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The Wedding Gift: A story of love, loss, & the community that rallied behind a DeKalb County family

FT. PAYNE, Ala. - This story is all about love and loss. It’s the story of how a family dealt with the happiest of times during the absolute worst of times, and how an entire community rallied behind them.

It's been ten years since Donna Hairston first learned she had breast cancer. A decade of efforts to fight the disease probably slowed its progress. Her faith and always positive attitude certainly helped. But just days ago, doctors told her there was nothing more they could do.

“Dad talked with her and she made the decision that she just wanted to come home,” says Donna’s daughter Candace Dorsett.

That was a week ago Friday, and doctors told her the end would come in only a matter of days.

You know, if we learn but one thing from our faith, it's that death is not the end of life. Some would argue it's the beginning of life. The Hairstons are strong in their faith, and they know they'll lean heavily upon their faith in the days and weeks ahead. It is what has enabled them to accept the inevitable, with perhaps one slight exception.

Donna had seen all four of her children get married, all except Josh. Oh, he was engaged to a beautiful young woman named Lizzeth, and the wedding, the dream wedding, reception and honeymoon cruise they had been planning for months, that was two very long weeks away.

“Everybody was worried,” Candace explained. She went on, “It was in the back of everybody's mind, 'is mom gonna be there?' And it was in the back of her mind, she was talking about it. And she worried for them."

That night, Liz went to Candace to tell her the wedding was canceled. All of their planning was out the window, because they both feel nothing is more important than family.

“It was an easy decision to make, it really was because I wanted her to be there, and I wanted everybody to be there. That, to me, is everything,” Lizzeth explained. She says it was Josh’s strong family ties that helped her to understand the kind of man he is, and attracted her to him.

Their dream wedding would take place in less than 48 hours. Liz left to buy a ring, and Candace was about to panic.

When Lizzeth left, Candace says it took a few minutes for it to register. At first she didn’t believe what she had heard. Then she called her cousin and sister-in-law who both rushed over. "90 miles an hour, me and my cousin and Jessi, writing down everything. We started just shouting back different things, we're gonna need this, what about this, call this person, we're gonna need this, what about the photographer, what about the cake, what about the flowers, what about, and just as fast as our female brains could go we were just jotting down lists,” laughed Candace.

A few calls to friends were made, but the night ended with a feeling of hopelessness - there was so much to do, and so little time.

“The next morning, I’m still drinking on my coffee and I hear somebody pull up and I look out and there is a line of cars the length of my driveway, and cars pulling in my yard and cars pulling down the trail,” Candace explained. She couldn’t believe her eyes.

Candace couldn't have known but the word had gone out, the Hairstons needed help, and a small army of friends, former coworkers, members of their church, even total strangers all showed up to get the farm ready for a wedding.

Some brought cleaning supplies and plenty of elbow grease. Others brought food, drinks, even toilet paper. Furniture was moved to make space for a reception. Several brought mowers and weed eaters and manicured the lawn and area around the lake. Someone called a tree trimming service and they were there within an hour removing a stump and huge patch of poke salat. Some firefighters soon showed up with fresh sod to cover the area where the stump had been. Bales of hay were laid out and covered with quilts for the guests to sit.

Another set about the task of baking a wedding cake, and yet another traveled to Chattanooga to buy the flowers. The minister and photographer changed their plans to be there. Donna's wedding dress was carefully fashioned into a table covering upon which the wedding cake would be displayed.

Late Saturday afternoon, they took a new invitation to their mother. As Donna read the first line of the note, she would utter only one word, “Noooo...." And then she tearfully read the note aloud.

“We regret to inform you that we've decided to cancel the wedding on August 27th. However, due to the overwhelming love and support and blessings from friends and family, we request your presence tomorrow, August the 14th at 5:30 p.m. at the Hairston Farm for the marriage of Lizzeth Rivera to Joshua Hairston. How are we going to do this,” she asked?

“It's done, mama. It's all done,” came the reply. Tony Hairston leaned down and kissed his wife on her forehead.

And so last Sunday, in the presence of their many friends and family, while Tony held the IV, Donna witnessed the last of her children take his bride. It was a beautiful ceremony, a dream wedding filled with love and adoration, and made possible by a small army of friends and strangers who refused to allow the cancer to steal this moment.

“She told Candace the other night, she said just pray that I finish well," Andrew Hairston explained. He added, "So here you are, she just got news that there's nothing else that we can do and she's not praying for mercy, she's not praying for healing. She said pray that God lets me finish well and finish strong. That's our mama."

We want to extend our gratitude to the Hairstons for allowing us to share their story. They tell us they merely wanted to share their heartfelt gratitude for the wedding gift of love that they say they will never, ever forget.