Ms. Skolkin and Mr. Tillis had planned to host a dinner for about 100 out-of-town guests at Aishel House that day. Instead of feeding their guests, they fed a three-course meal to 100 displaced local residents.
That particular event space is a special one for Ms. Skolkin and her family. Holly Harwood Skolkin, Ms. Skolkin’s mother, was a founder of Aishel House. Mrs. Harwood Skolkin was not able to see her daughter’s selflessness. In 2012, she died of breast cancer after a 15-year struggle with a stage 4 diagnosis.
But Ms. Skolkin felt her presence. “It was almost like she was there with me,” she said, “encouraging me to not feel sorry for myself and remember how bad other people had it.”
Within minutes, they were deboning and breading chicken breasts by the dozens.
Rochel Lazaroff, a co-director of the house, said Aishel House had already pre-ordered enough chicken breasts, brisket, salads, salmon and desserts to cater the couple’s Shabbat welcome dinner for their long-distance wedding guests. The food, fortuitously, had arrived the week before.
“It brought tears to our eyes,” Ms. Skolkin said after she and Mr. Tillis realized how their postponed wedding plans would able to help their community in need.
Ms. Skolkin’s father, Dr. Mark Skolkin, a Houston radiologist who remarried two years ago, said he daughter is a “mini-me of her mom. They look alike, they’re silly alike. And she believes the same thing her mom did, which is that the way to heal pain is through helping other people.”
Just three months after Mrs. Skolkin died, Mr. Tillis’s father, Barry Tillis, died of lung cancer. Neither is sure they would have gotten engaged if their personal tragedies hadn’t overlapped.
“I would almost say it’s the reason we’re together,” said Mr. Tillis, a Houston real estate developer who grew up in Denver. “We already had a serious relationship going by the time our parents were seriously ill, but being able to talk about it really connected us. You can’t replace that experience with someone who doesn’t know exactly what you’re going through.”
Mr. Tillis got to know Mrs. Harwood Skolkin before she died, and Ms. Skolkin got to know Barry Tillis. The elder Mr. Tillis was an emotional father who never missed a youth sports event and cried at every one. “People in our hometown still remember that about him,” Mr. Tillis said.
Memories of Ms. Harwood Skolkin are etched as deeply in her hometown, Houston, especially around Aishel House. “To see people respond when they find out I’m marrying Holly Harwood’s daughter is truly incredible,” Mr. Tillis said. “Their mouths drop, their eyes tear up. She was a celebrity in this community. So many people considered her their best friend.”
That includes her daughter. “We were so close,” she said. “We did all the stuff gals do, like shop and go out to eat. We were always laughing.” Mrs. Harwood Skolkin inspired her daughter’s career as a nurse practitioner for heart failure patients; her mother’s gratitude toward the nurses who helped her through cancer steered her toward nursing.
If Ms. Skolkin and Mr. Tillis have done their share of crying together, they have also been partners in plenty of fun, much of it the goofy kind. They met at a mixer at the start of Ms. Skolkin’s freshman year at the University of Texas in Austin, when Mr. Tillis was a sophomore there, and took things slowly. “The first couple years it was just dating, we weren’t really acting like boyfriend and girlfriend,” Ms. Skolkin said. But she was enchanted by his clean-cut good looks and easy charm. “He’s witty and fun. People have always been attracted to him and want to be around him.”
Mr. Tillis fell for Ms. Skolkin’s good-heartedness and elegance. He also loves that she became, at his near insistence, a Denver Broncos football fan. By the time both graduated from the University of Texas and moved into a Houston high-rise together in 2015, they had established their own football tradition.
Mr. Tillis, a lifelong fan, is a demonstrative touchdown celebrator. “I jump up and do a dance, I yell at the TV, I express my emotions physically,” he said. “I can’t contain myself.” Ms. Skolkin has taken to capturing his joyous displays covertly on camera. She has amassed a band of Snapchat followers who look forward to watching Mr. Tillis’s outpourings of Broncos ebullience.
On Sept. 25, 2016, the day Mr. Tillis decided to propose, he made sure the Broncos were on.
“She was sitting on the couch, just a normal Sunday, she’s got no makeup on and we’re just about to click on the TV,” Mr. Tillis recalled. “After the first big play I started running around the apartment like I usually do, and before she could grab her phone I went and grabbed a jersey I had bought her.” The jersey said Tillis on the back. Mr. Tillis got down on one knee and asked if she would be his wife. Ms. Skolkin accepted the ring she recognized as her mother’s — Dr. Skolkin had given it to Mr. Tillis in advance. She instantly accepted.
“I didn’t see it coming, which is exactly what he wanted,” she said. “I was crying and so happy. To be able to wear that ring every day is so special.”
On Dec. 17, Ms. Skolkin walked down the aisle of the Marriott Houston ballroom, accompanied by her father. The bride wore a Martina Liana mermaid-style gown with pearl button detail up the back. Mr. Tillis, in a midnight blue tuxedo custom made in Thailand, met them beneath a stage set with a huppah. Rabbi Brian A. Strauss of Congregation Beth Yeshurun, and 340 guests, watched as Ms. Skolkin circled Mr. Tillis seven times, conveying unity and completeness, according to Jewish custom.
Although Hurricane Harvey passed through Houston months ago, it was still fresh in the minds of attendees. Rabbi Strauss said his synagogue suffered about $6 million in damage from the storm. He took heart in learning he would be marrying a generous and kind couple.
“On what should have been the days leading up to your wedding, using the food that was supposed to be part of your wedding weekend, there you were, volunteering for those who were in desperate need,” he told the bride and groom. “You put in the time necessary to help make a difference. It is clear that your parents have taught you well, to live by the values of our Jewish tradition, making the best of a very difficult situation.”
In their vows, which the couple read to each other before the traditional breaking of the glass, both remembered their late parents.
“You have shown me that even life’s hardest, most confusing times can result in the most beautiful clarity,” Ms. Skolkin said as two maids of honor, a best man, 10 bridesmaids, 11 groomsmen and five ushers stood by them.
In his vows, Mr. Tillis said his father used to pepper him with questions about what he was looking for in a woman, and he would give his answers: “Smart, funny, pretty, strong Jewish identity.” His father thought these were good qualities, but told the younger Mr. Tillis that most important in a partner is a good heart.
He saw just that when Ms. Skolkin fed, bathed and clothed her mother, and kept her spirits up. Ms. Harwood Skolkin, in the late stages of her illness, once grabbed Mr. Tillis by the arm and told him Ms. Skolkin was her “berakah” — Hebrew for blessing.
“That’s when I knew for certain what kind of heart Dayna has,” Mr. Tillis said. “The kind my dad told me I needed to find in a girl.”
Come rain or come shine, both knew how lucky they were — on their second planned wedding day — to have found each other.