Thursday, September 13, 2007

The difference between 'sad' and 'wrong'

We've had a quiet tragedy here in the neighborhood.

A neighbor, famous on the street for an immaculate home, a lush greenery-filled yard and an ever-present friendly smile, was cut down by a brain tumor. Diagnosed in late January with glioblastoma multiforme, he died in early June after a mere five months, leaving behind that immaculate home and his spouse of 26 years.

Last weekend we spoke with the spouse for the first time since it happened, at a birthday party for another neighborhood friend. If I were in those shoes, I don't think I'd be out of bed yet, let alone trying to renew those neighborhood ties of years past. And yet our neighbor was there, reclaiming friendships and sharing memories, with the neighborhood left in awe of the incredible courage on display.

But of course, there was incredible pain inside that courage. "When he died, I died too," the neighbor said, hands shaking, tears welling. "I'm all alone now." All we could do was offer friendship, support, hugs, all while sharing the loss of a 26-year relationship and wondering what will happen next.

I can't imagine the feeling of losing a spouse of 26 years. One can only hope there's enough love in the families, enough support in the community, and enough resources around for the survivor to continue. And for most folks, I suspect most of the above is true. After all, families never abandon. Communities always support. And resources always go to the surviving spouse. Right?

I wonder. And in this case, I doubt. You see, our neighbor Tim just lost his spouse, his "life partner" of 26 years, Martin. And in most of the United States, their relationship is simply not recognized as spousal. Instead, only the most progressive states would view their relationship as anything other than "roommates." And in many, it would be considered sick, evil, an abomination, deserving of destruction.

But families never abandon. Right?

I wonder. When I read Martin's obituary, I noticed it lacked any mention of family. The obit talked about his career, his time in the Navy, his relationship with his life partner. But no mention was made of brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews. He had a family, but nowhere were they mentioned.

Communities always support. Right?

I wonder. Martin and Tim had that immaculate house together here in a more "liberal" part of our straight-laced, right-wing town, an area that takes pride in welcoming people of all colors and all preferences. But knowing the area, there's little doubt had they tried to settle in other neighborhoods, they would likely have been drummed out, simply for being a gay couple.

Resources always go to the surviving spouse, right?

I wonder. While I have no idea about Tim's specific financial situation, reading Martin's obituary reminded me of the time he spent in the military. He helped the injured and protected his country. And yet, simply because Martin's spouse was a man, this grateful nation forbids any military pension or Social Security survivor's benefit from going to Tim.

So much for equal protection under the law.

There's a word for bad things happening outside of our control. It's "sad." We grieve with Tim, we feel at least a little piece of his pain, and as neighbors we'll do everything we can to make sure he can keep going despite the overwhelming loss.

But there's also a word for bad things happening under our control. Why won't society recognize a relationship like theirs -- one that lasted far longer than many legally recognized marriages -- as a spousal relationship? Why would that society knowingly deny such benefits to a surviving, grieving spouse? And why do we view such a thing -- a love of more than a quarter-century -- as, somehow, evil?

That denial, that shunning of a survivor simply because some moralist somewhere considers the relationship distasteful, is completely under human control.

And as such, it's not simply sad. It's wrong.