TAMPA ó As her father's health worsened, Sheena Swartz widened her search for the perfect wedding gown. She didn't know if he'd live to see her marry Nick Bentley, but she promised that he would see his only child in the dress of her dreams.
"I tried on more and more until I got the one he absolutely loved," Sheena said.
Paul Swartz of Fort Myers, the victim of a 2004 car accident that left him paralyzed from the neck down, passed away at age 58. He exemplified how to make the best of any situation, Sheena said in her eulogy last year.
"He was one of the strongest people you've ever met," Nick said, chuckling as he evoked the memory of seeking permission to marry Sheena. "He said, 'I wouldn't have anyone else' and gave me a head butt. Same as he did every time Florida State scored."
Nick and Sheena met as freshmen at FSU in a geology class called "Dinosaurs and Disasters," before they decided to major in finance with a minor in football, since they never missed a Seminoles game.
"The first thing I liked about Nick was how protective he was of his little sister when she came up to visit," Sheena said. "He always made his family ó and now me ó a priority."
The more time they spent together, "the more powerful the connection," he said. "I always knew she was the person who would make me grow into the man I am today."
Sheena knew it was serious when she passed up a summer internship in New York or Boston rather than be apart from him. She also delayed taking some classes so they would graduate together, in December 2010.
Settling in Tampa, where the Bentley family has lived since Nick was a toddler, seemed an obvious choice for the couple, now both 27.
"Fort Myers family was about a two-hour drive," Sheena said. "And we like watching the sunset on Bayshore (Boulevard), going to Bucs games, taking picnics to the beach."
Nick started Ventury Capital, a small private lending company; Sheena began working for a Tampa financial firm, but quit to go back to school for a nursing degree.
"I'd always wanted to be in the medical field," she said, "but after the accident, the idea was too close to home." She received her nursing license a month after her father's funeral.
Nick took his time planning his September 2013 proposal. Typically Mr. Calm, he was a bundle of nerves that night on Sand Key beach.
"We had just sat down on the blanket, just poured a glass of wine, when he jumped up and said, 'Let's go for a walk,' " Sheena said.
She noticed his face was flushed and asked if he felt okay. When he bent down to pick up a glass bottle, she wondered why he was picking up trash, until she saw the paper curled inside.
She burst into tears when Nick dropped to one knee, diamond ring in hand, and read the words he had written on the tiny scroll. On cue, her future sister-in-law popped out of her hiding place in the sand dunes, snapping photos as the sun began to set.
But wedding planning came a distant second to spending time with the father of the bride. In spring 2014, the couple stayed in Fort Myers for three weeks while he was treated for a complicated bedsore.
Sheena focused on being upbeat, but "sugarcoating wasn't his style," said Nick, reciting one of their last conversations verbatim.
"I said, if you promise to watch over her from heaven, I promise to watch over her down here."
Mary Swartz walked her daughter down the aisle in the tea garden of the Vinoy Renaissance St. Petersburg Resort on Jan. 24. Bentley family friend Bill Atkinson officiated.
Soon after, Mr. and Mrs. Bentley twirled into the ballroom, showing off their dance lessons. Nick's father toasted their future. The newlyweds savored every minute.
"Everything went so perfectly, but too fast," Sheena said.
Like life itself.
Contact Amy Scherzer at [email protected] or (813) 226-3332.