For My Wife

For My Wife

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
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.

She was taken to
the hospital, and there, I realized with horror,
the seemingly unfathomable scenario Kate and I had discussed
after watching The Sopranos was unfolding
before my eyes. A social worker prevented me from
entering the emergency room, telling me that
Washington State did not recognize same-sex partners
as next of kin. Kate and I had yet to procure all the legal
documents to establish our medical authority for each
other; therefore, as if I were a stranger, I
had to get the permission of one of Kate's family
members to be near her and to make decisions for her care. I
frantically dialed Kate's sister in Virginia as
precious time went by. I thought with a shudder,
What if no one is home? What if Kate dies
without me holding her hand?
After being barred from
comforting Kate during these harrowing moments, I
finally received permission from Kate's sister to be
with her. From that point on, I could be like any
other spouse fighting for their loved one.

That night, Kate
died with me beside her. I was able to remove the
wedding ring that she wore and the necklace I gave her for
her 40th birthday. I was able to tell her that I loved
her. If I hadn't reached Kate's sister, I may have
never had those irreplaceable moments.

After Kate
passed, I still did not receive recognition as her spouse.
Since I was not her legal wife, the funeral director would
not even look at me and directed all of his questions
to Kate's mother, who had to authorize the request for
her cremation. The death certificate made no mention
of our relationship. I could not imagine that our
relationship would be treated with so little respect
in Seattle -- the city that Kate and I had loved for
its progressivism and humanity. Before the tragedy, I
never realized in my relatively comfortable life that so
much more had to be done to really achieve essential
equality and dignity for same-sex families.

So, in January
2007, when the Washington State house and senate began
considering a domestic- partnership law providing the
hospital visitation and end-of-life rights that Kate
and I lacked, I decided to share my story with
lawmakers. I didn't write my speech because I knew that the
legislators weren't going to understand what was at stake
unless I spoke from my heart. In the end, they got the
message and pushed the bill through by a narrow
margin. The law went into effect on July 23, 2007.

That achievement
is only the latest in a nationwide campaign for basic
equality. Though a good number of cities and counties -- and
some states -- officially recognize same-sex
partners, 39 states do not. As a result, thousands of
gay people across the country will continue to face
the same uncertainty and indignity that Kate and I
experienced when their loved one is an emergency
situation. And, in spite of their most prudent
preparation, same-sex partners still may not be recognized
as family when tragedy strikes. Even if Kate and I had
received all the legal documents before December 14,
the flood would have destroyed them anyway. Does
anyone really carry such paperwork around all the

To further honor
Kate, I am continuing to press for essential
dignities for same-sex families in emergency and end-of-life
situations by coproducing a documentary about our
story, titled For My Wife. Watching TV with Kate on
that blissfully uneventful night weeks before she
died, I never could have imagined that our lives would
ever be the subject of a film. But as much as can
be unexpectedly lost in one year, I've learned also that so
much can be unexpectedly achieved. With that wisdom in mind,
I'm making this film knowing that, in some way, Kate
will be watching.

Tags: World, World

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