NASHVILLE — With just weeks to live, a terminally ill cancer patient got his dying wish: He married the love of his life.
Chris Ford and Nicole Wismer, 22, planned to wed in October, but doctors told the couple that Ford, 26, might not live that long.
"When the doctor told us, it was Nicole and I sitting in there, and Nicole just looked at Chris and said, 'You still want to marry me, don't you?' " recalled Amy Ford, Chris' mother.
Chris Ford had been struggling with cancer for about a year. Not long after Nicole gave birth to Chris' son, Tristan, he was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma of the mouth and throat.
At the time, he was given an 80% chance of survival, his mother said. The Philadelphia native decided to move his family to LaVergne, Tenn., to live with his mother while he received treatment at Vanderbilt University Medical Center here.
"During the course of his treatment, his tumors continued to grow and grow. They also grew into his lungs and some of his other organs, said Amy Ford, tears rolling down her cheeks. "About a month ago, he was diagnosed as terminal."
Wismer told her fiancé that they had to get married "now or never."
But mounting medical bills and the cost of care left the couple with little money for a wedding. Undeterred, an army of volunteers from the nonprofit Nashville Chive, one of about 200 chapters worldwide that originally started as a meetup group, jumped into action.
"It doesn't matter how long you've been together. It doesn't matter the circumstances; it shouldn't matter. I love him too much (to walk away)," said the newly married Nicole Ford as she sat on a couch after the wedding, held Sunday at a donated venue.
Chris Ford's mother and his fiancée juggled wedding plans with hospice visits and doctor appointments for Chris.
"It's been a fast thing. We had to make it happen," Amy Ford said. "That's what she wanted. That's what he wanted."
Everything fell into place quickly.
"People we never even knew contacted us," Chris Ford's mom said. "We had DJs ... photographers, videographers, people offering to cook, florists, our cakes. ... The guy who owns City Liquors in LaVergne called and said, 'What do you need?' "
Family members came down from Philadelphia for the wedding. The wedding officiant, a member of the Atlanta Chive group, drove up to perform the ceremony.
The wedding was like many others — a catered meal, bouquets of flowers everywhere, custom cakes — but those items were donated to the couple. The bridesmaids wore coral-colored linen sundresses, the groom and his groomsmen wore gray vests with aqua ties, and the bride wore a strapless white gown embellished with sequins.
Although Chris Ford constantly needs supplemental oxygen and can't stand for long periods, he sat patiently waiting for his bride. A pain patch was barely visible behind his ear.
"His spirits are very good because he's got a lot of support. His heart is like a rock. I've never seen anybody as strong as he's been, and his will to live. He's been fighting to live for his family," said Chris Ford's father, Bob Ford. "He's been through a lot with the cancer."
Barely able to walk, Chris Ford was escorted down the aisle by his father, who kept his son stable and standing during the short ceremony.
When Francine and Richard Wismer escorted their daughter to the altar, Chris Ford finally broke into a giant smile.
Because Chris' cancer is so advanced, he can't talk. So Bob Ford also stood in to speak for his son as the couple exchanged wedding vows.
Even through his weakness, he managed to dance back down the aisle with his bride.
"She's his heart," said Kevin Hicks, who interpreted Chris Ford's sign language as the couple sat on the couch after the ceremony. "Their love is pure and true and perfect."
Follow Nancy De Gennaro on Twitter: @DNJMama