me want to stay in Ortonville. We live in a tight-knit, beautiful, wonderful community. There are not many places any more where you can live where your community cares about you and your family so much."
While she and James loved all the special touches to their day, which also included a ride in a classic car between the wedding and reception, and their first dance to "A Thousand Years," Leah's favorite part was saying "I do," and marrying her best friend.
"A is for Affinity," James continued at the wedding, his voice breaking, "to have a natural attraction to someone and immediately know without hesitation that the person you're staring at is the person you will spend the rest of your life with. And H, H is for Happiness."
Susan covers Brandon Township and Ortonville