On a fine Valentine's Day morning, two resplendent brides and their grooms stepped gingerly down the blood-red carpet of a cavernous Downtown church. They took their vows, exchanged their rings, lit their candles, and walked back up the aisle into futures that are hard to think about.
The tandem ceremonies uniting Robert Molina with Crystal Orozco and Juan Uriarte with Rosa Munoz seemed like any others: The flower girls and ring bearers either barreled down the aisle at triple speed or were too shy and had to be nudged. One bride looked a little dazed. One groom had trouble slipping the ring onto his wife's finger. One nuptial kiss was passionate. One was a peck. The children from the second ceremony had to be stopped from crashing the first. One picked her nose. One baby couldn't stop crying.
Some of the 40 or so guests couldn't stop crying, either. That was because the vows, especially when each couple repeated "till death do us part" had a more immediate meaning than they do for most couples.
Robert, 31, has AIDS. Crystal, 26, does not. Both Juan, 26, and Rosa, 23, are HIV positive. Between them, the couples have six children--three each--under 6. So far, the children have tested negative for the virus that causes AIDS.
"One girl I know said, 'Why get married, then die?' " Robert said. "And I said, 'Why give up?' "
Some people marry to affirm their love and commitment. In the big church on Monday, one sensed something else was going on, that these four people were marrying for reasons unknown to most couples. Yes, there was love, and yes, commitment. But an undercurrent of defiance charged the proceedings. These two couples, HIV status notwithstanding, would not be denied the chance to live their lives.
And yet, the specter of death haunts them.
Three days before her wedding, Crystal puffed on a cigarette as she watched her 5-year-old son, Phillip, play on a swing set at Bethesda House, the Salvation Army's shelter for homeless families dealing with AIDS and HIV. She is so shy, so clearly uncomfortable talking to someone holding a notebook, that the jarring nature of what she is saying almost slips by unnoticed.
"I get sad about being a widow," she said. "And I know it's going to happen. Today, Phillip said, 'When Dad dies, you can get a boyfriend because we'll have our dad in heaven.' "
Carol Smetzer is executive director of Bethesda House, where both families lived. (The Uriartes moved into a subsidized apartment just before the wedding; the Molinas hope to be in an apartment soon.) Smetzer lives there too, so she is more than an administrator. She is mother hen and surrogate grandmother. She helped organize the volunteers who donated the wedding dresses and tuxedos, the flowers and decorations. Monday, she was matron of honor for Rosa.
"We have had so much sorrow, so much pain that these weddings are a wonderful change," she said. "They really epitomize what Bethesda House is about . . . to live every moment, and if this is going to be your last, make it your best."
Bethesda House opened in September, 1992. The staff, Smetzer said, believed that the place was charmed because its residents seemed to fare so well once they had a roof over their heads, beds and food. And three babies were born in the first year.
It was a false sense of security.
"We went seven months without losing anyone, and then we lost five in one month," Smetzer said. "When we lost our first baby, the whole staff needed intervention."
Robert and Crystal and their children have lived in Bethesda House for about a month. They said they were evicted from an apartment after refusing to pay rent because of the rats and roaches. They've been together eight years and always meant to get married, Crystal said, but she dreamed of a beautiful wedding and a white satin dress and kept putting off a ceremony.
In December, when Robert was found to have AIDS, they decided the time had come. They were going to be married, in fact, in the hospital on Christmas Eve. But the ceremony never took place, Crystal said, because no one would give her a ride to the hospital.
Sounds like a strange excuse to miss one's wedding. But when you are poor and homeless and trying to keep your kids warm and fed, getting around is a huge burden, sometimes insurmountable.
A place like Bethesda House takes away the survival issues and allows its residents to recapture the feeling of belonging to the world, of participating in the rituals that join us, like birthdays, funerals . . . and weddings.