ONTARIO — It’s been five years since Deb Napier lost the love of her life. But every time she helps a young couple begin their journey into married life, she feels him by her side.
“I bring Dave with me every time I come,” said Napier, a professional wedding officiant. “He's with me and he's standing there right beside me, reminding me how that feels.”
Napier recently moved from her lifelong home of Charleston, West Virginia to Ontario to be closer to her daughter and granddaughter. She hopes to continue her thriving practice in Richland County.
Since earning her officiant license three years ago, she’s officiated nearly 100 weddings.
“It has become a calling. I know it sounds corny, but I love it,” she said. “I do tell couples at the wedding, ‘I get so much more out of this than you realize.' It fills my heart with such love when I see such love between two people.”
Napier got her start shortly after her daughter’s wedding, where she gave a reading during the ceremony. The officiant pulled her aside afterwards and told her she’d be a good fit, so she got her ordination online.
Most of Napier’s weddings have been in West Virginia and Ohio, but she’s also officiated in Virginia and North Carolina.
Sometimes, they are big to-dos. Other times, it's just Napier and the couple. She's even done next-day ceremonies.
Napier considers herself non-denominational and non-judgmental -- she will marry individuals from any religious background (or no religious background) and has no objection to same-sex marriage.
“I’ve done several same-sex couples and they are just as in love and just as sweet as any other couple,” she said.
When a couple hires Napier, she gives them a questionnaire about their relationship and asks them to fill it out in their own words. Then Napier uses the couple's answers to craft an individualized, personal ceremony based around their love story.
“It's always so much fun for me to sit down in front of a computer and start writing their story and write what brought them together and make that their wedding ceremony,” she said.
"I might change it 100 times before I get to the one I actually use."
If the couple has a rehearsal, Napier likes to share her own story with them then.
She met her second husband during the early days of online dating. After getting to know each other through instant messaging and email, they agreed to meet in-person at a TGI Friday’s. Dave told her what color shirt he’d be wearing. She told him to bring her chocolate.
“I walked up to him and said, ‘Where's the chocolate?’ And he handed me a chocolate kiss,” she recalled. “And so chocolate kisses were our thing after that.”
They talked all through lunch and stayed until it was dinnertime. From that moment on, they were inseparable.
“He took care of me. He spoiled me. The whole time we were married, I never cooked ... maybe twice. He loved to cook,” she said. “He was the most patient person I've ever known -- patient with me, patient with my kids, taught my daughter to cook.”
“He was more patient than I have ever been and kept me grounded.”
They were married 17 years.
“He left for work one day, kissed me goodbye and during the day at work, he had an aneurysm and passed away," she said.
There are still days where the grief of her loss takes a toll, but Napier continues to share her story with the couples she marries in hopes that it will inspire them to cherish every moment of their life together.
“I think he’d be proud and happy that I was reaching inside for our love to share," she said.
During their marriage, Dave had a habit of reminding her to slow down and appreciate the little moments.
"He would say, 'Stop' and put his arms around me and say, 'Take a deep breath and look where we are,'" she recalled. "I encourage you to do that every chance you get. Just stop, breathe, hug each other, look at each other and look where you are and know how lucky you are to have each other.
“Appreciate what you have and never take that other person for granted."
Napier's advice for singles is similar -- don't rush it.
“Take your time. Don't get in a hurry," she advised. "That person's not going anywhere if it's meant to be."