By Amy Hetherington, The Big Issue Australia
It’s the first of July in a backyard in western Sydney. A few friends have gathered on this winter’s day to witness a wedding ceremony, organised in haste. And heartache. The courtyard is dappled in sunshine, and the fence has been decorated with two small signs: “love” and “hope”.
As a Celine Dion love song starts up, our bride, Kelly, begins her way down the aisle, traversing the long driveway, through the garage, and down the path. There’s a special green carpet laid out for her arrival, bordered by pebbles and pot plants. Kelly is wearing a new blue dress, and carrying a posy of roses, baby-pink, red and yellow; a gift from her parents in Queensland.
The groom, Greg, is at the end of the carpet, waiting. He’s grinning, crying. “With a beautiful bride coming down the pathway, I felt amazing,” says Greg later. “I had tears, I did.”
A gold sign reading ‘Mr and Mrs Standen’ glints behind his head, waving from a washing line transformed into a backdrop with purple sheets for this special moment.
“Going down the aisle was the best feeling of my life,” says Kelly, “because I already knew we were destined to be together. When I said ‘I do’ I was over the moon! I couldn’t stop smiling. I still can’t stop smiling.”
It’s not every day that a wedding is organised in 48 hours. But that’s what Big Issue vendors Greg and Kelly had to do, bringing forward their original plans on doctor’s orders.
“We’ve both got spina bifida,” explains Greg. “I was very independent as a child. I was encouraged to do everything. I did the athletics carnivals, swimming carnivals. Then, at 25, my balance became very unsteady.” After a series of operations, Greg collapsed and “they basically said get used to life in a chair”. That was 20-odd years ago.
For Kelly, it’s even more complicated. From a young age, her mobility was compromised. Then seven years ago, at the age of 30, she was diagnosed with syringomyelia, a build-up of fluid on her spinal cord. “My brain is herniating: it’s sucking my brain stem into my spine, and it’s crushing every internal organ in my body.” It’s left her with a host of health issues, including depression, anxiety and breathing difficulties.
She says matter of factly: “I am in pain 24/7…and things are just getting worse for me day by day, to the point where eventually it’s going to kill me.”
Remember those small signs: “love”, “hope”.
Kelly and Greg had originally planned a big white wedding for October 2019. Their celebrant, Lou Szymkow, was booked to marry them in front of 120 guests in Auburn Botanic Gardens’ sunken rose gardens. The bride was to arrive in a horse-drawn carriage. She’d picked out her dream dress. And they’d planned a honeymoon cruise around Australia. Kelly, being Kelly, wanted to go on a cruise ship to help her get over her fear of heights – and water.
But during her monthly appointment with the spina bifida clinic, Kelly was advised to expedite their ceremony. “I told my doctor all the plans for the wedding…and he said, ‘If I was you, I would push your wedding as far forward as possible, because in my opinion you won’t be around in October next year,’” she recalls.
They called Lou, and their two witnesses: Kelly’s matron of honour Heather, a former carer; and best man Flavio, who used to work with Greg in his marketing business. The big white wedding quickly became a simple, intimate ceremony. And it was still overflowing with love.
“They are very loving to each other,” says Lou. “Greg is completely and utterly infatuated with Kelly; he’s constantly looking out for her.
“The wedding was a very beautiful moment. The sheer joy in her face as they made the announcement, it was very heart-warming. I think they were both overwhelmed… I can feel my own tears welling up now.”
They celebrated over lunch at their local bowling club, Dooleys Regents Park Sports Club, who surprised the newlyweds by decorating the table with flowers and a white tablecloth, also providing them with their own personal waiter for the afternoon.
While their wedding plans were hatched in an instant, the love story of Kelly and Greg has been 15-and-a-half years in the making. They met playing mixed wheelchair football. “One of my friends – she’s a quadriplegic – was on my team as well. One day I told her I like Greg, but not to tell him,” says Kelly.
Laughs Greg, “And she tormented me for weeks, ‘I know someone who likes you! I know someone who likes you!’”
The fates were listening. Greg moved into a villa in the same independent living community as Kelly, just around the corner.
“I was so excited,” Kelly says. “I was single. I had not had much good luck with men before.”
Adds Greg, “I was internet dating at the time. Then, we were hanging out one day and one thing led to another…”
“…It was the best thing that’d ever happened to me,” says Kelly, beaming at her new husband. That was 19 December 2002, and they’ve been together since. “I love her smiley face, the fact that she’s so caring,” says Greg.
Adds Kelly, “He’s always funny, he’s always there for me – he knows when to pick me up when I’m down.”
Greg and Kelly ave been married almost two months when we all catch up again, after their photo shoot in Circular Quay, the site of their improvised honeymoon celebrations.
“I thought, ‘how can I recreate the cruise without leaving Sydney?’” tells Greg. “We got on a ferry to Taronga Zoo to see the tigers – Kelly loves tigers – and I took her up to Centrepoint Tower’s 360 restaurant for dinner. We had a great day.”
They’re back in their wedding finery, recreating their big day, as there was no official photographer on hand.
Greg is still wearing a red-and-gold ribbon on his ring finger – a memento of the special handfasting ceremony that bound them together as one during their vows. “Red is the colour of love, of courage,” Lou told them. “Gold is a symbol of all that is precious.”
Kelly’s proudly replaced her ribbon with her heart-shaped engagement ring. She is recovering from the flu; there’s a deep relief that it didn’t develop into pneumonia. There is still that hope, that love, driving them to have the big wedding they’d originally planned.
“It’s just a matter of when we can afford it,” says Greg, who was introduced to selling The Big Issue by Kelly, a long-time vendor. “What we’ve done already wouldn’t have been possible if we weren’t selling The Big Issue,” says Greg. “We’re both in government housing, both on disability pensions, and it just would not have been possible without that little bit of extra income.”
“Greg is the love of my life,” adds Kelly. “I’ve always wanted to marry him, since the day we met.”
Greg reaches out to take her hand, “Love you wifey.”
“Love you hubby,” she says right back.
Kelly and Greg sell The Big Issue in Parramatta, Sydney, Australia.