A large guest list. A pretty California venue. An elaborate dress.
These were the things Vieneese Stanton originally thought she wanted in a wedding when she and her fiance got engaged in February.
The couple tentatively chose a day in April 2018 — far off enough to allow them to save gradually for their dream ceremony. And perhaps it would give her father time to get healthy.
Just three days before their engagement, her father, Preston Rolan, had been diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. Soon, he was making monthly visits to UCSF Medical Center in San Francisco for blood transfusions and chemotherapy. The treatments sapped his energy — but Rolan, who was living in Richmond, Calif., with his daughter and her fiance, was always able to come home after each hospital trip.
“My dad is definitely a fighter,” Stanton, 27, told The Washington Post. To keep his spirits up, they frequently talked about the upcoming wedding and how much he was looking forward to walking his “favorite daughter” down the aisle.
Rolan is the one who “freely tells everybody” that she is, indeed, the favorite of four siblings.
“It wasn’t just me bragging,” she said, laughing. “My mom used to say, ‘You can’t have favorites.’ He would say, ‘Well, I got a favorite, so you figure it out.’ ”
While Rolan is technically Stanton’s stepfather, in her eyes, he is simply “Dad.” He and her mother met when Stanton was 3 years old. For as long as she can remember, Rolan has been her “No. 1 cheerleader,” the one who took her to Disneyland and the one who hollered the loudest at her graduation from the University of California at Davis several years ago.
When her mother died eight years ago, it was Stanton who continued to check in with her, and vice versa.
“He’s definitely raised me all of my life,” Stanton said. “For me, he was like the closest thing I had, the first father I knew. We just connected from the beginning. . . . I can always call him. And if he ever needed anything, he knew to call me.”
During her father’s August hospital visit, however, doctors discovered an infection that had spread to his lungs. They kept him for further evaluation, then surgery.
Days became a week, and the weeks stretched into more than two months.
In October, doctors at UCSF pulled Stanton aside: Rolan’s cancer wasn’t responding to chemotherapy treatments, and the infection had almost completely filled his right lung. This time, he probably wouldn’t be going home, they told her.
“That’s when they started talking about hospice,” she said. “It was very, very emotional for me to have that conversation with the doctors.”
By then, Stanton had also found out she was pregnant, and expecting her first child in March. The additional desire to meet his grandchild had given Rolan extra motivation to persist through the most grueling of treatments, but Stanton knew it was unlikely her father would make it to both of the milestones.
“I told my fiance, ‘We gotta change the wedding,’ ” she said. “I said, he has to be there for at least one of these moments. It’s the two things he has been looking forward to.”
The couple soon sprang into action to move their wedding up by five months. Fortunately, they hadn’t yet put a deposit down on a venue they were eyeing. A large guest list was whittled down to 15 or so family members and close friends who could accompany them to city hall on Nov. 16, a Thursday.
Stanton and her fiance figured they would stop by UCSF Medical Center first that morning so that Rolan, who couldn’t leave the hospital, could at least see his daughter in a wedding dress.
That was before the hospital staff caught wind of Stanton’s plans to surprise her dad.
“They literally just skyrocketed the idea completely,” Stanton said. “They literally made it an actual wedding.”
A nurse with a side passion for photography volunteered to document the hospital wedding. Others brought decorations and food, filling a room on the hospital floor with paper flowers, streamers, hors d’oeuvres, desserts and even tiny wedding favors in bride- and groom-themed boxes. A harpist and a guitarist provided the music.
On the morning of the surprise, dozens of nurses filled the floor. Some had come in on their day off. One helped Rolan change into a fresh Oakland Raiders T-shirt and sweatpants. He assumed he was going on one of his usual walks around the hospital floor.
Just after 10 a.m., Stanton and her fiance arrived at the hospital. In her simple, strapless ruched gown, she sneaked up to her father’s floor, and the nurses scrambled to retrieve him.
Slowly, Rolan ambled down the hallway; a nurse walked with him, holding his chest tube. As he rounded a corner, he stopped in his tracks at the sight of a woman in a bridal gown and a veil, clutching a bouquet of flowers.
Then, he realized: It was his daughter.
“He was just like, ‘Oh my God!’ It was so cute,” Stanton recalled. “You could see him holding back tears. His face just lit up.”
Linking arms, they turned around and walked back down the hall, past the nurses who had cared for Rolan over the past several months. They cheered and clapped, and Rolan and his daughter beamed. Behind them, one of Stanton’s bridesmaids managed to record everything with two cellphones, while clutching a wad of tissues.
In the room the nurses had decorated, their 15 guests and a bevy of nurses celebrated over cake and refreshments. A hospital chaplain — who had spent the past few months praying, singing and reading scripture with Rolan — led the room in a lively rendition of “Isn’t She Lovely?”
Taking the floor, Rolan choked up as he talked about how proud he was of his grown children. His daughter looked even more beautiful than the day she graduated from college, he said.
“You set me up,” he told the room, to laughter. “I’m 64. I might make another 64.”
But for now, he added, he was just happy for his daughter.
Stanton and her fiance dashed off to City Hall shortly after the hospital ceremony.
“It was definitely the perfect way to start our day off,” she said. “We were extremely excited, just kind of on cloud nine.”
Stanton said she and her now-husband, Douglas Stanton, are relishing the time they have with her father before he moves to hospice care, probably in the next few weeks.
“He’s so full of life. You can see that in the video,” she said. “So this is all very bittersweet. We are definitely forever grateful to have those moments. We just want to celebrate these last few weeks we have with him.”