The Blessing of the State
“Wake up!” I shouted into our fourteen-year-old daughter Regina’s room. “Mom and I are going to get married!” Regina peeked up from her frilly lilac covers, moaned, and protested about her exhaustion. I sighed and closed the door. When I went into sixteen-year-old Maia’s room, I poked her in the back instead of yelling. Maia pretended to sleep, having pulled her grandmother’s careworn quilt over her head. She was so inert that I would have checked to see if she was still warm if I didn’t know the ploy. It was 11 a.m., and we were rushing to get to the courthouse before 1 p.m.
I quickly gave up the attempt to rouse our daughters, given the rush and my ineptness at authoritarian parenting. Nancy was standing in the hallway dressed a few tiers above her usual T-shirt and jeans, wearing a waifish, purple silk scarf around her black turtleneck, her still-blonde hair capped into a tomboyish bob. It was hard to believe that a few hours earlier she was lying in bed looking as if she was headed to the hospital instead of the courthouse. “Forget it,” I said, “We have no time to argue with them.”
“Agreed,” Nancy said. “Let’s get the hell out of here and get married.” After twenty-seven years of partnership, we were finally headed to our wedding.
We had no idea we’d be wed until the prior night. It was a typical Friday evening, with everyone in the household spent from their weekly exertions of school and work. Except that nothing was typical. Nancy had been diagnosed with terminal breast cancer six months earlier. She’d been in remission from her first bout with cancer for seven years, long enough to forget how tenuous one’s hold on life can be. After she fractured a rib from bending over to water a plant, we learned that her bones were pockmarked with cancerous lesions. Now every month brought new evidence of the cancer’s spread throughout her body. Each time the doctor announced a new incursion in her kidney or lungs, a chasm in my stomach opened when I imagined that Nancy’s physical being could vanish from our lives.
On that same Friday, March 23, 2014, a Michigan judge ruled in favor of a lesbian couple who wished to marry so they could jointly adopt their three children. Ten years earlier, while our children were in grade school, fifty-nine percent of Michigan voters agreed to amend the state constitution to ban all same-sex marriages. The amendment stated that such unions were “illegitimate” and a “threat to children.” Now the judge declared that denying same-sex couples the right to marry was unconstitutional.
Attorney General Bill Schuette immediately announced his plan to issue an emergency order to keep the weddings from happening. Michigan was not just a battleground state for the presidency. Right and left were at war, and the worst of the carnage was featured in the fight over same-sex marriage.
When I went into my study to work after dinner that day, I received a phone call from Nathan, the mayor of our small college town and my former student. “Dr. Grant,” he began in his most formal voice.
“Stop calling me Dr. Grant,” I teased. “You graduated six years ago, and now you’re a more important person than I am. Julia will do.” Nathan was a passionate humanitarian and brilliant thinker and had such a nerdy knowledge of policy that one of his teachers used to call him “the governor.”
Nathan laughed and explained that officials planned to marry same-sex couples at the county courthouse on Monday before the ruling was stayed. “I want you and Nancy to be first in line at 8 a.m. We need to strike quickly.”
Nancy and I began our partnership in the 1980s when the idea of same-sex marriage seemed as outlandish as a female pope. We never made public vows, but had shared ownership of cars, houses, and pets and eventually adopted our two daughters. Our lives were so intertwined that it was unlikely that marriage would make one whit of difference to our partnership. There was only one thing that had been missing: the dignity of recognition in the wider community.
We had celebrated with gusto the weddings of our families and friends, even though there would never be festivities equivalent to those joyous occasions for us. We were careful never to be too demonstrative in public, wary of making our relatives uncomfortable, incurring hostility from strangers, or causing our daughters to suffer from unwanted attention. We had tired of answering the questions of doctors and nurses as to whether we were sisters or friends. Each time I revealed the status of our partnership to straight parents I stifled a spasm of worry, scanning their faces for any signs of surprise or judgement.
By the time of our wedding, we had accumulated enough stories of our lives together to regale several dinner parties. We met as two struggling graduate students in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the fall of 1987 when we were both in our early thirties. I was on the verge of getting my Ph.D. after an unpromising beginning as a bullied middle schooler and a drug-addled teenager. I’d sprung from a sprawling brood of histrionic personalities, with eight kids, two lovable angst-ridden parents, one of whom took to the bottle, and a live-in grandmother who occasionally slipped into psychosis. I had been longing to find someone with whom I could share the same loving intensity I experienced with my family with less chaos and drama.
When I walked into the India Pavilion for my first date with Nancy and saw a slim blonde woman with sun-weathered skin hunched over a laminated menu, I thought to myself: this is someone I could grow old with.
Why I had this insight is a mystery, but I thought that I could see the gravity of centuries behind Nancy’s pellucid blue eyes and sober countenance. Yet, until that moment, I was at best dubious about this date with a pale, quiet woman whom I had first met at a brunch only a few weeks ago.
Nancy was a graduate student in engineering, having accumulated street cred by working in jobs ranging from mushroom factory to switchboard. On that first date, she confessed her love for sitcoms and opera, sailboats and baseball, Flannery O’Connor and James Taylor, all in her lilting Boston brogue.
Toward the end of the evening, she confessed that her father was nearing the end of his life after a short, furious bout with colon cancer. After confiding this, she leaned forward: “Why don’t we talk about something lighter now? What do you think about having children at some point in your life?”
I didn’t think twice. “I can’t imagine a future without them.”
Then I said, “Do you want to go to a feminist film festival next weekend?”
Soon Nancy moved into my miniscule second-story flat that we called “home sweet hovel.” A few years later, we finished our degrees and moved to Michigan, so I could embark on my first professional job as a faculty member, which was a feat for a girl who had once dropped out of college to work in diners and pizza parlors. We’d both grown up in baby boom industrial suburban neighborhoods, Nancy from the Boston area, me from Philadelphia—where we were more accustomed to concrete than forests. We bought a house in the country on a dirt road with acreage, deer, and wild turkey, and we gardened, me for the first time, planting flocks of unruly perennials across the hillside.
We didn’t seriously consider having children when we first moved to Michigan because of my frenzied effort to get tenure and Nancy’s bout with a serious illness. We were already in our mid-forties when we adopted our two daughters from Russia, after realizing, while relaxing under a palapa in Mexico, that we would never be fulfilled as a parentless couple. We knew that there were risks to adopting as older parents. But we assured ourselves that we were done with the sowing of any wild oats, were financially and emotionally stable, and would make parenting the focus of our lives. We joined an expanding support group of lesbian moms, eventually so large that no one could entertain the trampling crowd of youngsters in one house. As a result of the ties our daughters forged in that group, they grew up thinking that having two moms was a usual thing.
I saw my family as the grand accomplishment of my life, after my unpromising youth. Even with the usual tumult of life, we were relatively complacent with our family of four, stable jobs, and home in an easygoing college town. And now with Nancy’s life in peril, the relatively stable edifice we had constructed was in danger of collapsing.
Marriage was at best an afterthought, inconsequential, compared to what we were up against.
After my conversation with Nathan, I snuck into the kitchen and sat down next to Nancy at our breakfast table. Her skin was stretched taut across her cheekbones, her lips as gray as a November Michigan sky. She chuckled as she turned the pages of a David Sedaris book. “I just got off the phone with Nathan,” I said. Nancy looked up from her book expectantly. She was aware of the same-sex marriage developments in our state and Nathan’s activism.
I told her about his plans to marry us at the courthouse.
“Monday,” Nancy said wonderingly. “That can’t be!”
I said, “Well, it might be, unless that idiot Schuette has his way and puts a stop to the marriages.”
“What is wrong with those people?” Nancy asked irascibly, before rising from her chair to start clearing the table. “Jesus Christ. Look at the neighbor down the street. Three marriages and his kids are still in grade school. And if he wants to get married again, fine, no problem. Christ, even a prisoner can get married while they’re still in the can no matter what horrible thing they’ve done. Don’t get me started.” I didn’t bother to point out the inherent hypocrisy in her remarks about divorced people and criminals.
I got up and started helping Nancy clean up the dirty dishes. My life was so consumed with work, kids, and taking care of Nancy that I barely had the energy to scrub the grime from our Formica countertops.
“I’ve always wondered why they hate us so much,” I mused. By “they,” I meant the citizens who voted to amend the state constitution, the right-wing protestors, and the conservative politicians. Worse yet was the superintendent of the local Catholic school district who refused to enroll our daughter as a student because she had two moms. Having both been raised Catholic ourselves, we were gob-smacked by the tears we wasted on that rejection. Our children’s friends’ parents, including Jehovah’s Witnesses and devout Catholics, entrusted their kids to us for long weekends and chatted with us on the outskirts of the soccer field about the baffling complexities of teenaged girl culture. I was pretty sure they didn’t hate us even if they voted against us. But the minds of many folks had been so seared by ideology that it didn’t matter. It was a question of principle, they would say. Love the sinner, hate the sin. That logic really put most queer folks I knew over the edge.
“Here’s what’s really important, though,” Nancy said as she flopped back into her chair. “Maybe I can finally adopt the kids.”
Nancy was the mom who raised the temperature of delight in our children’s lives. She took them to buy chocolate at the best candy store in town, was always available to hit tennis balls against the garage, and designed elaborate fireworks displays for the holidays. I was the Martha to her Mary, grumbling about making dinner while the kids stretched out on the sofa cuddled up to Nancy, cackling about one of their TV sitcoms. Being the planner, I had done most of the legwork for the adoptions and was the sole legal parent for our children. But our kids really needed both the planner mom and the fun mom, and the fact that only I was identified as the “parent” on our kids’ legal documents was an outright lie. Our kids had two moms.
“But it will be hard to get used to being so mainstream, especially given how boringly mainstream we already are,” I said.
Nancy laughed, “But what will you be like as a married lady, I wonder? Will you turn all respectable and proper?” And then she got up from her chair and whirled me around on our black-and-white checkered kitchen floor.
“As if we weren’t already an old married couple,” I said. “And I’ve still got a streak of wild in me. It’s too soon to put me out to pasture.”
And then I did a little jig right there in the kitchen.
We walked into the living room where Maia and Regina were watching re-runs of George Lopez. They were scrunched up on our weathered sofa, with Maia lying on a pillow propped against Regina’s knees.
“Hey girls,” Nancy said. “You’ll never guess what we have to tell you.”
They continued staring mutely at the screen.
Maia turned to meet our eyes without raising her head from the pillow, “Huh?”
“We’re getting married on Monday,” Nancy said. “Marriage is finally legal in Michigan.”
Regina smiled wanly at us, “That’s nice Mom.”
“You’re already married, though,” Maia said. “I mean, for all intents and purposes,” she laughed.
So far as the girls were concerned, Nancy and I were like any other boring parental twosome, with some oddities and flaws more obvious now that they were adolescents. In middle school, they became aware that their parents could not get married. But as soon as they learned that their parents’ legal status did not alter the rules of staying out, doing homework, or their consumption of social media, they lost interest in the question. Nothing in our ordinary lives would change if we signed a marriage license. Or, at least, that’s how it seemed until that very moment.
The next morning, Nathan called again, his voice clipped and urgent. I could hear the murmur of voices and commotion behind him, as he was at the county courthouse. After everyone went to bed on Friday, Nathan and other same-sex marriage activists besieged the county clerk to make an unprecedented decision to open the courthouse on Saturday. They argued that Monday might be too late. She finally agreed.
They were performing marriages that morning, but there was only a short window of time, as the doors would close at 1. “Can you get down here as soon as possible?” Nathan asked. “I would be honored to officiate at your wedding.”
I looked at my watch. It was already 10:30. I thought about how pasty and weak Nancy had seemed that morning. “I’ll try,” I said.
“I’ll wait for you,” Nathan said. “We won’t close the courthouse until you get here.”
Now that it seemed that we might marry, I sat in my office chair for a few moments stunned at what had just transpired. After a long, gray winter, the early spring sun had emerged from behind the dull cloud curtain, electrifying the evergreens, the grass, and the few precarious early flowers. The sky was fickle in spring and the color might shade into ash in a few hours. Nancy and I had always been ones to take our chances, to catch the fleeting moments of joy before they passed.
And yet I was unsure if Nancy would be able to rouse herself from bed that morning. When she woke up on a good day, she’d say “I’m vertical!”—but you never knew if it would be a vertical or a horizontal day. I’d watched the color drain from her face over the prior months, first from the pain, and now from the chemotherapy. She was nauseated and ate only little bites of things. Now she was shedding pounds faster than leaves in autumn.
When I entered our bedroom, Nancy was leaning up against the pillows, her head lolling over the newspaper.
“Hey, do you want to get married?” I asked teasingly. Her head bobbed up from the pillow “Today?”
I told her that if we wished to get married, we needed to leave quickly. “Well, why not?” she said, threw off her bed clothes, and got dressed, while I tamed my cowlicks into a more suitable form for a Saturday impromptu wedding.
We scooted out of the driveway in our suburban mom Dodge Caravan, giddy as we drove to Mason, some fourteen miles away. On a day when I might have been hauling the laundry into the dryer and trudging through the grocery store, we were headed to our wedding.
We had only been to Mason once before to shop at a fusty second-hand shop. It was a quiet town with older homes and antique stores stretching out to miles of farms and woodlands.
There was an elaborate historic county courthouse that seemed as if it had been transported from its royal moorings to the simple town square.
The courthouse and its surroundings were abuzz with crowds and a scene that Mason had never witnessed. Multiple rainbow flags rose over the steps to the sandstone building. We saw couples in all shades of attire—tuxes, leather, crinoline, and flannel—climbing the steps to seal their vows. Ministers wearing ornate, multi-colored cassocks strode across the plaza and steps, along with reporters and photographers. Everyone there had gathered because of word of mouth and social media. The event was so unpublicized that there were no protestors to be seen.
There were couples strewn across the steps to enter the courthouse, with everyone chatting about how they came to be in Mason on that Saturday morning. We stopped to talk to a curvy, young woman with crimson lipstick, an elegant bun, and a rhinestone-studded white dress. Her slim lover sported slicked back dyed auburn hair and a black satin vest and bow tie over her starched white blouse. They were in their late twenties and kissing and laughing, gazing into each other’s eyes with that hormone-infused stupor that erases all flaws in one’s partner. “We’re coming up on our one-year anniversary,” the bride bragged as she looked sweetly into her fiancé’s eyes.
We also met some smart-looking older men dressed in tweedy vests and European leather shoes, one of whom had jumped on an early-morning plane from Florida in order to be present for the occasion. They, too, bragged: “We’ve been together for twenty-five years!” Many of the couples seemed already married, with graying hair and faces whose contours had faded, yet still eager to have their bonds recognized.
As we entered the courthouse, we saw notaries and ministers marrying couples in every hallway of the building. Pressing through the crowds, we found Nathan wearing his trademark bow tie and tailored suit. For a person under the age of thirty, he was surprisingly formal, even for an ambitious politician. “Dr. Grant, so good to see you,” he said, as he stooped over to receive my hug. He beckoned us to a festive line of couples applying for marriage licenses. A frizzy-haired bespectacled woman with a broad smile instructed us on how to fill out the forms. “When they ask you why you want the typical five-day waiting period waived,” she laughed, “just answer: It’s about time!” They were whipping through the paperwork with such speed that the clerk listed someone’s else’s birthday under my name on the marriage license: 1971, the year of my graduation from high school.
After we filled out the paperwork, Nathan corralled us into a dark wood-paneled corridor at the back of the courthouse to perform our ceremony. Our voices cracked as we said our vows, and it seemed that we had anticipated what no one had told us yet: Nancy would not be here for long. We spoke the words that legitimized a lifetime of love in the eyes of the state. Nancy was almost inaudible as she uttered “till death do us part.” I struggled to contain the rush of emotions that coursed through me like a raging river as I spoke my vows. Nancy sucked in her cheeks, rolled her eyes up to the sky, and held me so tightly I could feel the imprint of her fingers on my arms. In the photo taken of us that day, Nancy’s arms are tightly clasped around me, and I am leaning up against her, even though she was the sickly one.
After we left the courthouse, we picked up chocolate croissants, fruit, champagne and invited our dearest friends to come celebrate with us at the house. Maia and Regina, now dressed and ready to face the day, were delighted with the impromptu Saturday afternoon party. We sat around the long oak farm table facing the yard where green grass and yellow crocuses were sprouting amid the wilting brown remnants of last summer’s garden. Everyone toasted the brides, laughing at the ridiculousness of two grown women, long partnered, just married. And that night, when we climbed into bed, our exhaustion was tempered by joy.
Less than 48 hours later, the Attorney General announced that there would be no same-sex marriages in Michigan, now that the state had lodged an appeal to the ruling. The lawyers who represented the opposition claimed of the 300+ marriages performed in several courthouses in the state on that Saturday it was “as if the marriages had never existed.”
Nine months later, on June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court finally granted all same-sex couples the right to marry. After a short, violent siege of progressive illnesses caused by both the chemotherapy and the cancer, Nancy died on October 1st, a little over six months after our wedding and less than eight months before the national ruling. Because of the short term of our marriage, we received few of the legal benefits, and Nancy never got to adopt our children.
Our marriage could not forestall the grief that settled on our family like a mushroom cloud after Nancy’s death. Our daughters had been adopted from orphanages—their entire lives prefaced by the loss of their birth parents, and I wondered how they could withstand the loss of Nancy. I’d never been able to withstand life’s ravages with stoicism, and I wondered if I was strong enough to lead our family out of despair.
Yet our wedding bestowed me with the title of widow, a word that conjures aging women in lace black bonnets, bereft, and in need of protection and charity: a whole lineage of women in mourning who have comforted me in my grief.
After a difficult family gathering following Nancy’s death, I wondered aloud what was left of our family. My daughter Maia reassured me, “We haven’t lost our family, mom. It’s just a new kind of family.” She was right, and while we limped through the early years of grieving, we are all walking almost upright seven years later.
Now I cling mostly to the memories, like the wedding, that coat our partnership with the glossiest of finishes. It’s not the wedding itself that stirs me the most but what it represents: a particle of light in the grayest of years and the memory of a union, neither perfect nor immortal, that wove together four disparate individuals, unrelated by blood, into a family that did not need the blessing of the state.
JULIA GRANT is a recovering academic, who is currently embarking on a second career as a creative writer. She is working on a memoir, The Last Orbit: A Memoir of a Lesbian Widow, from which this essay is excerpted. She has previously published in Entropy Magazine. She currently resides in East Lansing, Michigan.