LEWISTON — For years, Bethany Coston dreamed about her wedding. Maybe it would be big and grand, maybe small and intimate. She'd wear an elegant white dress.
It would be perfect.
Bethany has cystic fibrosis, a chronic disease that affects the lungs and digestive system. In 2008, CF patients were expected to live to a median age of 37, according to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. Bethany's disease was more severe than some.
Still enough time for the perfect wedding, she thought.
Bethany, 19, took a turn for the worse when she developed a sudden bleeding problem within her lungs. Doctors put her on a ventilator to help her breathe. No one was sure whether she'd get off the machines, or how sick she'd be if she did.
That's when her family — and an array of donors — decided Bethany needed her wedding, and she needed it now.
'Something she could really be proud of'
Bethany was 3 when she was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis. She'd had digestive problems since infancy, but she looked chubby-cheeked and healthy, and local pediatricians couldn't pinpoint the problem. It took Boston doctors and a special test to reach a diagnosis.
Bethany spent her early years in and out of the hospital, including a stint for a liver transplant from her mother when she was 8. Still, the disease didn't stop her from going to school and having friends. It didn't stop her from falling in love with Shane Coston Jr.
She was a freshman and he was a senior when they met at Lewiston High School. In the cafeteria, a friend dared him to go up and hug her.
"'Course I did," Shane said.
A year ago the high school sweethearts moved in together, setting up life in an apartment just down the street from her mother. They talked about marriage, about getting rings, about whether they should have a big wedding or small.
"I just wanted the dress," Bethany said.
She was sick, but there was time.
Then, one night in November, Bethany began vomiting blood.
She was in the intensive care unit, still confined to a ventilator following an endoscopy, when her mother, Kimberly Calabrese, told the family she wanted to throw Bethany a wedding. It would have to be something simple, she assumed. Basic. Fast. A justice of the peace at a relative's house.
"We can't do that," said Bethany's uncle, Danny Bernard. "We've got to get her a hall."
This family, he thought, could do both fast and memorable.
"I wanted something she could really be proud of," Bernard said.
Twenty minutes after Bethany woke up in the ICU, Shane was at her side. The hospital bed was too high for him to get down on one knee, so he crouched, offering her grandmother's diamond and a formal proposal.
Bethany's uncle suggested a Dec. 4 wedding date, but Bethany thought that was too soon. She decided on Dec. 11.
It would give them just about three weeks.
With his wife, Heather, and friends Crystal Frey and Bonnie Caron, Bernard immediately approached local businesses about donating. While the family needed fast, it also needed low-cost. They wanted to throw Bethany the wedding of her dreams, but they could only afford so much.
They fanned out across the Twin Cities. One by one, they asked businesses for help.
One by one, businesses said yes.
The dress and rings and hall were all donated. The DJ, notary public and photographer gave their time. The family got a deal on flowers and food.
All from strangers.
"I'm just thankful for what they did for us, and that it could happen for Bethany," Bernard said. "It only took us a week; I would say, a little over a week, and everything was just there."
From her hospital room, Bethany selected rings and prepared her vows. She chose her dress — a flowing gown with a sash — from styles she found on the Web. She picked out the design for the reception — silver, white and her favorite color, purple.
Bethany left the hospital but got sick again within a week and had to be readmitted. She was released on Dec. 10.
On Dec. 11, in the transformed American Legion Hall in Auburn, Bethany's stepfather walked her down the aisle. In front of 80 friends and family, she and Shane said, "I do."
Dream come true
Everyone has a different favorite memory of the wedding. For Bethany's mother, it's of watching her daughter say her vows. For Shane, it's of dancing his first slow dance with his new bride in front of a hall full of people.
"I was freaking the heck out," he said.
Bethany's favorite memory is of the wedding itself, the whole thing.
"I'm just glad we had a big wedding," she said.
Although she must use oxygen full time, Bethany refused to carry the little canister with her during the ceremony and reception, opting instead to take frequent breaks. She was forced to briefly leave the reception only once, around the time of the cake cutting, when she didn't feel well.
Nearly two weeks after the ceremony, her family still marvels at the generosity of the strangers who donated time and goods to make the wedding special.
"I think it's a miracle," said her stepfather, John Calabrese.
The family expects to get the wedding photos back next week. To show her appreciation, Bethany's mother plans to create collages and give them to the businesses that donated.
"I can't thank them enough; they'll never know," her mother said.
Today, Bethany is out of the hospital but not healthy. Doctors have said she might have up to 18 months to live.
The Sisters Wish, a nonprofit group that grants wishes to terminally or chronically ill young adults in Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts, has given Bethany and Shane a January honeymoon trip to Disney World in Florida. He's looking forward to visiting the Animal Kingdom theme park. She's looking forward to the warmth of Florida, the hotel swimming pool, fireworks.
When they get back, they'll continue their lives as husband and wife. So far, Bethany said, marriage doesn't feel any different. Life is the same, just their titles — husband and wife — have changed.
And a dream came true.
"That's what I always wanted," Bethany said.