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Op-ed: A Christmas Remembrance

Op-ed: A Christmas Remembrance


Two Christmases ago, I lost the love of my life, Missouri State Highway Patrol corporal Dennis Engelhard. For 15 years, Dennis and I supported each other like any other committed, married couple. We were embraced by our church and our community. The only thing that stopped us from getting married was that Missouri law would not allow it. We hoped to see the day when Missouri would join other states across the country in granting us the freedom to marry. Tragically, we never had that chance.

Dennis left for his shift on Christmas morning, kissed me goodbye, and said that he loved me. I said, "Merry Christmas. I love you too." It was the last time we would ever speak. He was supposed to be home at 11 a.m. Instead, I received a call from his lieutenant. Dennis had been in an accident, struck by a car while attending to a highway stop in the snow. By the time I reached Dennis's bedside, he was gone. I held his hand, surrounded by other state troopers, who all wept with me.

In the two years since Dennis has been gone, I have watched with joy as people across the country have been granted the ability to marry the one they love or achieve legal protections that ensure that they will be able to care for their families. But as proud as I am of these developments, my heart breaks as well, because Dennis and I were not given the chance to take care of each other should the unthinkable occur.

Spouses and partners of those who do the kind of job Dennis did know that danger is part of the equation, but married couples can depend on the Highway Patrol to extend benefits to widows to help them get by. But because Dennis and I did not have the ability to become legal spouses, we were excluded from these benefits. I struggled with medical issues even before Dennis's death, and his income was a tremendous help in ensuring that we both received the care we needed. Since he's been gone, the emotional and financial toll of losing my partner in life has been devastating.

There were days after Dennis's death that were some of the loneliest and most bewildering I have ever known. Neither I nor my son, who regarded Dennis as a stepfather, were mentioned in Dennis's obituary, which just said that Dennis was single. When the governor called for the flags to be lowered to half-staff across the state, he asked the people of Missouri to pray for Dennis's parents and sister, who had lost a "son and brother." Those moments only served to drive home the fact that the state that Dennis gave his life for did not recognize the life and family he built with me for 15 years.

As I face another Christmas, I continue to honor Dennis's memory and defend the integrity of our family. For the past year, I have worked with the American Civil Liberties Union to challenge the discriminatory benefits policy and ensure that no family has to endure this kind of suffering ever again.

It is profoundly wrong for the state to prevent families from taking care of each other. This Christmas, I ask for the same thing I have asked for since that terrible day two years ago. I am asking for the same dignity for my family that is given to any other Highway Patrol family in their time of need.

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