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.
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.