Samantha Carisch's wedding planning was going pretty perfectly. The bride-to-be – who'd accepted boyfriend Taylor Sinclair's proposal while vacationing with him in Mexico last summer – was ready to sign on the dotted line at a venue near the site of their engagement for an October 2015 date.
Telling her mother Kathy all of the plans one day last October, she felt something was off. "She's the happiest, most spirited person you will ever meet, but she wasn't as excited about it as I thought she'd be," Carisch tells PEOPLE. Kathy, diagnosed with multiple sclerosis when Carisch was in grade school, had just been told her disease was progressing and she wouldn't be able to travel.
"Taylor immediately said, 'If that's the case, we're abandoning that idea,' " Carisch recalls. And with that, the couple started to plan a wedding in San Diego, where she'd gone to college. In December, on the night before she planned to sign that contract, "I got a phone call in the middle of the night, from my mom and sister," Carisch says. Kathy was experiencing severe pain, and her sister was taking her to the ER.
Hours after meeting them at the hospital, Carisch heard news she'd never expected: "The doctor came in and said, 'It looks as though her colon cancer has metastasized to her liver,' " the 29-year-old recalls. (Kathy had successfully battled stage 2 colon cancer the year before.) "I still remember it, because of how the doctor delivered it: 'The prognosis doesn't look good.' It felt like my whole world was upside down."
With the news, Carisch quit her interior design job and moved from the Redondo Beach, California, home she shared with her fiancé to Simi Valley, where her mother was living with her sister. Wedding planning took a backseat as Carisch decided to become her mother's caretaker. "It's a whole new realm of life," she says. "But I can't think of doing anything else. I have to be here with her."
A Sweet Surprise
Through all of this, Sinclair, a 29-year-old sports medicine consultant (and former minor league baseball player) "has stepped up in ways I'd never even dream of a man stepping up for you," Carisch says. The two met by chance at one of his baseball games – she decided to root for him, he asked for her number, they went on two dates, he went away for the season, they did the long-distance thing, and the rest is history – and though they've been through a lot lately, "it's just made us even stronger," she says. "I feel like in these challenging moments, it solidifies more than anything that we have a strong relationship. We've not wavered in the least."
While deciding where to go with their wedding plans, Carisch started Googling "everything you can imagine," she says – "how to have a quick wedding, how to get married fast, backyard weddings, courthouse weddings"– and came uponTheKnot.com's annual Dream Wedding contest, which picks a worthy couple and gives them an all-expenses-paid wedding day.
"I thought, 'Is this really happening right now?' " she recalls of the timing. She shared the link with her sister and a few girlfriends, "and immediately it was, 'This is what you need to do and we're nominating you.' I was brought to tears."
In one day alone, more than 100 friends and family members nominated Carisch and Sinclair. "Our social media was blowing up," she recalls. "A lady from Australia emailed me to say she caught wind of our story and she'd emailed to nominate us, too. It was really a snowball effect."
The couple was selected as one of six finalists – "We delved into everyone's stories and they were all so worthy," Carisch says – and ultimately won. They'll be married next Thursday, June 4, at the Chateau St. Jean winery in Kenwood, California, with details from the dress and honeymoon to the flowers and cake decided by TheKnot.com readers.
"It'll be a unique wedding story to tell our kids someday," Carisch says. "It's fitting for our whole situation. And we just want to get married. We've always said the most important wedding detail is each other, and everything else will fall into place."
Counting Down the Days
With just one week to go until the big event, "it's something I worry about, if she'll make it," Carisch says of Kathy. "But her outlook on being there is, 'Absolutely, I am going to be there in the front row. I'm going to see you tie the knot.' Regardless of her physical condition, the fact that she's mentally motivated and staying positive is great. It's given us something to focus on other than what's hard right now."
The wedding will air live on TheKnot.com next Thursday, which family and friends who can't make it to California are excited about. "Taylor's mom's office is having a viewing party," Carisch shares. "They're getting a cake, punch. It's so neat – I feel like our voters that voted for the wedding had a huge part in it, and they deserve to watch it!"
As for having said voters choose her wedding dress and details, "As long as Taylor is the one at the end of the aisle, I'm happy wearing whatever dress, holding whatever flowers, wearing whatever hairstyle," she says. "I really just feel that I have so much love from everyone around me that I'll feel beautiful no matter what."
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