Thirteen years from the day they started dating, Alex Lee and Kelsey Christiansen got married. Then they picked up an order of shrimp fried rice to bring home.
The two had planned to eat chicken piccata along with 100 guests from as far away as the United Kingdom. But the COVID-19 pandemic intervened, and they canceled the reception.
“Both of us said, ‘It’s important for us for our friends to be safe and healthy,’” Kelsey said, “more than the celebration.”
Instead, Alex and Kelsey got married in a small St. Paul photo studio. The only guests were the officiant, a photographer and two witnesses. All except the couple stood six feet apart.
Alex, who works at Hennepin Healthcare’s physical therapy department, hoped to help make up for the canceled reception. After the ceremony, and before picking up shrimp fried rice, he drove to the medical center in downtown Minneapolis. His wife sat in the passenger seat beside him.
As they approached, Kelsey saw an ambulance and dozens of Alex’s colleagues lining the sidewalk. In scrubs and white coats, with masks strapped across their mouths, holding a string that measured a safe distance between them, the medical workers toasted the newlyweds as they drove by. One woman held a sign that said, “Love in the time of COVID-19.”
Kelsey knew something was afoot, but was overwhelmed by the sidewalk celebration. Even Alex was surprised by his colleagues’ efforts as they drove by.
“I don’t think I’ve cried so much,” Kelsey said. “When he was like, ‘We have to swing back around a second time,’ I was like ‘No, I have cried so much, my eyes hurt.’”
The couple had planned their marriage for the anniversary of the day they started dating as teenagers in Hopkins.
Kelsey had transferred into a Hopkins middle school and didn’t know anyone. The two met after Alex skipped class to hang out with friends who played with her in orchestra. They were best friends for years before they got together officially, consoling one another through breakups and challenges of early adulthood.
“It was just kind of like, the other person was always there,” Kelsey said. “So why not just always be there?”
They put off marriage until both finished school and settled more fully into their adult lives. The years went by, until they’d been together almost half their lives. An engagement happened. Three more years. Then, they set the day: April 10, 2020. They would both be 31.
Just last month, they canceled the long-awaited reception, which would have brought together friends and family from across the world on the day they’ve celebrated every year since high school. They resigned themselves to just go to the courthouse, sign the papers and be done with it. But friends urged them to make it special.
So, after the ceremony, the newlyweds took photos at the Stone Arch Bridge spanning the Mississippi River. Strangers smiled and waved at them from a distance. Kelsey and Alex said they’re not the sort of people who typically sit in the front row. But they were glad to see strangers share their joy. Kelsey said she wanted to lift people up, remind them that “it’s normal to celebrate.”
That sense of mutual aid and shared adversity is even more important for Alex’s colleagues at the hospital.
Like everywhere around the country, medical workers at Hennepin County Medical Center are bracing for a surge of COVID-19 infections — fearing it will overwhelm hospital staff, worrying about shortages in supplies of protective masks, and dreading the human toll the virus will take.
Every day at work, Alex tries to keep things light. He’s started writing a “dad joke” on the dry-erase board in their department, just to see his colleagues smile. Or groan.
“What do you call a helpful lemon?” he wrote the other day. “Lemonaid.”
The hospital staff are close-knit and accustomed to helping one another out, Alex said.
“We listen to each other’s hardships throughout the day, and just kind of put things into perspective for each other,” Alex said, “This is a rough time, but we’ve made it through other events as a hospital, and we’ll make it through this one — and do our part to help.”
Planning for the sidewalk wedding reception, decorating signs and making props, took the hospital staff’s minds off the impending COVID-19 surge, if only for a moment, said Casey Byron, a supervisor in the physical therapy department.
“Alex has been there for four years, he’s a tireless worker, a really kind human being,” Byron said. “In crisis times, you really realize what’s important.”
After the couple drove past their friends at the hospital, they rolled past Kelsey’s father’s home in Hopkins and stood at the end of the driveway of Kelsey’s mother’s home in Spring Lake Park.
“My mom, she’s tearing up, I’m standing there in my wedding dress, and I can’t hug her,” Kelsey said. “That was probably one of the hardest moments I’ve ever had. But we know this is the time to be safe.”
And then, after the long day on Friday, Alex and Kelsey Lee shared shrimp fried rice at their home in Hopkins. They said it was delicious.
From acts of kindness and sweet gestures to inspirational signs, these are some of the ways Minnesotans are lifting one another during the coronavirus pandemic.
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