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Steph Fish grew up as a mama’s girl, always clinging to her mother and following her around “like her little shadow.” But as a young adult, she was robbed of that close mother-daughter bond as her mom developed early onset Alzheimer’s disease. Fish was heartbroken to think her mom might never see her get married.
Her mom, Susan Gefroh, 58, began showing signs of the disease about 10 years ago, and Fish, now 27, wasn’t sure if she would find the right guy in time, as her mom's illness progressed. Happily, she did, and after Bryan Fish surprised her with a proposal in April, they set a wedding date of May 27, 2018.
The couple had planned to marry in Minnesota, a halfway point for both of their families. But Fish’s older sister pointed out their mom’s illness had progressed a lot in the past year. Gefroh was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease and primary progressive aphasia in 2011. As a result, Gefroh has lost the ability to speak and stopped recognizing her daughter about two years ago.
Her sister told her that they were unsure of what their mother's condition would be like in a year. Even traveling short distances had become problematic — so a trip to Minnesota, in a year, seemed unlikely.
“She said 'If you want her to see you get married, you should do it in Devils Lake,'” Fish said of the North Dakota city where she grew up, and where her mom was living.
The location wasn’t where the couple wanted to marry, but it was extremely important for Fish to have her mom there, and her fiancé supported the change. The had couple already been planning a visit to Devils Lake — so they decided to turn the visit into a wedding.
In just 25 days, the couple pulled off a beautiful wedding in Steph's mother's backyard. Fish bought a wedding gown off the back of a bridal store mannequin, relatives cooked for the reception and many of the wedding goods were donated.
“I wanted my mom to be able to be at that wedding and see her last daughter walk down the aisle,” Fish, of Plymouth, Minnesota, told TODAY. “It meant a lot for me to have her there. It was a beautiful ceremony, and when I look back, I’m really happy with how it turned out.”
“It was an emotional day,” she added. “I was happy for her to be there, but it was hard because she didn’t understand what was going on.”
Before 100 guests, Fish walked down the aisle on the arm of her father, Busch Gefroh. After hugging him, she embraced her mom sitting in the front row wearing purple, the Alzheimer’s awareness color that was a prominent hue of the day.
Fish, who raises money for the Alzheimer's Association, loved seeing her mom happy, even if the laughter came from an aunt who was trying to make her laugh.
“She kind of lit up after the ceremony and everyone was so happy to see her happy,” Fish said. “Although she didn’t know what was going on, she was having a pretty good day for Alzheimer’s.”
Having seen her mom struggle since she was 17, Fish doubted that her mom would ever be able to see her get married or have children.
“To be able to have her at my wedding was more than I could have asked for,” Fish said. “I was very happy we could make it happen for her.”
During the rush of the wedding planning, Fish sometimes wondered if it was necessary to get married so quickly. Now, she is relieved that they did. About two weeks after the wedding, Gefroh was moved into a memory care unit in a residential facility.
The timing of the wedding turned out to be just perfect.
“I gave up a lot of what I envisioned for my wedding to do this for my mom, but I wouldn’t change it,” Fish said. “It was a very special day to have her there. This definitely wasn’t anything I imagined I’d do for my wedding, but it was worth it in the end.”