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Father Of The Bride....

Printable Version

Father Of The Bride
By Brian McGrory, | June 23, 2006

Everyone has a dream. Some people dream of climbing mountains, others of writing classic novels, still others of making millions on Wall Street.

Erin Burns had a dream, as well, one that was simpler but not for a second any less profound: She dreamed of her father giving her away on her wedding day, and what she did to fulfill it was something to behold.

Her father is Tom Burns, longtime state Highway Department worker, famously quick wit, a guy's guy who was devoted to his wife and three wonderful kids. ``His friends were all friends for life," said Maureen Burns, sitting yesterday in the living room of the couple's modest Colonial in Burlington.

Tom was diagnosed right after Thanksgiving last year with advanced lung cancer. Every day of every other week, he'd leave his state job, drive himself to Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge for debilitating chemotherapy, then head back to work for the afternoon. If he was miserable, he didn't show it.

``He was trying to save up his vacation time, so he and my mom could go to Florida," Erin was saying yesterday. ``He never stopped living. That's the thing about my dad."

In late April, Erin, 27, a reading teacher in Cambridge, became engaged to a Watertown firefighter named Tim Fitzgerald. Her father's health was improving, so Erin planned an autumn wedding, giving her time to tend to the 2 million details that go into the day.

But the cancer spread into her father's spine by early this month. Erin, the oldest of the three Burns kids and the first to be married, called his oncologist and asked how soon she should set a date.

``He told me sooner rather than later," she said. The date was set for July 1.

It wasn't soon enough. Tom Burns checked into Mount Auburn on June 11 with crippling headaches. He was having such a tough time swallowing that he couldn't even drink his beloved frappes.

An MRI was taken last Tuesday. On Wednesday, doctors delivered the news that the tumors had spread to the area around his brain. Erin called her fiancé in a panic, but with a plan.

``I promised him he'd be there for the wedding," she said of her father. ``If we had to do it in the hospital room, that's what we'd do."

Last Thursday morning, Erin and Tim secured a marriage license. They got dispensation from the Catholic Church. She spent the day at the hospital with her father, and at about 5 o'clock excused herself to go to the Burlington Mall.

``Don't worry," Tom Burns told her. ``I'll be here when you get back."

She bought a simple white dress at Macy's. She found matching shoes, got her hair done, looked in vain for wedding bands, and didn't leave until the mall was locking its doors.

When Erin arrived at Mount Auburn Friday morning, her father was waiting in his room, sitting in a wheelchair, proudly turned out in a suit and tie. His intravenous tubes were all unhooked.

Hospital officials decorated the conference room with flowers they had pulled from the lobby florist and balloons.

A local restaurant, Tommy Doyle's, sent up hors d'oeuvres, wine, and champagne. Erin's' school, the Fletcher Maynard Academy, hired a photographer and a videographer and bought a cake.

At 1 p.m., Luke Burns wheeled his father down the aisle. Tom Burns held tightly onto his daughter's hand.

At the front of the room, Tom struggled to his feet, kissed and hugged Erin, and gave her away.

There are often tears at a wedding, but rarely, as happened here, is it the bride who cries the most.

Afterward, Tom and his wife quietly slipped back to his room. Just 60 years old, he told his doctor he was ready for a morphine drip -- ready, in fact, for the outcome of his life.

In the middle of the night Saturday, he slipped into a coma. Just before 1 a.m. Sunday, his family around him, he opened his eyes briefly, and he died.

Tom Burns's life might have been far too short, but right up until the final moments was it ever full.
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