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What Happened Just 20 Minutes After I Got Married

I was scared out of my mind.

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A couple with their officiator standing on red rocks for their private wedding ceremony
Stacy Burk
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My husband of 20 minutes sat motionless on a large boulder under a bright blue Sedona sky.

“Are you OK?”

“I don’t think so,” Steve replied.

I squatted beside him, thinking he was winded after the rigorous hike toward the top of red rock formations for our post-wedding photo shoot with two photographers. When I’d found an elopement company online, the reverend had warned the hike after our ceremony at the bottom of Cathedral Rock would be challenging. But at 46 and 44, Steve and I were fit. I was a yogi. He regularly ran.

Placing my hand on Steve’s back, I made dramatic inhales and exhales, trying to get his erratic breath regulated. Steve suddenly became icy, and sweat bubbled on his cheeks, arms, forehead and neck.

A photographer ordered me to remove Steve’s champagne and cheese-filled backpack, and duffle with our clothes, my orthopedic flip-flops and asthma inhaler.

Feet from the cliff’s edge, Steve started slumping. I pushed my petite body against my new husband’s 6-foot-4, 200-pound frame, and kept him from falling. I yanked off his sunglasses. His pupils narrowed into dark pins. I screamed, “Steve!”

A photographer called 911. I felt powerless and couldn’t do anything other than follow commands to keep my husband upright and find water. My strong, handsome doctor looked like he was slipping out of my life. I feared he had suffered a silent heart attack like his mother had just three months before.

The photographers began talking with the dispatcher about an airlift, and our worlds separated.

Two years earlier in late 2017, I took a leave of absence from my single, Wall Street-lawyer life to help my octogenarian father with dementia in Missouri. Overwhelmed, I sought distraction with a dating app. One swipe led me to Steve, a long-term local. Early on a Sunday morning, we met for coffee. Afterward I wrote in my journal, “I met my husband.” Steve told his big sister, “I found her!”

I returned to New York, and we dated long-distance. We grew as best friends, partners and lovers. Within months, Steve moved my belongings from Brooklyn to Missouri, and I quit my lawyer job of a dozen years. On a fall trip to Paris, Steve dropped to one knee under the Eiffel Tower and held a diamond ring.

We bought a house — a joint decision with Steve’s boys (22, 18 and 14), who lived with him part time. We ensured each got his own room and that their work, school and coliving commutes wouldn’t be disrupted. Stress soon snowballed for me from starting a new life in the Midwest, creating a blended family, and feeling outnumbered by Steve, his sons and their companions.

As spring turned into summer, everything erupted. One night in a heated exchange about house rules and responsibilities, Steve and I screamed things at one another I still regretted.

“I’m done. We’re selling the house,” I shouted and took off my engagement ring. At that moment, my former on-again, off-again romances and bouts of serial dating in the city seemed better than partnering with a divorced dad of three and their baggage in suburbia.

We went to bed angry. The next morning, Steve left for work without a word or our standard goodbye kiss. I lay in bed crying. We finally spoke late that night. I agreed to wait until the summer passed to make a decision on us. He promised to make the boys pitch in around the house.

During that fight we had triggered each other, forcing us to make a choice: break up or face our pasts and insecurities in new, unexpected and uncomfortable ways. We attended a couples workshop and instituted weekly meetings to foster our relationship. As we grew closer, we became more vulnerable and scared. We learned to hold space for each other to do the emotional work needed to truly partner. Together, we endeavored to create a new home, a new life, a new family.

And yet minutes after marrying, everything looked like it could end. Would I sell the house now out of need, not want? Would I return to New York? Would I resume my old life?

Steve abruptly sat up. He mumbled, “I’m OK.” I was afraid to move or even breathe.

The photographer questioned my husband, communicating between him and the 911 dispatcher about symptoms.

“Help him, God,” I quietly begged. Steve assured everyone he was fine and only light-headed. The airlift the dispatcher was initiating was canceled.

Steve and I continued to sit as I held a damp shirt to his neck; he didn’t know all that had happened but had heard the three of us speak. The photographers told us we weren’t climbing any farther and asked us to change back into our formal attire. We finished the photographs and had an abbreviated picnic under their heightened supervision.

Later Steve would tell me he had a piercing headache for the rest of the day. Later, too, he would realize the duffel bag combined with the altitude and excitement had caused vasovagal syncope, a condition caused by pressure on a nerve, and this had led to his near collapse off the cliff.

I leaned toward Steve and kissed his cheek with a new focus on what truly mattered: my commitment to Steve and his to me; the love, respect and communication we strive to strengthen every day; and the supportive partnership we create to navigate life’s challenges.

As Steve wrapped his arm around me, I was more grateful than ever for our fortuitous swipe rights, our meeting on that Missouri morning and all the lessons it took for us to be able to say “I do” without any doubts, standing on the red rocks under a cloudless Sedona sky. I couldn’t wait to go home and celebrate with our family.

Lying in bed that night, Steve told me he’d seen a white light around the photographers and me while they called 911. Steve was hesitant to tell me, not wanting me to worry even more, thinking he’d had a stereotypical near-death experience.

“Thank you for choosing to stay, and not cross over to the other side.” My voice shook as I spoke. Steve smiled and kissed my forehead. I pulled him closer.