Lives To Remember

Nicole Geary Phelan | 1986-2008

Nicole Geary Phelan was determined to have a wedding day before dying of cancer.
Nicole Geary Phelan was determined to have a wedding day before dying of cancer. (Photograph by Douglas Talley of Talley Studios/Courtesy Family )
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By Sandy M. Fernández
Friday, January 2, 2009; 10:55 AM

"If you had seen her on Thursday," August 14, 2008, says Sandy Hawthorn of her daughter, Nicole Geary, "you would have thought there's no way she's getting out of the hospital and getting married Saturday."

By mid-August, Nikki had been in and out of the hospital for more than two months. She'd been diagnosed with fibrolamellar hepatocellular carcinoma, a rare form of liver cancer, in early June, after her fiance, Sean Phelan -- frankly up to here with months and months of Nikki lying on the couch in their Great Mills townhouse complaining about fatigue, nausea and abdominal pain -- drove her to the emergency room one night.

Nikki was, by all accounts, while sweet and openhearted -- a rescuer of unwanted pets, a fan of Harry Potter, a girl whose younger brother, Cody, still bought her every fairy poster he ran across -- also a little bit of a drama queen and a little bit of a complainer. She was 22, after all, and just barely removed from the Waldorf teenager who had spent afternoons filming homemade music videos with her friends and who once dyed her red hair pinkish purple. Sean, the kind of take-charge guy who studs his conversation with short explanations of miscellanea -- some passing words about suburban townhouse planning, a line or three on how a digital file gets made -- was older, at 29, and considered himself her levelheaded protector. "I figured it would end up being nothing," he says. "They'll come back and say it's indigestion, and they'll give her a prescription-strength medicine." Instead, the doctors found a mass the size of a small brick squatting on Nikki's liver. They said they would operate, maybe do chemotherapy.

"Cancer . . . really?" Nikki wrote on her MySpace page, "jeez and I thought it was an ulcer. . . . "

Still, Nikki was Nikki. She had dated Sean for four years, growing increasingly outspoken about her frustrated desire to get hitched, before he'd finally popped the question in spring 2007. Then their wedding plans came fast and furious: a white tux for Sean; six bridesmaids and 100-some guests; a ceremony and reception at the Old Breton Inn in Leonardtown, which, unlike other historic houses Nikki and her mom considered, didn't have a mile-long list of don'ts to stifle a rollicking party; a horse-drawn carriage, which would deliver Nikki to a hilltop gazebo for the ceremony; dance lessons, so she and Sean could replicate exactly, lift included, the climactic number from the film "Dirty Dancing"; and a white stretch limo, which, near midnight, would whisk the new Mr. and Mrs. Sean Phelan off to Crystal City, and they'd catch a honeymoon flight to Hawaii the next day.

After the cancer diagnosis last June, bridesmaids Heather Grant, Tiffany Hallowell and Amanda Jordan, all friends from Westlake High School, visited Nikki at the hospital. It was instantly clear to them that Nikki had no intention of altering her dream wedding plans.

"She was like, 'I'm going to figure out how to keep the veil on my head with no hair,' because she thought she was going to go through chemotherapy," says Tiffany, now 26, who had been tapped to be Nikki's maid of honor.

"She wanted us to shave our heads, too," says Amanda, 23.

"I was like, 'I love ya, but ...'" adds Heather, 24.

Sean, ever practical, suggested he and Nikki, who was at the time unemployed, go to the justice of the peace and then celebrate the marriage with family in August. That would, he told her, win her coverage on his health insurance plan. Nikki turned him down. If they were already married, she said, August's wouldn't be a Real Wedding. She wanted a Real Wedding.

On June 17, doctors at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore were able to remove the tumor but not all the affected lymph nodes. Nikki left the hospital briefly but returned within a week. She couldn't keep food down. She had been losing weight even before being diagnosed; her wedding dress, bought at a size 10 when she weighed 150 pounds in the fall, had been exchanged in April for a size 8. Now she was down below 120 pounds. She was also retaining fluid. She was too weak, even, for chemotherapy.

Weeks passed. As the wedding day approached, the doctors started suggesting that it was too dangerous for her to leave the hospital. Three days before the scheduled ceremony, they put a tube in to drain the fluid collecting in her legs and torso. There were tense discussions. Nikki told Sean that if the hospital didn't release her, she "was going to break out."

On Thursday afternoon, with relatives already in from out of town, Sandy drove the hour and a half from the sprawling Port Tobacco, Md., ranch house she shares with Nikki's stepfather, Jay, to Baltimore. "I was going to take her out of the hospital against medical advice," she says. "She always said: 'I don't care what it takes; I'm getting married. If I have to go down the aisle in a wheelchair, I'm getting married.' " In the end, Nikki was released -- only to go back into care just hours later, complaining that the pain was too much.

By Friday morning, the family needed a new plan. Dana, Nikki's dad, suggested Sean and Nikki get married in the hospital chapel, but by then, it was too late to get the necessary Baltimore marriage license. So, an alternative was hatched: Nikki would be released Saturday afternoon. A wheelchair would replace the horse and buggy in ferrying her to the white gazebo for the ceremony. Then the couple would race through all the reception basics -- the bouquet toss, the garter toss, various first dances -- so that they could leave in the white stretch limo, which, instead of ushering Nikki to her romantic getaway, would take her back to a hospital bed.

On Saturday, after the bridesmaids filed out of the inn and across the vast green lawn to the gazebo, Nikki emerged from the same door in a billowing white dress and veil, thin but determined. Dana and Jay, seemingly flummoxed about how to fit all that satin and tulle into the wheelchair, fussed, arranged and tucked; it went on and on . . . until Nikki, looking up and lifting her chin, crooked her elbow for an exact, wrist-only Queen Elizabeth wave. "Which was perfect," says her mother. "She was such a princess."

Twenty minutes later, she was also Mrs. Sean Phelan. And then, Nikki, having walked from the gazebo into the inn for the reception, changed the plan for the last time: She wouldn't leave. She danced to "Shout!" and "Love Shack." She went table to table. She changed into white slippers and danced some more. Finally, after the limo driver had been waiting hours -- it was after 9 p.m., almost time for the party to give up the inn-- Nikki's mom persuaded her to go. "I said, 'You know the bride and groom are supposed to leave first,' " Sandy says. Even then, as they crawled into the limo to the cheers of their friends and family, Nikki was trying to persuade Sean to stay a little longer.

Sean and Nikki Geary Phelan were married 33 days. She died on Sept. 18.

Sandy M. Fernández is an editor at the Magazine.

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