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Midlife Marriage: A Peter Pan Ties the Knot

My brother-in-law's unforgettable wedding confirmed that change is always possible

By John Birmingham | June 5, 2012

Ever worry about someone who seems stuck, whose life appears inexorably headed in the wrong direction, or maybe no direction at all? I tend to look on the bright side, at a glass that’s three-quarters full. Still, sometimes you fall into a rut that gives every indication of being permanent. After a while, it becomes hard to imagine that change is possible.

 
Then I think of my brother-in-law Picou.
 
My wife, Lola, is French, and Picou, her younger brother, has lived most of his life in a medieval hilltop village in the South of France, where their family has a small summer house. Throughout his 20s, Picou steered clear of anything associated with adulthood. A big, rugged-looking guy who might have landed a role in a spaghetti Western if he’d been born a decade earlier, he wore a Mickey Mouse watch and liked to hang around the house in Mickey Mouse boxer shorts. (“J’aime Mickey,” he confided to me on one occasion.)

Known always as Picou — his childhood nickname — he put off getting a job, while living with his father or one of his girlfriends, until he was about 30. Not long after that, his friend Buddha belatedly left home — and as Buddha moved out Picou moved in, taking over Buddha's old room and becoming a surrogate son to his friend's parents, Pollux and Mie. With their help he finally found work in restaurants and, later, as a mason, but he remained a sort of Gallic Peter Pan: While Picou caroused, Mie consoled the tearful girls who showed up routinely on the doorstep. For my brother-in-law, it wasn't the worst fate, but as he drifted into middle age, his life appeared to be shrinking. My wife worried.
 
Then, several years ago, the unexpected happened: Picou got married in the most memorable wedding I’ve ever attended.
 
No one had ever pictured Picou settling down. Even as an infant, he was a wild child. Granted, all babies cry, but Picou's nonstop wailing broke records. Lola, already an adolescent when he was born, remembers his high-pitch agitation during a drive from her family’s home outside Paris to the village in the south. In the backseat, Picou screamed relentlessly until Lola finally discovered the one thing that would soothe him: She held a fresh peach an inch from his nose all the way to Provence.
 
By the time Lola introduced me to her family, I’d heard the stories — Picou riding a motorbike through the village like a maniac, Picou polishing off a bottle of scotch on a barroom bet, Picou getting into a fight and savagely biting the lip of a guy who’d shown too much interest in his girlfriend of the moment — and I wasn’t sure her brother and I would hit it off. But we did, instantly. Although the stories were true, they had failed to convey what comes across the second you meet Picou: his genuine warmth, sensitivity and charm. There’s a reason everyone in his village loves him.
 
That feeling was palpable on the day of the wedding. Lola and I were staying several miles away, along with our nieces Anouchka and Saskia, both in their 20s, and their father, Bernard, who had been married to Lola's late sister, Kiki. It was a brilliantly sunny midsummer morning, and we drove to Picou’s village in a rental car with the air conditioning on high. After parking the car, we made the long climb to the middle of the village, where the vibe was already festive as wedding guests began to assemble. Lola spotted Picou, in an embroidered linen shirt, and saw right away that he was extremely anxious in the center-stage role of groom — he was sweating even more than we were. But the bride looked radiant in her white gown.
 
We already knew Chantal and viewed her as something of a miracle. With a dark, unmistakably Mediterranean look — think Paloma Picasso — she was half Corsican, and I like to think that her hereditary link to that untamed island helped her understand Picou. If he was a handful, she could handle him. And she had a lovely 5-year-old daughter, Carla, whom Picou adored. They were an instant family.
 
The ceremony took place in the town hall. Presiding over it was the mayor, a woman who’d known Picou for most of his life. Before the packed house, she gave a heartfelt speech about matrimony. “A marriage must be based on respect and fidelity,” the mayor told us. Then, turning to the groom, she added, “Listen well, Picou. Listen well.”
 
Everyone in the room cracked up. Picou kept on sweating.
 
Afterward we cooled off in the courtyard of a stone house that belonged to friends of Picou and Chantal. We took off our shoes to feel the grass against our feet and toasted the newlyweds with glass after glass of champagne. But this was only part one of the reception — the main event would be the wedding dinner, to be held in the evening. During the break in between, Lola and I pulled together our original party, drove to the sea for a swim and later took a nap.
 
It was dark by the time we headed back to Picou’s village, and we had some difficulty nosing our way out of the primitive unpaved parking lot where we’d left our rental car. After I managed our escape, Anouchka said, “John, you’re my hero!” She was half-joking, but it pleased me anyway to hear it. Then we repeated the journey to Picou’s village, this time climbing all the way to an outdoor restaurant high on the hilltop where the wedding dinner was already under way.
 
As we approached the restaurant, it became evident that Picou hadn’t spent the afternoon swimming or napping. He was plastered. Beyond plastered: He looked as if he’d been smacked in the head with a shovel. Like one of the cartoon characters he admired, he had X’s for eyes.
 
Yet nothing brought down the mood. Everyone was in high spirits, and there was much mingling and trading of chairs. This laid-back dinner under the stars on a matchless summer night felt like a true celebration.
 
After dessert, in lieu of gifts, each guest paid his or her own check (which struck me as brilliant: no one got stuck with an enormous tab), then the party moved to a nearby club. Picou somehow made his way there and ordered a pitcher of rosé, but between gulps he seemed on the verge of passing out. Finally, Bernard and I each took one of his arms and did our best to guide him home.
 
Chantal, still in her wedding gown, led the way, with a half-dozen of us in tow. As we forged ahead, a young dude on a motorbike stopped and asked, “This is the groom?” Picou kept saying, “My bodyguards, my bodyguards,” referring to Bernard and me. Slowly we escorted him the equivalent of two or three blocks then inside the house to his living room couch, where Picou collapsed. Back outside, Anouchka turned to me and said, “I’m sorry, John, you are not my hero. She’s my hero,” indicating the bride. Chantal was well ahead of us, on her way back to the club, where she danced nearly till dawn.
 
All right, maybe this doesn’t square with your notion of a fairytale wedding, but to me it had a certain crazy magic. Still, when we got up the next day, I felt a need to make sure that our newlyweds were OK.
 
In the afternoon, Lola called her brother’s cell phone and spoke to both of them. The groom no longer seemed anxious in the least. They were kicking back by a pool and there was nothing to worry about. With Chantal by his side, Picou had turned the page.

This isn't to suggest that he suddenly transformed into someone we no longer recognized. To the contrary, Picou still orders his rosé by the pitcher and swears like a breton sailor. But his life did change in ways at once subtle and profound. Visit Picou and Chantal these days, and there's a fair chance you'll find him tinkering around the house or helping Carla with her homework. Through his devotion to Chantal and her daughter and the life they have built together, Picou hasn't solved all the problems of life. But he has found an inner peace that long eluded him — that seemed likely to elude him forever. A simple act of commitment made all the difference.