The election is 19 days away. Like most of us, I expect, I’m sick of the commercials and incessant noise that surrounds the whole election process. Even so, I’m compelled to write a few words on Referendum 74, the equality in marriage measure.
I’m for it. I know that a lot of people – people who are basically fair-minded and kind in nature – have trouble with it. But as I’ve thought about what marriage truly is and truly means, there are two couples who influence my thinking. They are in fact married, except that they’re not.
Ramon and Jim met when they were in their 20s and have been together nearly 18 years. They are legal domestic partners, and in order to become such, they registered with the Corporations Division of the secretary of state’s office – which is where such unions have a home – and carry cards in their wallets acknowledging their corporate status. They are among the 9,837 other active domestic partnerships in the state.
Ramon has worked in the broader social justice arena for a number of years, mostly focusing on assorted legal rights issues, but it was a year ago that his own status took on another dimension. A first-generation American citizen, he is the only one with a college education in his large, extended family. Last year he brought eight of his nieces and nephews, ages 10 to 16, to Spokane from their homes in the Yakima Valley for a tour of area colleges. He wanted them to begin to understand the admissions process and learn what a college education can mean for them.
“I prepared three questions for them to get answered at the colleges they visited, plus they had to come up with one of their own,” he said. “Then we sat around in the evenings and I held nerdy sharing sessions about what everyone had learned.”
As the cousins were talking, Ramon’s 16-year-old niece asked, out of the blue, “Are you and Jim married?” Ramon said no. Why not, the girl asked. Ramon explained the law. She and the others were dumbfounded. Uncle Ramon and Uncle Jim had always been Uncle Ramon and Uncle Jim, how could they not be married?
“That’s when it hit me,” Ramon said. “It’s more than just legal rights. It’s about the things that connect us socially, about the celebrations and rituals in life that bring us together, the norms and traditions that cement us to one another and to society.”
Holding on to their mini-corporation card from the state isn’t quite the same. Marriage is.
The other story that comes to mind is that of my friends Linda and Wendy, who shared 29 years together until Linda’s death at age 55 last January. In their own way, they are remarkable women. Being lesbians at a time when it was socially more difficult than it is today, they chose to make a life together, not in an in-your-face way, but openly and joyfully. They bought a home, enjoyed fishing and camping, worked, grew a garden and – well, lived a life.
Linda had been troubled with health issues since childhood. It was a long list, including multiple sclerosis, diabetes, a seizure disorder, heart disease and more. And much sooner than she wanted, she had to leave her job as a respiratory therapist and go on disability. She got about on her spindly legs, walking with two canes. Wendy has some health issues as well and because of severe arthritis, retired a few years ago. Now in her 60s, she moves slowly and painfully, also with two canes. Linda used to joke with me that they could be known as Slow and Slower. Even so, they went everywhere and were always busy, taking classes, attending concerts when the budget allowed and cooking great food for friends.
When Linda had a massive coronary in January, she lingered comatose in intensive care at a local hospital until tests revealed no brain activity and all the machines that were keeping her alive were turned off.
The decision to remove life support officially was made by Linda’s sister because Linda and Wendy had not taken the legal steps to ensure that Wendy would be the one to make the call. However, Linda’s sister recognized Wendy as her sister-in-law, and the two of them decided together. So their story isn’t about hospital rights going wrong.
What it’s about is what went on in the ICU. Wendy was not able to drive during that first week, so for many days I took her back and forth to the hospital and helped run errands. Wendy often asked me to stay with her in the ICU. I’d try to stay out of the way, tucking myself into a corner behind all the machines that whirred and beeped and clicked as they kept Linda alive. Wendy sat by the bedside holding Linda’s hand and reading aloud to the love of her life from Linda’s favorite book, “The Yearling.” Reading aloud was a familiar and cherished ritual.
There in the ICU sometimes Linda would squeeze Wendy’s hand. Nurses said it was not a conscious response, but the squeezes seemed to come during the reading of specific passages that had meaning to Linda. Wendy would take hope, stop reading and lean close to Linda’s ear, whispering words of love and begging Linda to come back to her. What I saw and heard in those pleas for return and expressions from the heart were more moving, poetic and beautiful than I could possibly express. Three decades of life together were ending, and the palpable pain of the moment knew no gender.
Marriage means different things to different people and is entered into for a variety of reasons. But if deep, abiding love isn’t what marriage is really about, then I guess I don’t know what is.