For My Wife

When a flash flood took her partner, the renowned audiobook narrator Kate Fleming, one woman learned firsthand the inequities faced by gay and lesbian couples. Now Charlene Strong is making a documentary to call for equality--and commemorate the woman who was her wife in every way but legally.

BY Charlene Strong

January 23 2008 12:00 AM ET

A little over a
year ago, my vivacious partner of 10 years, Kate Fleming,
and I sat cozily in front of the television watching Tony
Soprano get shot and wind up in a coma. When the
episode faded to black, we got up to take a walk
around our Seattle neighborhood. As we took in the crisp
autumn air, Kate wondered what would happen if one of us
wound up just like Tony: unable to make our own
decisions in a medical emergency. Since we could not
legally marry, would either of us be allowed to take
care of the other? We talked over getting medical
directives, living wills, and power of attorney
documents, but I continued to assume that the dramatic
events that would necessitate their use occurred only in the
world of TV and movies -- not in our placid everyday lives.

On December 14,
2006, my assumption was tragically shattered. That
Thursday, an exceptionally strong storm deluged Seattle with
rain. Kate was working as an acclaimed audiobook
narrator, lending her versatile and beguiling voice to
such books as A Beautiful Mind and Bel
Canto
from our basement studio. When she saw that
a flood was imminent, Kate struggled to retrieve her
recording equipment from the basement before it could
be damaged by water. But before she could get out of the
studio, something fell in front of the door and
trapped her inside.

I was at work,
and she called me from her cell phone to tell me what was
happening. Instinctively, I rushed home to get her out. When
I arrived, the water was rising fast. Kate kept
reassuring me as I fought with all my strength to pry
open the door to the studio -- but before I could do
so, the floodwater swelled above my head and engulfed the
basement. To keep from drowning, I was forced to swim
away. A wrenching 15 minutes ticked by as a rescue
team arrived and recovered Kate, unconscious.

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