My Small, Socially Distanced COVID-19 Wedding

A live streamed ceremony, an outdoor reception, and a honeymoon in the wilderness.

We got married in a pandemic; twelve analog attendees watched in masks while the digital crowd gathered to watch the live stream. We were hitched in a church, two weeks after they were allowed to reopen and a week before they would close back up. We tied the knot after nearly nine years together, and more than two-and-a-half since I’d knelt to give her a ring. We dreamt of this day for so long that it would have felt surreal even if circumstances hadn’t mirrored the plot of dystopian sci-fi.

The service took about an hour, after which we packed up and drove to the beach for a ceremonial dip in the ocean. The day prior, Diana and I spent hours filling and baking dozens of empanadas — some with browned ground turkey and onions, others with potato and squash hash. Our best friends from college helped us. Eugene drove from Sacramento, picking up Jai in Santa Cruz along the way. Best man Ben came from the city to our spot in Morro Bay — the cozy little beach town just north of San Luis Obispo. Diana’s cousin couldn’t make it from San Diego, because her roommate had recently tested positive for COVID-19. Her sister, seven months pregnant and trapped on the island of Texas, had to watch online as well.

(Photo: Eugene Kwon)

I always knew my wedding wouldn’t be how they make them seem in movies — as we learn, nothing ever is — what I didn’t know was that our moment of joy would be surrounded by so much sorrow for the loved ones who couldn’t attend, and a sense of collective grief for the millions who have died or suffered greatly due to this virus. Some family asked why now, and we asked ourselves as well. Was it selfish to celebrate love in a season of such great loss? Our answer came from a colleague in the form of a Facebook post when we announced our wedding: “Quite literally the event of the season! Oh, my heart is full for you kids. You’ve given us all something to look forward to.”

It wasn’t the glitziest wedding, the masks covered our smiles, and the family we wished could be there had to watch from miles away, but the love was there and our hearts were full.

We walked down the stairway to the beach to The Mamas and The Papas’ “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” watching our friends and family cheer for us, watching each other, watching the horizon. I wondered how something that took so long could happen so fast. We ate our homemade empanadas and sliced fruits, formed a socially distanced circle in the sand, and toasted to matrimony with champagne and Coors Light. I took my shoes and jacket off, held my new wife and love of so many years, and walked west with loved ones at our side for a first dance fanned by the cool, salty breeze of the Pacific.

(Photo: Eugene Kwon)

Once we packed up and said goodbye to our loved ones, the countdown began in our minds. For the next fourteen days, we’d check in and pray that everyone remained safe and symptom-free. Although we were tested at a free clinic the week prior and there’d been temperature checks at the church, the fear of asymptomatic carriers was always looming in the periphery of our minds. It wouldn’t be until after my mother-in-law and I gave blood that we could feel relief from the confirmation that neither of us was positive for antibodies.

On the Monday morning following our wedding, however, the excitement was laced with anxiety as we loaded the car with camping gear, masks, and a jumbo bottle of hand sani for an improvised honeymoon in Big Sur.

A honeymoon is a strange thing even without the somber blanket of pandemic and police brutality, stranger now for being a brief calm before returning to the maelstrom of 2020. The tradition of a vacation in isolation after the celebration of a union creates an artificial high by removing all real-life worries for a moment. Now, having spent so many months secluded and only a couple of hours with loved ones at a distance, we faced the weird task of getting away from our regular quarantine, maintaining a festive mood, and still keeping away from potential threats to our health, which may or may not have been in the air, surfaces, and people along the way.  The drive was filled with our mixed emotions. After so many trips up and down this state, we’ve learned to do our best fighting in the car. We talked of plans and failures, new hopes and old fears. After an hour and a half up the winding coast and a guilty pleasure chicken sandwich at the Ragged Point Café, we snagged an overflow site for $35 at Limekiln and sunbathed by the beach. We took the falls trail and I had a quick, cold dip in the creek. For a little while, we were just a newly married couple enjoying nature’s gifts.

The next morning, we spent an hour driving up Highway 1 and found an open spot at the Riverside campground. We were surprised at the $75 price tag, but the site was right by the river — plus everywhere else was full — so we made camp, sipped bourbon, and played cards until dusk. I made a fire in the pit and we used it to heat up some mushroom risotto to go with our spring mix salad. We talked, laughed, watched the river flow. In the morning, we dunked ourselves into the stream for a refreshing wake-up call before we hit the road.

By Wednesday, the sites were full, so we took an unexpected excursion to Pacific Grove and stayed at the nearly vacant Butterfly Grove Inn. A pink motel with high ceilings and clean, simple rooms, it received an artist’s stamp of approval from Diana. Although I had to console her fears about hospitality sanitization policy, it was cozy enough to merit a second night, and only a few bucks more than the Riverside spot. We walked through the monarch sanctuary even though there were no butterflies due for a couple of months. It looked like the city at the height of quarantine.

(Photo: Diana Tabarez)

Friday morning marked our return to Big Sur with the bittersweetness of a journey ending. Of course we kept telling ourselves this was just the beginning of our marriage, but neither of us felt ready to return to bleak reality. Finally, back at Limekiln we got our wish. The spot was at the top of the hill, overlooking the beach and the bridge, an idyllic concluding night thus guaranteed. We were giddy, joyous, thankful to these kind rangers, God, and fortune for this latest in a series of happy accidents. We set up camp, hung our paper “Just Married” sign recycled from the reception, visited our beach, and enjoyed one last fire. We tried to find one last spot on our way home, but they were all packed. It was time for the honeymoon to end, and for the marriage to begin.

As I write this, it’s been a month since the honeymoon and the scene of our romantic getaway has been engulfed by wildfire. Large chunks of California are burning, the rest is covered in smoke, and the inmates forced to fight our fires can’t because they’ve caught COVID-19. Our friend in San Diego is still recovering from the virus and his resulting lung troubles are only exacerbated from the poor air quality. And somehow, life continues. Two days ago, Diana’s sister gave birth to a healthy baby boy. There is no sadness in his cry, only the yelp of living.

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