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.

The Mourning House


I currently sleep in the guest room of my house. The other room I used to sleep in – which I have been calling the “hospice room”–is now a more hallowed space. That room was redesigned just prior to death of the woman who had accompanied me through life and parenting for 27 years. We’d only been married for 6 months, due to a 5-hour period during which same-sex couples were allowed to marry in Michigan.  The death was unanticipated; diagnosis of advanced breast cancer, just one year earlier had led us to believe we had “years” instead of a year to share our lives together. Once a partner, spouse, and co-parent, I must now try on the identity of widow, while existing inside of a house that no longer feels like home.

In the hospice room, the hospital bed is gone, but there are many artifacts put in place for healing purposes. A Buddha statue from Sri Lanka donated by my sister for good luck; framed close-ups of photos of orchids taken by our daughter when we went to the orchid show last year; a print of the magnificent sand hill cranes whose visits to the wetlands of Michigan we witnessed every October.

Artifacts from the hospice room
Artifacts from the hospice room

When I walk through that room I see not the space where my partner and I once slept together, did our nightly roundup of the day’s events, and watched our favorite television shows. Once I had listened to Nancy whisper “sleep with angels, darlin’” each night before we switched off the lights. Now, I see a kind of vacuous shrine that I don’t wish to disturb.

The hospice room is artful. Our antique mahogany bed is spread with a treasured cover from Nepal, and its geometric purple and green hues are echoed in the pillows and in the lilac paint on the walls.   Nancy has left many objects containing memorabilia—cigar boxes, a pewter bowl, an old candy tin.   When I am brave enough to look through them I find weathered photos of her father and grandparents in sepia, small jewelry boxes containing antique rings and pearls, the invitation to her parents’ wedding in 1950, the baby shoes of our daughters. It contains remnants of a life I once was part of.

In the guest room where I sleep, I still feel like a visitor. The room remains the same as when it housed guests, not particularly inviting and somewhat disturbingly impersonal. The colors clash: pink curtains, a blue patterned quilt, walls painted a jolting lime green.  A large unadorned bed dominates the smallish room. It’s not designed for comfort or charm. But in my current uncomfortable frame of mind, it seems to fit my requirements.

A perennial basket of unfolded laundry resides in the corner of the anonymous space where I now reside. My computer, my refuge, stands ready for my use, although I still can’t find a show I want to watch or a book I want to read.   Scanning facebook, reading through emails, I seek connections to fill the stillness that stretches before me.

The rest of the house is also still somewhat alien territory, transformed by the permanent vacancy of one of its occupants. My sprightly teenaged daughter, whose easy laughter hasn’t changed much since toddlerhood, begs me to go upstairs with her at night, and she will not go back downstairs again without me, spooked by a house that is devoid of her other mother. She asks me to accompany her to the bathroom at night and in the early dark mornings. She fears that Nancy is somehow here in the house as a ghost, but perhaps not as much as she fears living in a house where Nancy no longer exists.

Nancy’s mother says she cannot bear to visit us in this place, not while the painful memories of her daughter seem to bounce off every surface of the house. But my daughter and I must live in this mourning house, trying to find our way to another kind of home where we can co-exist with what is here and what is not.