As Ashley Johnson ’08’s late March wedding approached, the pieces she’d carefully arranged began to fall away.
First a guest coming from Seattle, a coronavirus hotspot, asked if he should really come to the ceremony near Philadelphia. Startled, Johnson and her fiance, Eddie Zhang, began calling their guests. About 20 of the expected 150 dropped out.
Then the governor shut down the county. Could they hold a small ceremony in a park with just family? Both Johnson and Zhang work in hospitals.
“How would I live with myself if some of my family members got sick from our wedding?” Johnson asked. They called it off, and Johnson said about a week of sadness followed.
But the couple had a marriage license — a Quaker “self-uniting” one that requires no officiant, only two witnesses. Between Zhang’s sister, quarantining with them from New York City, and a neighbor socially distanced on the roof next door, they had the bare essentials.
On April 11, cheered by neighbors on rooftops and family on Zoom, they said their vows.
“This had a completely different tone,” Johnson said. “A little bit somber, but the overarching feel was a pure sense of love that we were still able to be together.”
Johnson, 33, majored in classical studies and Chinese at Princeton and is now a traumatic brain injury medicine fellow at MossRehab in Elkins Park, Pa. She met Zhang, 30, on the dating website OkCupid in 2016. He’s now a radiation oncology resident at the Fox Chase Cancer Center. On their first date she boldly said she’d pay for his hot chocolate, then realized she didn’t have enough cash.
They got engaged this past September.
After deciding to move ahead in quarantine, they bought a drone for Zhang’s sister to take pictures and posted in the local Facebook group. The neighbor next door offered to play the cello and have his daughter serve as ring bearer.
“When people are reaching out to help you, how can you say no?” Johnson said. “That was so much more than we thought could happen on our wedding day.”
The morning of April 11, they found a bottle of champagne on their back doorstep. Up on the roof, Johnson said, she “Purelled” the rings for safety. She could have retrieved her dress from her parents’ house, but didn’t.
“I think it’s really hard when you have this vision, and despite feeling as happy as we were, I think there were a lot of mixed emotions on that day,” she said. The circumstances also made everyone remember what's most important. “There's this beautiful side that maybe would have been covered up by the pomp and circumstance of a regular wedding.”
News outlets caught the story. People have thanked Johnson and Zhang for bringing a ray of sunshine. Some parts of life can safely go on even during a pandemic, Johnson said. “And you just have to keep moving forward."
They hope to renew their vows at a rescheduled ceremony in October. This time, Johnson said, they won’t sweat the small stuff.
“If it rains, who cares?”