12/17/2012 01:49 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Surprising Magic Of A Courthouse Wedding

When my fiancé accepted a new job in California a few months ago, I quit my job in Chicago and my health insurance ended. In a matter of days, we subleased our apartment in Chicago's Lakeview neighborhood, sold everything we owned, and drove to California.

On our cross-country road trip, we spent a night in Las Vegas and thought about getting married there. We were already engaged and planning to marry in California, but to simply take care of everything before we arrived seemed like a good story for the grandkids. Ultimately, we hesitated: I worried that a courthouse wedding would steal thunder from our 'real' wedding and Danny was unmoved by the atmosphere of white Elvis Presley jumpsuits, slot machines and cigarette smoke.

I can't tell you if a courthouse wedding steals thunder from a traditional ceremony and reception. I won't know until June. Because what happened once we got to California was this: we made a choice that came down, in part, to logistics. Reflecting back on a generous health warning we had received a few months earlier, when Danny was diagnosed with the second of two melanomas less than a year apart, we came to our senses and realized we couldn't take our chances without health insurance for even one of us. Fortunately, the solution was simple: Danny's new employer offered coverage to employees and their spouses. So Danny began researching the paperwork necessary for marriage. We would eventually have to fill it out anyway, we reasoned; why not cross it off our list a few months early?

Sometimes life slides into place, whirring like a black-and-white film reel, and you know in the deepest part of your heart that you're in the right place, at the right time, standing beside the person with whom you're meant to be. Our courthouse wedding was one of those moments.

Tucked between palm trees and overlooking the San Diego Bay, the San Diego County Administration Building is a magnificent display of Spanish Revival architecture and Art Deco inspiration. A mosaic of sea blue tile lines its arched entrance, which is flanked by clusters of orange birds-of-paradise.

"Property tax office to the left," a security guard barked at us when we entered. His face melted into a grin: "But you two won't be needing that, will you? Marriage licenses on the second floor."

Danny tugged at the lapels of his suit. "Are we that obvious?" he asked. The guard nodded. I was suddenly conscious of the way we seemed to everyone else: Danny, tall and handsome in his grey suit sans tie; the chiffon of my cream, knee-length dress swishing as we walked across the marble floors to the elevator; the tick-tick of my heels echoing off the high ceilings.

Upstairs, we filled out paperwork and signed our names. We were shown to a small, private room with a wooden podium and a single framed black-and-white photograph hung in the center of its clean walls. We were introduced to the shy, elderly man who would be our officiant and the smiling, plump, middle-aged woman who would be our witness.

I'm not sure what else I thought might happen, but what I had not thought about, or dreamed of, or envisioned at all, was that Danny would say aloud all of the words I have subconsciously associated with marriage my whole life.

It's a collection of obvious, even clichéd phrases, but those words were so remarkably fresh and significant as they emerged from my fiancé's mouth that I immediately began to cry. Soon Danny's eyes were filled with tears, too. Our witness, whom we had just taught how to use a cell phone camera moments earlier, handed me a tissue. Then it was my turn to say the words to Danny. I was so moved I could barely speak. Had we had a hundred people watching, I don't know how I would have.

But we didn't have an audience. There was only the sweet, lisping voice of our officiant; the kind, happy eyes of our witness; Danny's deep and loving expression as he watched my quivering lips; and everywhere in the room, our love. So many thoughts were passing through my mind that it was all I could do to repeat the words. Everywhere, the whisper: This moment is right.

And, then, all over again, a new surprise: the kiss. I froze. Danny leaned in. Our $10 photographer-cum-witness snapped a photo with my cell phone. As our officiant politely bowed his head, Danny and I shared a newlywed kiss that held more magic for me than any other kiss in my life.

You could call it a kiss rehearsal. I'm still looking forward to our June wedding, when our closest friends and family will witness our marriage. I know I will feel unspeakably lucky to have everyone we love in the same place. I'm eager to experience all the moments of a traditional wedding that customarily usher a bride and groom into their new lives together.

Still, I'm glad we had a separate day too, just for us. It's a feeling I didn't know I would have: I'm so thankful we were able to share our love quietly and soak up all that sweetness before sharing it with anyone else.

At most weddings, there is the iconic moment when the bride and groom exit the ceremony together, skipping up the same aisle the bride has just walked down. Leaving the courthouse was sort of like that. The other brides-and-grooms-to-be, waiting in the hallway for their own turns, beamed at us. So many couples, so much love. As we stepped down the stairs we had just walked up, and into a silvery day of November drizzle, we held hands.