Together, Apart

In losing my husband, same-sex marriage brought both solace and isolation.

A man looking sad in a bar full of happy people.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

Ten days before the June 2015 Supreme Court ruling that established marriage equality throughout the United States, Greg and I got married in our home state of California. Earlier, we had tossed around the idea of visiting all 50 states in the order of legalization, but with so many ultimately sharing the last date, we dropped the gimmick. Instead, we talked about the form our delayed honeymoon might take: riding a train across Canada in the snow, visiting friends and relatives on the East Coast, or taking a tour through the Moselle Valley, his favorite wine region.

All those plans evaporated the night I came home from work last October to find Greg collapsed on the floor. I called out his name and thought for a moment he would get up and laugh over my concern. But when I grabbed his hand it felt cold, though not yet stiff. His face was as serene as the Pietà. The rest of the night is a blur.

When I was younger, I had never anticipated getting married, let alone becoming a widower. I came out during college, not long before Massachusetts became the first state to permit same-sex marriage in 2004. I remember being worried about backlash, both from scared straight people and those in the gay community who feared assimilation into mainstream culture. But my feelings on the issue were rooted in theory, not experience. My early relationships were futile endeavors—one fizzled out before our second date, and another ended due to “astrological incompatibility,” a reason no more comprehensible to me a decade later. I felt confused about the line between friend and lover, undermining my attempts to build a circle of gay friends. In the end, I decided I simply didn’t fit in with the gay community, so I gravitated toward straight friends whose interests ran nerdy: video and board games, anime, and sci-fi/fantasy. I met a lot of great people but had no luck with relationships. Although I marched to protest Prop 8’s passage in California in 2008, I didn’t feel the right to marry would ever have a personal impact on me.

After graduate school, I moved into a huge Victorian house in Oakland with four presumably straight guys charging a ridiculously low rate for the attic. On moving day, I was struggling to get my dresser up three flights of stairs when one of my new roommates got up, carried it on his back, and then offered me a beer when we were finished. His name was Greg, and he had beautiful red hair. When I brought my cat the next day, I learned that he owned the house’s resident tabby. We soon became video game buddies, then genuine friends, and, as I was wont to do, I formed a seemingly hopeless crush on him. One night a year after I moved in, my roommates were up in the attic watching an old tape of their high school rock band. When everyone had gone, I realized that Greg had fallen asleep on my bed. I sat in the light of the muted TV, trying to decide if I should wake him up or sleep on the couch. My deliberations ended when he reached out and touched my arm, beckoning me to join him.

Greg wasn’t out at first, and he identified with gay culture even less than I did. Like me, he felt his sexuality wasn’t a lens through which to filter the world. He liked rough things—sports, action movies, and heavy metal—but treated me with surprising tenderness and patience when I revealed that I needed to take things slow due to past trauma. Things were on and off for a while, but when we grew more serious, I introduced him to my parents, and seeing them laugh, drink, and swear with him moved me. It was after the second such gathering that he told me he loved me, words I had said to him six months earlier, hoping one day he would return them. My quest for belonging in the gay community, already halfhearted, came to a halt. I had finally found my place.

When we decided to legalize our relationship in 2011, marriage wasn’t an option due to Prop 8, so we formed a civil union. We sent a notarized form in the mail, and six weeks later we received our certificate. Although I was grateful for our legal benefits, it didn’t feel exactly equal. When marriage equality came to California with the repeal of Prop 8 in 2013, we felt no urgency. But eventually a tax incentive made marriage sensible. “Why don’t we just do it then?” Greg said one day. “We’re basically married already—this is just an upgrade with a dog and pony show.” It may have been the least romantic proposal in history, but it fit a man who preferred going to KFC on Valentine’s Day.

We both thought planning a wedding would be horrible, but it was surprisingly easy to whittle our to-do list down every month. With no preconception of what our wedding should look like, we ended up picking options à la carte. We had a tame bachelor party, exchanged vows, took photos, and had dinner and dancing at our beach house venue. Meanwhile rings, flowers, and suits were wholly absent. An unexpected parade of shirtless lifeguards jogged down the beach just after the ceremony ended, which my father-in-law joked was kind of appropriate.

As many people have counseled me, marriage changes a relationship—I knew a couple who were together for 10 years only to get divorced a few weeks after their wedding. For us, marriage made our bond stronger. The way we argued changed, working more toward resolution than yelling about our differences. I found joy in doing small things that I knew would make him happy (remembering to shut kitchen cabinets, bringing home dinner as a surprise). I loved being married to a person who was genuinely excited to see me at the end of the day. And, as I said, we were looking forward to traveling together. We were preparing to renew our passports when, suddenly, he was gone.

Being married shaped the events following Greg’s death as much as it had shaped our life. My name was on all the forms, and I had the final say about everything from what to do with his remains to the music played before the ceremony. I felt grateful for my position, in contrast to stories I had read about gay and lesbian couples where the surviving partner’s legal standing was rated lower than estranged relatives who may or may not acknowledge their relationship. I felt reassured that my place in the funeral was not subject to whim and did my best to honor Greg’s memory while respecting the wishes of my in-laws. The details were important to me—in place of a religious icon hung an A’s pennant, and his favorite brown quilt was draped over the coffin. I held that quilt close the night after the funeral; it smelled of lilies and formaldehyde.

A week after the funeral, I picked up his ashes, realizing that the clothes I had chosen were cremated along with him. On leave from work, I struggled to fill the gulf of each day. One evening I found myself wanting to talk about how it felt surreal to still feel desire for someone who is deceased. As I scrolled through my phone, I couldn’t find a single person who seemed appropriate to call. I was blindsided by the yearning to talk to another gay man, only to realize the only one I had been close to was gone. Marriage, which had once been the solution to my loneliness, had now become a factor in my isolation.

Grief is strange and bewildering. My grandmother died a month after Greg, and I don’t think I’ve even begun to process that yet. I’m still adjusting to a world where it’s my job to feed the cats and check the mail, chores I pawned off on him for years. Most days, just getting through the bare minimum feels like an accomplishment, and anything else is a bonus. But it’s not all bad either; there are mornings where I wake up dreaming of him, nights where I dance to the music we both danced to, and moments of pleasure where an image of him comes to my mind, stunning in both its clarity and fragility.

Fifteen years have passed since I came out. I am wiser and more confident; I have loved and been loved. Somewhere on the other side of grief there is a life to be lived, friends to be made, and traveling to be done. And in that future, I hope to revisit my feelings and assumptions about the gay community. Perhaps there is a place waiting for me once I’m ready to find it.