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What affects anyone affects me

November 4th, 2009 (01:23 pm)

current mood: frustrated

A little more than three years ago, I went to my first Jewish wedding. Although it was fascinating to see rituals I’d never seen, hear prayers I’d never heard, and experience new concepts such as the chuppah, the ketubah, the breaking of the glass, and the yichud room, the best part was that it was one of those weddings. The kind where, as a guest, you can see that this is a marriage of two people who truly love each other in a way that promises a lifelong relationship. The rabbi had known the bride since she was a little girl, and he’d understood the first time he met her beloved that this was “the one.” Their parents looked on with utter joy and pride during the ceremony. Afterward, families and friends mingled. People met for the first time, or got reacquainted, over the meal at the reception. There was dancing. Storytelling. Raucous laughter. Quiet moments when everyone felt bathed in the happiness of the couple and all those who loved them. It was magic, that night in 2006, and I left the reception with renewed appreciation for the way romantic love helps the rest of us feel a little more hope, a little more charity, a little more faith.

Love builds us as a community. One manifestation was how, the next day, while the couple was flying to Jamaica for their honeymoon, their wedding planner decided to take all the beautiful flowers from the reception tables and distribute them among patients at a local hospice—a beautiful and compassionate gesture that brightened the day for the hospice staff, as well. Thus the love celebrated at one intimate ceremony spilled over into a larger world, touching the lives of even strangers. That’s the great gift that is love, and when we receive it, it’s as if the entire universe pauses for a moment to bask in it.

I often draw on my memories of that wedding weekend and the hope and comfort they give me about our capacity to love. I needed that hope and comfort so much a few weeks ago when I read a story about another couple that broke my heart. I didn’t know them, but they easily could have been neighbors or friends of mine. They were the parents of three adopted children, and in 2007, the entire family was about to depart for a cruise from Miami when the mother fell ill. She was rushed to a hospital, where she was admitted.

This is when the real nightmare began.

The hospital refused to take medical information from the woman’s partner because the partner was also female. According to a hospital spokesperson, they were in “an antigay city and state,” and the woman’s partner and children would receive no information about the patient’s medical condition, nor would they be allowed to see her. The partner managed to contact people in their home state who were able to fax all the legal documentation that unmarried couples put in place to protect them from just such an ordeal—including the medical power of attorney.

A medical power of attorney is a document that will allow any person so designated by the patient legal rights regarding medical decisions, but it was not honored by this Miami hospital. As the patient slipped into a coma and eventually died, her partner was allowed only a five-minute visit while a priest was present to administer the sacrament of anointing of the sick.

The patient’s doctor admitted there was no reason why her family shouldn’t see the dying woman. No reason except the cruelest kind of bigotry. Even after her death, when the family returned home, the county refused to release the death certificate to her partner because they weren’t married.

I’ve been present at the deaths of five people I loved. Those hours, even minutes, before and when someone dies are profound. The words, the touches, the gestures we use to comfort and express our love as we say goodbye are sacred. I can’t imagine being in a situation in which my husband would be only a few feet from me, his life slipping away, and being forbidden to be at his side. Even thinking of that makes me cry. But it wouldn’t happen. If it were physically possible for me to be with him, no doctor, nurse, social worker, or hospital administrator would block my way. Nor was I, as a daughter, kept away from my parents during their hospitalizations, and I was with my mother when she died. Custom, the law, the very essence of human kindness protect me from the agony of being kept from a family member who’s dying.

But custom, the law, and human kindness didn’t protect those two women in Miami. And my friends, the Jewish couple? They wouldn’t have been protected either, had they ended up at that Miami hospital before taking their honeymoon trip to Jamaica. Because though their families and friends witnessed their wedding ceremony, and though their rabbi blessed their union, they also are both women. There is no civil law that honors their commitment to each other.

So please don’t tell me that the bigotry that overturns or denies protections and equal rights to gays and lesbians in places like California and Maine doesn’t affect me. It does. And please don’t tell me how you really do love your gay friends, but you think that “marriage is between one man and one woman,” because as far as I’m concerned, that isn’t love. I’ve never yet been told of one single incident in which a minister or priest or pastor was forced to marry any couple that he or she didn’t feel comfortable marrying. This isn’t about religion. This is about civil law, and treating all people with equality and dignity.

When you tell me that my gay and lesbian friends and family members don’t deserve to be married, don’t deserve to be part of decisions regarding their spouses’ medical care, don’t deserve to stand by their spouses’ hospital beds as they’re dying to say that last goodbye, don’t deserve to live full lives without fear of being denied the most basic respect and rights a marriage bestows, then you’re saying the power of love to build and sustain us as individuals, families, and communities doesn’t deserve to exist.

And you are wrong.


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