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For My Wife

For My Wife

Charlene_strong

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.

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.

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 time?

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.

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Charlene Strong