Getting to the Courthouse on Time

From left to right: Nathan,Vicki, Sieg, me, and the beautiful Nancy

Today, June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court announced that states could not deny gay and lesbian couples the right to marry.   It was a bittersweet moment for me and others who have lost their partners to death before our rights to legally sanctioned love had been won.   I remember vividly the day on March 22, 2014 that Nancy and I had wed after over 25 years of living, loving, raising children, and making a family.   There had been a five-hour window that Saturday, when a few county courthouses in Michigan opened their doors to ensure that same-sex couples had an opportunity to marry.   An earlier Michigan court ruling had claimed that the marriages were invalid, that it was as if “the marriages had never existed.”   Now today, less than a year after Nancy’s death, our love has been enshrined by law.  My thoughts for gay and lesbian couples everywhere are joyful; my own thoughts wander back to that day when, though Nancy was already ill, we did not know that she would die that year, nor that our love would be vindicated by the highest courts of the land.  We had only been married for seven months before Nancy died. And even when we were married, our status was constantly in question.   But we did get married; at least I have that.

We were wed on a Saturday morning, when laundry and housework were the biggest items on my agenda.   Nancy was resting in bed, and I was checking the news to see what had happened following the previous court ruling the night before that had opened the doors to same-sex marriage in Michigan. The latest I had heard from my ex-student and LGBT ally and politician Nathan Triplett was that the local courthouse would probably open very early on Monday, and that we could be first in line to marry. But, although I didn’t know it, Nathan and others had been lobbying Barb Byrum, the county clerk, to open the Mason courthouse for marriages on Saturday to ensure that same-sex couples had the opportunity to marry before the state shut them down.

On Saturday morning, Nathan messaged me that the marriages were happening in Mason that morning, and he would be honored to officiate at our wedding. I sashayed into Nancy’s bedroom, where she was still resting and asked at about 11:00 a.m., “Hey, do you want to get married?” She looked at me incredulously from her bedside, “Today?” And I told her that we had a short window until 1:00 p.m. when the courthouse was supposed to close, although Nathan assured me that the doors would be open until we got there.   The marriages might also take place on Monday, but we couldn’t be sure, and—in fact—they did not.  Those who didn’t make it to the courthouse on Saturday had missed the marriage boat, at least temporarily.

“Well, why not?” she said, and got up, threw on some halfway decent clothes, and we sped off to Mason, almost giddy with excitement.   We hadn’t really thought about anything other than getting there. The kids were still in bed. We hadn’t bothered to wake them up to witness the occasion. On our way, we thought to phone our beloved friend Linda. “We’re getting married in Mason,” we told her. “I’m bringing flowers and champagne” she said, and ran to her car to meet us there.

Arriving in Mason, we felt that we were part of something larger.   Mason is a small semi-rural town, where you don’t typically see throngs of lesbians and gays in the town square, let alone sporting wedding garb. There were rainbow flags, reporters, photographers and—once we entered the courthouse—several ministers who had come to the courthouse specifically to marry same-sex couples:  a spectacle that Mason had not yet witnessed.

Thanks to grassroots organizations, which had been planning for years just for this occasion, the courthouse was like a well-oiled machine despite the crowds.   Once we got there, though, we remembered our dear friends Sieg and Vicki, who had been married years ago, but still weren’t legal. We got on our cell phones and they immediately stopped shopping to come meet us at the courthouse. We had raised our children with Sieg and Vicki, and we wanted to share this moment with them. Nathan promised that he would marry us all together, even if they were late. While we waited, Nathan also found Nancy a comfortable place to sit and some food, since she wasn’t feeling well.

Finally, Sieg and Vicki arrived, breathless and gleeful to be part of this experience.   Lining up to fill out our paperwork, there were so many couples who had been steadfast in their love for each other for many years.   These were not, for the most part, the faces and bodies of young love.  After so many years of partnership, people who no doubt had experienced the same conflicts and hardships of couples everywhere, were still eager to have their bonds legitimized. These were loves that had been tested not only by the vagaries of life but by years of having their unions invalidated by society and sometimes by their own friends and family.

Even after we were married, I constantly had to withstand questions about my relationship to Nancy, “the patient” and later, “the deceased.”  Was I the sister, the friend, the daughter? Never the lover, the partner, the wife.   When we went to sign the death certificate, the funeral director stated that legally Nancy’s mother should sign it, since the marriages were questionable in Michigan. Luckily, I had my sister Kate with me, who gazed at the man intently and suggested firmly that he let the widow sign the certificate.  It had been hard enough to get me there.

Nancy clasping me in her arms with Nathan officiating
Nancy clasping me in her arms with Nathan officiating

Finally, the moment arrived for the ceremony.  As our dear friends Sieg and Vicki stood by us, Linda and our friends’ children looking on, my beloved student told us the words to say that we had heard him say when he had wed Sarah. Looking into each other’s eyes, not knowing what our future would be, we spoke the words that legitimized a lifetime of love in the eyes of the state. I promised her that I would be there for her in sickness and in health.  At least I had that.

Lost and Found


In October of nearly every year, when the autumn leaves are at their crispest and most vivid in Michigan, our family had driven to Calhoun County, often with our friends Daria and Virginia and their children, to see the annual migration of the sand hill cranes to the wetlands. Just a one-hour drive, there was usually a festival in honor of the occasion, with distractions for children who were not as excited as the adults were to bear witness to the swelling descent of the cranes. After the children had visited the crafts booths, watched tamed wild animals perform their feats for the visitors, and drank warm cider, we would amble over to the hillside where the best viewing was to be had.

On that hill, devoted bird watchers, many with binoculars, some with scopes, were gathering, patiently waiting for the cranes, which would begin arriving about 4:30 but would not fill the skies until dusk. One could count on the good cheer of people who love birds: outfitted in their warmest outdoor gear, and watching intently as the numbers of cranes grew by the minute, swooping through the sky before their tremulous feet touched down on the watery earth. By the time it was peak viewing for the cranes, the kids were usually getting antsy and ready to abandon the cold hillside for the car and drive to nearby “Turkeyville,” where comforting hot turkey sandwiches and dinners were to be had. All of this was warm and wonderful: the companionship of good friends, the traditional turkey eating, and watching our children traipse about in the wooded sanctuary. But for Nancy and I, watching the cranes was the magical event, to be repeated year after year.


Nancy died on October 1st, shortly before the sand hill cranes’ migration to Michigan. A memorable photograph of the sand hill cranes was placed near her bedside as she approached death. And as we (Nancy’s closest friends, two of my sisters, and our daughters) sang goodbye to Nancy the night before she died, we hadinvoked the image of a sand hill crane comforting her and carrying her to the other side.

On a brisk and bleak November morning about a month and a half after Nancy died, I decided that I needed to see the sand hill cranes again. I bundled up in my new winter cap, hiking shoes, and down coat, determined that the cold would not deter me from my mission. I planned to explore a nature trail that I had never visited before just down the road from the festival arena.

This was a trip that I had made many times before, and I thought that the drive would take care of itself.   But I soon realized that I could take nothing for granted anymore. At the beginning of the trip, as the highway split off into two different directions, I inadvertently took the wrong turn, and it was quite some time before I discovered my mistake. This was a minor setback, and I turned off the highway in order to enter again in the right direction. But when I got to the general area of the crane sanctuary, I took the wrong exit off the highway. After what seemed to be miles and miles of flat farmland that failed to trigger any memories, I realized that I had no idea where I was.

I pulled by the side of the road and wept, overwhelmed by the ways in which my grief was making it impossible for me to find my way. I then turned again to the task of finding my destination. After fiddling with my phone’s navigational device, I eventually got headed again toward the trail I had been looking for.

Finally, I drew in my breadth, grateful that I had finally arrived at the Marsh Nature Trail. The wooden sign told me that I would encounter wetlands, woodlands, and most likely great viewing venues for the cranes.   It was cold, but I was fortified for the weather, and braced myself to encounter the grim natural beauty of November in Michigan—a fitting landscape for the barrenness I felt.


After a very short time on the trail I began to see numerous felled trees blocking me in several directions.  Many of them were overlapping, and the entire way ahead of me was strewn with obstacles to walking. Whether the trees had been felled by nature or humans was unclear, but as I moved on it was clear that the path was non-existent. I began stepping over fractured and distorted fir trees, telling myself that I was exercising more muscles than I normally would, but also anxious about falling, because it was unlikely that any other human being would be likely to trek through this stricken landscape. I stopped to sit on one such fractured log, wondering if I would ever find my way through this chaos.

Climbing over the branches, I finally found a clearing, with a flat hill ahead of me, a good spot for catching sight of the cranes.   The plaintive cries of the sand hill cranes greeted me before I saw them.    First a group of three, then groups of four and five spread their wildly wide wings above me, soaring in a pattern I strove to discern, as I could not see where they were headed.   It was daytime; they would not be settling down on the marsh. Instead they would be foraging for their meals—where, I did not know. I walked around haphazardly trying to follow their pattern; each time I caught a sight of them I would feel a softening of my grief.

I still had plans to go to work that day, so I soon decided to find my way back to my car. The high clearing allowed me to see where I was, but there was no way that I would be returning the same way that I came in, as there was no path to follow, and I had seesawed my way to where I was.   So I stepped awkwardly around the trees, until I saw the bench that signified proximity to the beginning of the trail. I was close to the end.

As I approached my car, I checked in my pocket for my car keys, where I had left them. The keys were gone, even though I distinctly remembered putting them there.   I looked behind me, paralyzed by the thought that I had lost my keys on the trail. There was no way that they could be found without endless wandering, of which I was incapable in my present state of mind. And even then, it was unlikely I would find them. Whatever resourcefulness I once possessed had been eroded by my grief.

I walked a few more steps closer to the car and saw the keys on the ground just a short distance from the car.   The found keys appeared to be a blessing, maybe even a sign from Nancy, or even God if he/she existed, that somewhere in the universe something/one would be looking out for me.   Probably the found keys were just a fortunate coincidence, but looking up at the gray sky and at my car awaiting my drive home, I wondered if maybe I would find my way after all.