An Early Marriage

words: Marla Cantrell

images:courtesy A.B. Lewis Photography

When Chris Dolan proposed to Ashley Robbins in December 2013, he did it at a family Christmas party so their relatives could be part of the surprise. Ashley remembers him dropping down on one knee. She remembers looking up and seeing a flood of cell phone cameras aimed at her, and she remembers how perfect it all was. The two set their wedding date for June 6, 2015. Both were in school at Missouri Southern State University, and they wanted to graduate before getting married.

The following year, however, Chris’ grandfather, Bobby Dolan, Sr., was diagnosed with myelofibrosis, a form of leukemia. All during 2014, he was in and out of the hospital. He’d always seemed bigger than life, and he was fighting with everything he had, so the family held out hope he would be around for a good long while.

On December 20 of that year, Bobby Dolan, Sr. turned seventy-nine, and sadly, by the first of 2015, he was in hospice care. “I was back in Papaw’s room, talking to him—it was a Friday,” Chris says, “and he made the comment to me, ‘I’m sorry, son, I’m not going to be around in June for your wedding.'”

That statement felled Chris. “I tried not to cry in front of him. I told him not to worry about it.”

Now, though, Chris is free to cry, and he does, the tears running down his face, and he does not try to stop them. Ashley is wiping her own tears. She reaches out to touch Chris’ hand. “It was so hard. Papaw was the first person to say that Chris and I would get married. Chris’ Aunt Karen was there after Chris talked to Papaw, and his mom was there, and we were talking, and someone said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if you could get married this weekend?'”

Once they were alone, Ashley and Chris decided to get married on Sunday, which was January 18. “We picked up the phone at about 11:30 on that Friday night and started calling people, and several said not to do it so fast, to at least wait a week. A few were worried I’d miss having a big wedding, and I said, ‘I’d marry him tomorrow in a brown paper sack.’ We’ve been together seven years, and we’re just twenty-two, so that’s a big part of our lives. We just knew we weren’t supposed to wait.”

By Saturday morning, they had a plan. The wedding would take place at Chris’ grandparents’ house in Fort Smith, Arkansas, so Bobby, Sr. wouldn’t have to leave his home. Chris’ pastor from Our Redeemer Lutheran would officiate. His aunt Karen was getting the cake, and his grandmother was taking care of the flowers. Chris’ mom ordered the food. Ashley’s mom called her hairdresser, who agreed to fix Ashley’s hair. Her four bridesmaids had already arranged to be in town to look at dresses, so the timing was perfect.

The biggest obstacle was figuring out how to get Ashley’s gown. She’d already ordered it from Danielle’s Bridal in Clarksville, and it was due to arrive in May. She convinced the shop to sell her the floor sample, which happened to fit like a glove. By noon, she had everything she needed except bridesmaids’ dresses and wedding rings. They took care of that at Central Mall in Fort Smith, where Chris and his groomsmen were shopping for matching clothes to wear. A friend even found a photographer, Ashley Lewis, who rushed from a shoot in northwest Arkansas to be there for the service.

“We actually had a rehearsal dinner, with Mexican food, on Saturday. My bridesmaids stayed with me. Chris was at his parents’ house. I remember laying in bed thinking, Tomorrow I’m going to be a Dolan. On Sunday morning, I woke up happy. I even had a friend who could do makeup, and she helped us get ready. When I stepped into my dress, I’d never felt so beautiful.”

“Papaw hadn’t been doing too well on Saturday or Sunday. My dad and I got him dressed about fifteen minutes before the ceremony,” Chris says. “We walked him to the couch on the front row. I couldn’t see him after the service started, but people told me he was grinning from ear to ear.

“When Ashley came into the hallway—my Nanny has a big mirror there—and all this light was reflecting everywhere, and she looked just like an angel to me. She thinks it was the makeup and the dress, but it wasn’t. It was just her.”

“My best memory of that day was something I didn’t actually see,” Ashley says. “Papaw couldn’t walk by himself; he was very weak. My maid of honor’s mom was playing the piano, and she leaned over while we were having our picture taken, and she said, ‘I want you to know that the first person who stood up when you walked out was Papaw.’ I’ll never forget that,” Ashley says, and stops to wipe her eyes. “Just the thought that he thought so highly of what we were doing, that no matter how much pain he was in he was going to do it the right way.”

“He wanted to have his picture made with us,” Chris says. “He kissed Ashley. Me and my daddy helped him to his room and got Papaw back to bed. Ashley and I went to tell him goodbye before we left. We came back to see him on Monday. He passed away on Tuesday.”

If Chris and Ashley had waited another week, Bobby, Sr. would have missed it all. When they think about it, they feel as if divine providence stepped in when they needed it most. The wedding that should have taken months to plan happened in less than forty-eight hours. Two of Chris’ groomsmen were unable to attend, and the long guest list they’d been working on was cut by ninety percent. But the person they both wanted to give them his blessing was there, and it meant everything to them.

“I want to tell you something about Papaw,” Chris says, and his voice breaks. “He was a hardworking man. He and his brother started Fort Smith Plating Company years ago, and that’s where I work now. I remember him picking me up from school most days, and then picking up my little brother, who’s eight years younger than me. He always had candy in his car. He made the best homemade ice cream you ever ate. He put his family first. He took me hunting and fishing. We’d be up in a deer stand, and my dad would be in the other stand. He’d take me to the store the night before and let me buy anything I wanted. I’d eat Little Debbies and candy and make too much noise and finally pass out up there. I’d wake up and say, ‘You see anything yet, Papaw?’ And he’d say, ‘Nope, have you?’ And we’d both laugh so hard. He taught me how to catch grasshoppers to fish with, and I got so good they started calling me Grasshopper. He bought me a Porsche once off a government auction site. He only paid four thousand dollars for it because it wouldn’t run. He fixed it, though, he knew he could.” Chris shakes his head. “He could fix anything,” he says. “He was one of the smartest men I ever knew.”

Less than a week after Chris and Ashley married, they were at Bobby, Sr.’s funeral. It seemed impossible that he was really gone. Ashley remembers one of the last gifts he’d given her. It was a jewelry box with a pair of tiny diamond earrings in it. He said it was for his future great-granddaughter, the one he expected Ashley and Chris would have one day. “He was like that,” Ashley says and then smiles, “just funny and not afraid to tell you what he was thinking.”

These memories work like medicine for the couple. They think about him every day and miss him always. They feel as if their wedding was a kind of miracle, and they marvel at how it all came together. The only thing they were unable to do was get the marriage license since the planning happened over a weekend when county offices were closed. Their official date of their marriage is two days after the ceremony since the courthouse was closed on Monday for Martin Luther King Day. Even this they see as a wonderful detail, one that makes their wedding even more remarkable. The two smile at each other, so in love, you can see it. Their rush to the altar is a great story, and they know exactly how to tell it. Always they begin with this line: “We knew Papaw had to be there.”

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