A Monday afternoon in St. Louis, gray and brisk, and five people gathered outdoors. It was an outdoor ceremony, like so many are these days, but only because that was the best option for a wedding that had been thrown together in less than 24 hours.
That’s misleading. Our son, Matt Nahrstedt, and his fiancé, Josh Mercer, had been engaged for exactly a year, their wedding set for April 18 at a lovely conservatory in a popular St. Louis park near downtown. But the coronavirus waylaid these plans and so there we were — Matt, Josh, me, my wife, Candy Nahrstedt, and the Rev. Wes Mullins — about to embark on a ceremony that needed to happen more than anybody wanted it to happen. It was a conclusion Matt and Josh had reached just the night before, when they were 1,800 miles away and still in Los Angeles.
St. Louis was an hour from a city-mandated stay-at-home order when we situated in a small field of patchy grass about 50 yards off the main road in Tower Grove Park. Several tall, narrow trees with more branches than leaves surrounded us. A chill was in the air, sharpened ever so slightly by a soft breeze.
We were standing a good eight feet from Matt and Josh, who were just as far away from Pastor Wes. We never got much closer than that to our son on his wedding day.
“If you can get through a global pandemic,” Pastor Wes said toward the end of the ceremony, “your marriage should be just fine.”
This much I knew: It couldn’t get much weirder.
Stress at Schnucks
I can identify the moment my coronavirus panic set in.
It was the day before St. Patrick’s Day, my last day working in the office for I don’t know how long, and my wife and I had just eaten dinner.
“I think I’ll run up to the grocery store,” Candy said.
“I’m going with you.”
Which was rare. But I was going as protection from all the crazies who were surely attacking the shelves.
They weren’t. Our neighborhood Schnucks was not at all crowded.
The problem was when we got to the end of an aisle and moved to the next. Small groups formed in those common areas, bursting the 12-foot bubble (six feet in every direction) I craved around us. I found myself turning sideways, as if that was the only way I could get through, even if no one was close enough to reach out and touch me. I felt suffocated, claustrophobic, and escaped in a panic to a nearby empty aisle to catch my breath. And wait for Candy to catch up.
Some protector I was.
That was when it began — the uneasy feeling that the world had changed and I would have to learn how to understand it, navigate it and survive in it. It was strange and awful.
The strangeness has gotten only more pronounced since that night in Schnucks. Whenever I’ve been out and return home, I rush inside, wash my hands, grab disinfectant cloths and wipe down everything I touched in my car as well as the doorknobs on my house and the handles on the faucet I just used. But that doesn’t happen much; I hardly ever travel any farther than the mailbox.
That wasn’t an option on March 23, when I had the surreal experience of watching our son get married eight hours after he’d texted to say he’d be flying in from Los Angeles to do just that.
Limits and More Limits
The night before my trip to the grocery store, civic leaders around the St. Louis area announced that social gatherings would be limited to 50 people. That was the wake-up call for Matt, who is 31, and Josh, 30. The 250-person limit, announced just two days earlier, they could adjust to. But not 50. It was over.
Postponing a wedding is a chore, particularly as other couples were doing the same, but it’s mostly a matter of working out details. There was one detail, though, that couldn’t be pushed off for Matt, an urban planner. They needed that marriage ceremony to happen, and fast, because he recently became unemployed and needed to get on Josh’s health insurance plan.
It took the better part of a week for Matt and Josh to come to grips with the fact that they needed to do a simple civil ceremony and save the big gathering for later. They had a marriage license in Missouri, where their wedding was supposed to take place. But they lived in Los Angeles, and before they knew it most of Southern California was being shut down and government offices were closing and they wouldn’t be able to get a California marriage license.
Late on March 22, a Sunday, Matt and Josh called and said they hoped to fly to St. Louis the next day and get married. Josh is an airline pilot and they usually fly free, so that part was easy, especially given the sharp decline in air travel. So was the availability of their officiant, Pastor Wes, the senior pastor of Metropolitan Community Church of Greater St. Louis, who said he could meet them anytime, anywhere, on Monday. What they didn’t know was whether St. Louis City Hall would be open Monday afternoon. That’s where the marriage license waited.
Matt and Josh were driving to Los Angeles International Airport early Monday morning when they reached someone at City Hall who confirmed the marriage license was there and would be waiting for them when they arrived that afternoon. And so it was, as was St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson, who wandered into the marriage license office while Matt, Josh and another couple were inside. They had a brief chat, all the while maintaining proper social distancing.
And then the mayor was gone, not mentioning that her stay-at-home order would commence in three hours.
For Matt and Josh, that would be enough time. They had already targeted a 4:30 p.m. ceremony, leaving them at least an hour to find a suitable spot to get married. Their officiant’s church in South City was an option, but their original venue, the one for 200 guests, was the Piper Palm House in Tower Grove Park. Piper Palm wasn’t available, but the park was, so they drove their rented Camry around, looking for a spot.
I was working from home and so 4:30 was fine with me, too, even though Tower Grove Park was a pretty good haul from our home in suburban St. Peters. Candy works at a retirement community in neighboring St. Charles, and I was at her office at 3:45 to pick her up. But she couldn’t get away and it was almost 4:15 before she got in the car.
When was the last time you heard of the parents of the groom (or “a groom,” in this case) arriving late to the wedding because someone got stuck at work? But hey, we’d known this thing was a go only since that morning. Matt and Josh said 5 p.m. would be fine.
We pulled in behind their Camry around 4:55. We all got out of our cars, gave each other hugs and enjoyed a few minutes hanging out together, something we don’t do often with nearly 2,000 miles separating us.
Except we didn’t do any of that.
What we actually did was sit in our cars and talk on the phone about how to get Josh’s phone to me so I could live stream the ceremony on Facebook Live. It took some doing.
Josh tore open an individually packaged anti-bacterial wipe and cleaned off his phone. He set the phone and another individually wrapped wipe on the curb and stepped back. I moved forward, hesitated a moment until Josh stepped back another foot or two, and looked at what was in front of me. Was I supposed to pick up the packet that Josh had just touched? Wouldn’t that be just like shaking his hand, something that was clearly verboten? But then I figured he’d just been holding an anti-bacterial wipe, so his hands were clean, right?
I picked up the packet, opened it, lifted the phone by wrapping the wipe around it and gave it another good cleaning. The transfer was complete.
By that time, Pastor Wes had arrived. The wedding party was now assembled.
We walked to an open patch of grass and dirt in the middle of a field. We formed a line, with Matt and Josh in the middle, Pastor Wes at one end and Candy and me at the other. There was plenty of space between us.
“It’s a good day to get married in a park, six feet away from each other,” Pastor Wes said as we gave the Facebook Live audience a couple minutes to assemble.
The ceremony was brief, barely 10 minutes. Pastor Wes read some passages and made a few comments before Matt and Josh exchanged vows and rings. I tried, with limited success, to keep the phone steady for the live stream while Candy took a few pictures with her camera, making us the official videographer and photographer.
The occasional jogger or cyclist went by, close enough to be seen but not heard, the only sounds immediately around us were those of birds in the trees. It was serene.
And very, very weird.
After the ceremony but with the live stream still going, Matt and Josh faced the phone I was holding and spoke to the camera, thanking their friends and family for watching. They stepped forward, ever so slightly, and it took all the resistance I could muster to hold my ground.
We walked back to our parked cars and I prepared to give Josh his phone. Out came the individually wrapped anti-bacterial cloths and we went through the same process as before, in reverse. We couldn’t have been more careful, yet I felt a strong compulsion to find a sink and soap and wash my hands. But we weren’t done. As witnesses, Candy and I had to sign two marriage licenses, as did Pastor Wes. Josh had a fancy new Cross pen he wanted everyone to use, so we went through the routine again, wipe, use, wipe, hand to the next person, wipe, use and on and on. It was an ordeal, an act that normally would have taken 30 seconds but, in this abnormal situation, took three or four minutes.
We all talked with Pastor Wes for a bit before he left. Then the four of us talked some more, Matt and Josh alongside their car, Candy and I by ours, a minimum of six feet always between the two couples.
I never got to hug our son or new son-in-law. The only family photos we took were selfies, Candy and me in the foreground, Matt and Josh socially distanced behind us.
Shortly after that, we said goodbye, got in our separate vehicles and drove our separate ways. We couldn’t even eat dinner together.
I drove Candy back to her office to pick up her car. Unbeknown to the other, we both stopped by the same drugstore on the way home to see if it had any toilet paper (it didn’t), and Candy picked up carryout from Applebee’s. It was a nice dinner of fiesta lime chicken and rice.
And all I could think about, on the evening of my son’s wedding, was whether the hands that had prepared that dinner, and packaged it, and handed it to Candy, were clean.
Mike Nahrstedt manages digital content, in St. Louis, for three regional sports networks.