It was a simple outdoor ceremony, though larger than anyone had expected it would be.
The groom, Juan Hernandez, sat in his wheelchair. White roses made up the 77-year-old’s boutonniere. A tube fed oxygen through his nose.
Isabel Ramos’ grandson rolled her down the aisle in her own wheelchair. Her eyes were already wet with tears. In a white cardigan sweater, 69-year-old Ramos held a bouquet of pink flowers. She told her social worker on the ride down the elevator at the Seashore Garden Living Center in Galloway Township that she was nervous.
Staff and residents at the senior facility sat in chairs, or their own wheelchairs. Isabel’s and Juan’s children, from other marriages, occupied the front row. They took photos on cellphones and tablets. They murmured how the wedding was long overdue.
Before the ceremony, one of Isabel’s daughters asked Juan, “You want to change your mind?” He just smiled. It was time to make their relationship official.
“Today you have chosen to exchange rings as a sign of your love for each other, and as a seal of the promise you make today,” announced Laverne McClellan. She has known Juan for about a year, as the chaplain of Ascend Hospice in Egg Harbor Township, where Juan receives hospice care.
In the first wedding ceremony at Seashore Gardens on Monday, Juan and Isabel kissed to seal a relationship decades in the making. Thirty-one years, as Isabel’s daughter Diana Ramos calculated.
It was then that Juan accepted another vow, one from Isabel’s first husband, Benjamin Ramos. In the hospital, Benjamin asked Juan to take care of Isabel and her three young children. He eventually died of a heart attack, young and in his 30s.
“‘Take care of my wife’,” Juan recently recalled Benjamin asking him. Benjamin was godfather — or “goombah” as Juan put it — to his daughter, Jeannette.
Living in Manhattan at the time, Isabel and Juan were friends. Isabel taught Spanish to members of the American military; Juan was a chauffeur who worked for Lipton Tea. They could speak Spanish to each other, having both emigrated from Spanish-speaking countries (Isabel was born in Bucaramanga, Colombia, and Juan was born in Puerto Rico).
Eventually, spending more and more time together, they said, feelings grew. They would ride horses in Central Park. They cruised to Spain and Puerto Rico. Their families, they said, were always together.
As they were on Monday.
The significance of the day wasn’t lost on Diana Ramos, Isabel’s youngest daughter. It was the anniversary of the death of Benjamin, her father and Isabel’s first husband. When Juan and Isabel lived in Diana’s Galloway Township home before moving to Seashore Gardens, doctors only gave Juan one year to live.
It’s been about 18 months since then.
And the weather Monday was beautiful.
“It’s such a beautiful story,” Diana Ramos said. “She always wanted this, they wanted this. And by God’s grace, it happened.”
Following the ceremony, there was cake and Latin food for everyone. The happy couple toasted: she with Freixenet cava sparkling wine; he with sparkling cider.
The nerves Isabel felt before the exchange of vows disappeared after the toast, she said.
“There were so many people here,” she said. “But I’m happy. It’s been a long time.”