The bride carried a bouquet of white and pink flowers.
As Judy Kopko stood in a hallway on the 12th floor of Massachusetts General Hospital, a hospital employee in the intensive care unit helped fit a bridal tiara on her head and adjusted the 72-year-old’s face mask.
Soon after, the bride in her hospital gown and gloves was ushered into the room where Alphonso Rackard, her partner of 50 years, was waiting in an ICU bed. Friends and family members watched through a live video feed as the bride walked to her groom, bending over to speak softly to him.
The South End couple clasped hands as a hospital chaplain performed the wedding ceremony on Thursday, April 23. When asked if they wanted to say anything to one another before exchanging vows and rings, their responses were the same: I love you.
Cheers erupted as the gloved and masked chaplain addressed the family watching from near and far.
“I have the great honor of announcing for the very first time as husband and wife: Al Rackard and Judy Kopko-Rackard. You may embrace!”
Two days later, Al passed away at the hospital, holding his bride’s hand. He was 70 years old.
Janina Rackard, Al’s niece, told Boston.com the wedding was “beautiful and bittersweet.” She and her family are grateful for the hospital staff who helped to make it happen.
Her 70-year-old uncle had pulmonary fibrosis, a chronic lung disease that had progressed over the years, she said. But he didn’t start really struggling until the last month — around the same time the coronavirus pandemic erupted in the state. She took him to the hospital at the end of March when he started having trouble breathing. He stayed for a few weeks before being released to go to rehabilitation, to relearn how to walk after being in a bed for so long.
Not long after he arrived at the rehab facility, the family received a call that someone on his team of doctors had been diagnosed with COVID-19. Since he was at high risk because of his lung disease, he was transferred back to Mass. General, where he stayed in isolation for two weeks and was tested for the virus.
He tested negative. Eventually, he was released back to rehab and then home.
But about two weeks ago, he again began to have trouble breathing. His family took him back to Mass. General, where doctors told him he’d developed blood clots in his lungs.
Rackard said plans for the wedding were quickly set into motion when hospital staff asked Al, who was in the intensive care unit, if there was anything they could do to help him.
He said he wanted to marry his sweetheart of 50 years, Judy.
A ceremony was set for Friday, but hospital staff soon contacted the family with an update that Al wasn’t doing well — the wedding should take place the next day.
“They knew. They felt they had to do it quickly,” Rackard said. “But we still had our hope, that by the grace of God, that things would turn around. But we knew that we wanted to give him as much of a fighting chance as we could. But we knew.”
She rushed to take Judy to Boston City Hall to get the marriage license, and with the help of the hospital’s staff, the ceremony happened within hours.
“It was emotional,” Rackard said of the wedding, which she watched via the livestream. “I was happy — and I know he was happy because that was one of the main things that he wanted to do, to be able to marry her. To know that he got the opportunity to do that was beautiful.”
The couple has been a presence in her life since before she can remember, Rackard said. For years, they’ve lived just a few doors down from her in the South End.
“They got together before I was born — I’ve known nothing other than,” she said. “She’s always been ‘Aunt Judy’ to me.”
Her family is a close-knit one, celebrating all holidays together. Al always made the Thanksgiving turkey and a beloved family dish: sweet potato cheesecake. It was in such high demand, Rackard recalled, that he started having to make two cheesecakes each Thanksgiving. He was a joker with a sense of humor, she said, and he never shared the recipe with anyone.
“My life was seeing him, walking by every day or coming to the house,” Rackard said. “We’d say, ‘We need something fixed,’ and he’d come and fix it. That is just — I don’t know a day of not having my Uncle Al.
He was a hard worker and amazing person, his niece said, most recently working seven days a week at a security company.
“He loved his job, he loved interacting with people,” she said. “But most of all I can tell you, he loved Judy.”
Rackard said she is grateful that she and her aunt were given the chance to visit him before he passed away, at a time when many families are not able to see loved ones because of the coronavirus.
There will be no viewing, simply a grave-side burial with no more than 10 people on May 6, Rackard said.
“Although he did not have the virus, we are still being disrupted with what the virus is doing to us and these families,” she said. “It is unbelievable. It is so concerning. I feel bad for these families — I feel bad for mine. I feel bad for Judy — she will not be able to see him and say goodbye. She said her goodbyes at the hospital, but still — a lot of people, that is their way to move forward.”
Rackard said she hopes families will find comfort in the moments of joy and kindness that are emerging amid the pandemic — like hospital staff helping a couple get married.
“I just hope and pray that families will find comfort in knowing that this too shall pass,” she said. “Although we’re in the now — and it may be our new normal — that we learn from it. We learn to love our loved ones even more, or to check on each other a little more, to appreciate each other a little more. Because tomorrow is definitely never promised.”
Before her uncle’s passing, Janina shared a video on Facebook of her aunt and uncle cutting their wedding cake. In it, Judy carefully feeds a bite to her husband after he removed his oxygen mask.
“True love,” their niece wrote.