Canceled by coronavirus: A rom-com worthy love story and the wedding that almost was

Right now, as I’m typing this, I am supposed to be in Palm Springs, Calif. I am supposed to be in a grey suit with several other groomsmen in grey suits. And later, I’m supposed to raise a glass of wine, say a few kind words, and toast my brother, who was supposed to get married.

But none of that happened. You know why. Because of the coronavirus.

My brother, Elliott San, and his fiancée, Emily Mai, are not alone in having to cancel their wedding during this time of crisis. But their story, and the journey that brought them here, might stand alone as being one of the most incredible: A real-life rom-com with so many twists and turns that any sane screenwriter would roll their eyes. And Elliott is a screenwriter.

In 2014, only a month after I moved to Los Angeles, I got a call from an unknown number. It was a friend of Elliott’s and she told me that he was in the hospital.

In these circumstances, mind racing, it’s easy to jump to the worst case scenario. But in reality, that’s generally never the case, right? This time it was. A few days later, Elliott, then only 24 years old, was diagnosed with leukemia.

After being treated with chemo in Los Angeles, he flew back home to Chicago to be closer to our parents, to receive a stem cell transplant, and unbeknownst to him at the time, to meet someone.

In 2014, Elliott was diagnosed with leukemia (Photo: Courtesy of Elliott San)
In 2014, Elliott was diagnosed with leukemia (Photo: Courtesy of Elliott San)

“The first thing I saw was the back of his head, which was partially bald,” Emily recalls. Emily was a Registered Nurse at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. She was one of the first people to meet Elliott at the hospital and their patient-nurse relationship soon turned into a friendship.

“We found out that we had a lot in common, that we were around the same age, we liked the same music, we were both half-Chinese,” Emily says. Then, a month later, Elliott went for the Hail Mary. The day before he was discharged, he asked for, and received, Emily’s phone number.

Which brings us to a montage, a must for any rom-com. From there, they began to hang out. Then they started dating. Then they moved in together in Chicago. Then, Elliott persuaded her to move back to Los Angeles with him. And three years after meeting in the hospital, they were on the cusp of being engaged.

But in 2018, Elliott came down with a nasty flu. He went to his doctor and confirmed what they both were thinking: He’d relapsed and the leukemia had returned. But before he went back into the hospital for a second stem cell transplant, Elliott took Emily — an avid cook and baker — to a cake baking class at Milk Bar, the famously tasty dessert bakery.

At the end of the class, Emily watched as everyone except for her received their cake. But when she finally did get hers, it said something different on it: “Marry me, Emily.” It was a sweet surprise.

Elliott and Emily after he proposed to her at Milk Bar. (Photo: Courtesy of Elliott San)
Elliott and Emily after he proposed to her at Milk Bar. (Photo: Courtesy of Elliott San)

So, newly engaged and with Elliott’s stem cell transplant looking like a success, they began planning the big day. “We purposely picked a date pretty far out,” Elliott says. “So I would have enough time to be well by the wedding.”

Cut to this past January, when the word “coronavirus” started to crop up in reports from China. “I wasn’t thinking it would affect my wedding at that point,” Emily says, “I was thinking more it would affect my job and my patients.”

As the news grew more dire, and with most wedding guests flying to California from out of state, they were faced with a difficult decision. “It was not the most peaceful conversation we’ve had,” Elliott recalls about bringing up the dreaded “c word” to Emily.

“We had planned our wedding for so long,” Emily says. “When we first had that conversation, I was in shock.” But with Elliott being an immunocompromised person, he realized that shaking hands and hugging a bunch of people who just got off an airplane was a dicey situation for him. So they did it. They canceled the wedding.

The irony of their relationship starting with illness, and their wedding being cancelled due to illness is not lost on them. “For illness to be the reason why we are not quite getting married has just toughened our resolve,” says Elliott.

“We’ve waited how long already, what’s another few months?” Emily says.

The rescheduled wedding is supposed to happen this fall. And I’m still supposed to be in my grey suit, with my glass of wine and ready to give my toast. But Elliott notes that it’s also been speculated that the coronavirus may return in the fall, after subsiding this summer.

Ever the screenwriter, he sees sequel opportunity. “Maybe there’ll be a part two to this,” he jokes. Emily shakes her head, “Oh my god.”

For the latest news on the evolving coronavirus outbreak, follow along here. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC and WHO’s resource guides.

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