Loved and lost: The death of a same-sex spouse | News Feature | Indy Week
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Loved and lost: The death of a same-sex spouse 

The death of a partner is never easy. It's harder when the law denies your relationship existed.

Click for larger image • Juneann Tesarz-Galbraith lost her partner, Pam (right), in January 2009. Due to the fact that they could not be legally married or considered civil partners under state law, June did not have all the legal rights given to heterosexual couples.

Photo by Jeremy M. Lange

Click for larger image • Juneann Tesarz-Galbraith lost her partner, Pam (right), in January 2009. Due to the fact that they could not be legally married or considered civil partners under state law, June did not have all the legal rights given to heterosexual couples.

Juneann Nathan was hanging laundry outside her Wake Forest apartment complex when she spotted a young woman wearing a pink tennis shirt and blue jeans looking in the windows of an empty unit nearby. June recognized Pam Tesarz from the neighborhood. Pam's smile had caught her attention, but June had never gotten up the nerve to have more than a passing conversation with her. Now, here Pam was on a warm spring day, cradling her toy spaniel on her shoulder.

"I thought we wouldn't have much in common," June says. "Turns out, we had a lot in common."

They talked for two hours, June recalls. Pam was about to rent the apartment behind June's. "Me being the humanitarian lesbian I am, I offered to help her move," June says. That led to a first date, when June cooked Pam a steak dinner and they sat on the couch watching an I Love Lucy marathon. Afterward, June walked Pam back to her apartment and said good night.

By the second date a week later, June says, "We knew we had something big."

They were married in a religious ceremony a year later. "There is no legal marriage license that said we were married," June says. "We didn't have the rights and entitlements. But we were no less married."

Perhaps it's the past tense that moves June to light another cigarette, thickening the smoke in the living room of the Rocky Mount apartment they once shared. June has been sleeping on the couch in order to avoid the bedroom where Pam died suddenly in January. On the coffee table is a photo album of their courtship. The walls are a shrine. The framed portrait of Pam in a bridal veil, taken on the day of their 2006 wedding, is a focal point. Christian inspirational messages sit on the shelves beside silk flower arrangements Pam made.

"They were very much in love," says Valerie Webster, a deacon at St. John's Metropolitan Community Church in Raleigh, an evangelical denomination with an inclusive policy toward gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. Shortly after Pam and June began dating, Webster says, they were accepted into the ranks of the church's committed, stable couples. "Everybody knew that it was Pam and June. I always told them they were made for each other because they were so strong for each other. There were times that, separately, I don't think they could have made it through situations they went through."

Two months later, June is struggling to hold on to the apartment, paying $375 a month plus a pile of bills, while living on $880 a month in unemployment benefits. Pam's car is parked at the curb only because the bank hasn't repossessed it yet. When June discovered she qualified for only $14 a month in food stamps, she didn't bother to collect, setting her sights instead on finding a job she could get to on foot or by bus. That could be tough: Rocky Mount has the second-highest unemployment rate among metro areas in the state—14.2 percent as of May. June is worried that if she's forced to move out, she'll have to give up the dog, two cats and guinea pig. "I know it sounds stupid, but they're what I have left," she says.

During their brief time together, June and Pam Tesarz-Galbraith—the surname they adopted together, Galbraith being the name of the aunt and uncle who raised June—endured a host of catastrophes. Both spent time in the hospital, accruing medical bills that led to bankruptcy and the loss of the house they bought. Close friends, as well as a close family member, died.

"We went through more in two and a half years of marriage than most people go through in a lifetime," June says. To her, that's evidence of a reality she wants the state to recognize. "You can pass all the amendments you want, but you can't change what Pam and I shared—it's a useless, wasted effort. So why not just give us the dang rights?"

Given their financial predicament, marriage rights may have only slightly improved June and Pam's situation. Certainly, plenty of married people struggle financially. But the benefits of marriage, including the financial ones, can be easy to take for granted and hard to quantify. According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, federal law provides 1,138 benefits, rights and protections on the basis of marital status. Those rights, along with a recognition of June and Pam's relationship, perhaps could have helped the couple find some stability during a chaotic and difficult time.

While Pam was alive, they could have filed taxes jointly, which would have saved them money. June would also have been entitled to collect a portion of Pam's Social Security benefits. In North Carolina, surviving spouses are eligible for a year's allowance following a death, money that comes off the top of any cash assets before creditors are paid; the state legislature recently voted to increase that allowance from $10,000 to $20,000. In June and Pam's case, they didn't have $20,000 in the bank.

Having little, they never thought it worth the expense to draw up wills, buy life insurance or assign powers of attorney—all means gay couples can use to legally protect themselves. With a power of attorney, June could more easily have negotiated with the electric and cable companies, accounts that were in Pam's name. Had she been heir to Pam's estate, June could have kept the car, though she says she wouldn't have been able to make the payments anyway. (Read "Make plans for your estate regardless of wealth.")

"What held us together was not a piece of paper," June says often. She believes the gay and lesbian community's fight for marriage rights sometimes distracts couples from remembering that commitment is what makes a marriage work. "We make the mistake of thinking, we need the right to marry. There are couples who've been together 20 years saying this. If you love each other with the kind of commitment that you should, and the kind of faith that you should, then you're already married! What you're asking for is the rights that go with being married," she says.

But even as she dismisses that "piece of paper," it's clear the elusive document matters very much to her.

Like most states, North Carolina already specifies that marriages between people of the same gender are not legally valid. This year, conservative legislators again introduced a bill that would amend the state's constitution to prohibit marriage, civil unions, domestic partnership or any similar legal recognition of same-sex couples. The legislation, which died in committee, mainly served as fodder for right-wing rhetoric.

As she read about the proposed law while mourning Pam's passing, June got angry. She called the Independent, eager to tell her story. "I can't believe with the state in the financial mess it's in, they want to waste time protecting society from people like me and Pam," she said during our first conversation. "I want to be the poster child for gay marriage."

She and Pam do not resemble the image many of us have of gay marriage: couples who kissed on the steps of San Francisco City Hall in front of cheering supporters and news media cameras. June and Pam lived a quiet life together. They couldn't afford to honeymoon in a gay-friendly destination like Key West. Evangelical Christians, they devoted most of their energies to prayer rather then politics, and they weren't particularly liberal, except on this issue.

As June tells her story, it becomes clear that she isn't the poster child for anything. Like most gay and lesbian people, she doesn't look like she stepped out of a brochure for a gay cruise line or off a float in a pride parade. She's one of thousands of people in North Carolina simply struggling to get by—with health problems and no health insurance, with unsteady employment, and now without the person who loved her most. Unfortunately, state and federal laws leave her more, not less, vulnerable.

Love makes a family, so the saying goes, and love, like family itself, is complicated. It grows over the wreckage of divorce and death, accommodates itself to the raising of children, adapts in the face of abuse and absence, and thrives on hope and kindness. The family Pam and June made together reminds us that family is not about living up to an image of perfect love, but about living up to the promise of commitment in the face of tragedy.

Click for larger image • June sits in the Rocky Mount apartment she once shared with Pam. - PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE

Many of June and Pam's days together were happy in a routine, married way. June recalls that they often went to church, played checkers and visited with Pam's parents and June's grandchildren. June describes Pam as "goofy, silly," with a generous heart. She gave friends and relatives plastic crosses decorated with silk flowers—one still hangs from the rearview mirror of Webster's car. After June's elderly cat died, Pam made a nonsensical excuse to leave the house and came home with a kitten she'd seen offered in the newspaper classifieds. One morning, Pam, who had worked her way through nursing school as a cosmetologist, reached to put styling mousse in her hair and got a handful of foaming bathtub cleaner instead, at which June broke into hysterical laughter.

While Pam was the more fastidious housekeeper, she was also the pack rat, stockpiling thrift store purchases in boxes and plastic bins around the house. This irritated June, just as it irritated Pam when June left her dirty socks on the floor next to the hamper. "What couple doesn't argue about things like that?" June says.

In the evenings, they took turns making dinner at home. Pam cooked country-fried steak with gravy; June cooked homemade spaghetti sauce and a Polish stuffed-cabbage dish called golumpkies. They went to bed early and watched CSI: Miami, snuggling with their "fur babies," two cats and Pam's papillon terrier, Cotie.

In the morning, June would stumble groggily into the kitchen as Pam made the coffee. "I'm not normally human before I take that first sip," June said, "and every morning when I got up, Miss Bubbly would be standing by the coffee-maker going, 'Good morning, sunshine!' And I'd go, 'Uh, could the sunshine wait until I have a sip of coffee?' And I guess now I'd kind of give anything to hear that."

When June and Pam started dating, their family lives were already complicated. Both women had been married before and had children with their former spouses. (Pam's family members declined to comment for this story.)

June's ex-husband, Ted Nathan, was her best friend and the father of her adult son. They met more than 20 years ago while working as emergency medical technicians in New York. He knew she was a lesbian, June says. They both wanted a child and decided to marry to ensure Ted's parental rights and increase his eligibility for Veteran's Administration disability benefits.

Such marriages of convenience are not uncommon but controversial in the gay community, a way to adapt to discriminatory laws. "It's ironic. I was able to marry my best friend, but I couldn't marry my wife," June says. "There are some people in the gay and lesbian community who would shake and bake me for marrying him, but it's my life." While she and Ted remained close, they eventually divorced. "I was working for a company that had domestic partner insurance, and I had a partner who really needed health benefits." Divorcing Ted meant giving up her rights to his federal benefits. "Ted said, 'I hope this is for a lifetime.'"

The relationship ended. "I was pretty stupid," June says, "but I did the right thing for the person I loved at the time."

When Pam met June, Ted was dying of muscular dystrophy. He lived with June and Pam during the last months of his life. A registered nurse, Pam took over Ted's care. "I think she broke the biggest rule in the RN rule book: Do not get close," June said. "She came to really love him."

"That's the type of person she was, " Webster said of Pam. "She just took everybody in, including the ex-husband."

When their financial picture looked brightest, Pam was making the equivalent of $30,000 a year. They bought the house in Zebulon in Pam's name, because June says her credit rating would have meant hundreds of additional dollars each month in interest payments. Pam had health benefits, but her small, private employer didn't offer benefits to spouses or domestic partners, June says.

June bought a birthstone ring at Wal-Mart and one evening knelt on the kitchen floor to present it to Pam. Pam cried and said yes, June recalls, but she wanted them to have matching rings. So June arranged a more elaborate proposal: dinner at the Macaroni Grill, with champagne flutes and a bottle of sparkling wine. In the photo album on June's coffee table are snapshots of Pam beaming and showing off her ring.

Their dream was to go to Canada, which legalized same-sex marriage nationwide in 2005. But they had little money in the bank, and they weren't sure when they'd be able to make the trip. A church friend persuaded them to allow her to perform the ceremony in the Rose Garden at Pullen Park, with vows the couple wrote for each other. As they walked around the lake afterward, June slipped—she was unaccustomed to wearing formal shoes—and dropped their camera in the lake. Pam laughed. Their friend, who would die of cancer months later, took them to Sears to have wedding portraits taken. "We bought a new set of sheets and some flowers to decorate the bedroom, and we had some candles and cooked a few special dinners together, and just spent the weekend quietly," June says. A honeymoon would have to wait.

When Ted died, June devoted her attention to their son, Rob, who was in his early 20s and who was taking the loss hard. Pam oversaw the funeral arrangements, selecting Bible readings, calling friends and relatives, creating a program and arranging flowers. "Pam made every decision and stood by my side with the utmost amount of class," June says. "I don't know how many spouses would do that for somebody's ex."

June had a cardiac catheterization that summer. The bill was more than $10,000, she says, and she had no insurance. "I never even tried to pay it."

When the collection agency called, June just hung up. As the bills mounted, so did the depression Pam had suffered from for years before she met June. Months after they were married, she went on disability for mental illness and struggled to return to work, eventually requiring a nurse's aid to visit the house.

"Sometimes her mood would swing a lot, and she would show some anger at me," June says. "It's not easy to have patience with somebody like that, if you're human. But it was an illness just like any other medical illness, and I would have gladly taken care of her and been there and loved her for another 60 years."

They lost the house when Pam declared bankruptcy, and moved to the apartment in Rocky Mount to be closer to June's $11-an-hour job at a call center. But she got fired after missing time at her post due to yet another illness, she says. Then, in the fall, Pam suffered a minor stroke that impaired her speech.

Cotie, the dog, got very sick around Christmastime. "We sat and we prayed for hours," June says.

After taking him to the vet, they called on Webster to perform a faith healing over the phone as they laid hands on the little dog's body. "I was like, I'm praying for a dog I can't even see," she recalls with amusement. "But you know, God works in mysterious ways." Cotie eventually recovered.

In January, Pam came down with pneumonia. June says that on Jan. 25, the day after a trip to the emergency room, the women sat in bed together. Pam put her head on June's shoulder and they both fell asleep.

"Something woke me up," June said. "Something didn't feel right. I realized she had no pulse or respiration, so I called an ambulance and pulled her onto the floor, and I just barely got a chance to start CPR when they showed up. I used to be an EMS, so I knew every move and every action they were taking, and I was watching the second hand on my watch go by and watching hope go out the window. I knew when the lead guy stood up, and they stopped doing what they were doing, and he walked over to me and he said, 'I'm so sorry, we had to call the code. There's nothing else we can do.' I had to hold her in my arms and beg her to come back." Pam died of acute hemorrhagic pneumonia at age 47. Paramedics removed her body in a zippered bag.

"She always said, 'Someday, when God takes me, I hope he takes me while I'm on your right shoulder sleeping.' He did. She was in the place she always said was the safest, most loving place in the world when she died."

Since they were not legally married, June had no legal right to make funeral arrangements. At moments like these, same-sex partners can be especially vulnerable. Unless a will specifies the partner as heir, next of kin are entitled to call the shots and take personal property from the home, if they claim it belonged to the deceased. Fortunately, Pam's family was "very supportive and very kind," June says. "They always were." June was included in the small memorial service at Pam's parents' home. "They would openly say, 'No, we don't understand this or even agree with it,' but they acknowledged what we shared and how much I loved her. They were able to see that. And they have been very kind to me. I think those poor people epitomize what a Christian should be. Instead of reacting with hate or anger, they're reacting with love and support. And, you know, I'm not even so sure I would be that classy in a situation I don't understand or can't agree with or whatever. I don't think many of us would be."

June recently found part-time work doing promotions for a photo studio. Most days, she catches a ride with a co-worker, but she could walk if she needed to. In hope of saving money for a car, she held a yard sale last month, parting with some of the items Pam had squirreled away. She earned about $100.

But problems keep mounting. June says after she complained to the city about her landlord, a city inspector determined that her apartment violates housing code, and if her landlord doesn't make improvements, she could be forced to move. Her biggest concern is making sure she could bring Cotie and the other "fur babies" with her. "They're a good reason to get up in the morning and go to work. With them around, I can actually laugh and enjoy life a little bit."

Even if North Carolina legalized same-sex marriage, June doesn't anticipate remarrying.

"I can see eventually making a life that I'm comfortable in. But I had once in a lifetime, and I was blessed beyond words, beyond belief. I had what some people spend their whole lives searching for, praying for and never getting. I just don't see that happening twice, especially to me, of all people. You know? Who am I?"

She admits, she has spent some time being angry with God, but she feels a Christian obligation to be grateful for what she has. "I love my Lord and Savior, and I know He loves me. I know where Pam is, and I know I will get her back someday because of my faith."

Meanwhile, thousands of families across North Carolina and millions across the country are struggling to hold on to their homes and jobs—and to one another—in the face of ongoing economic crisis. One way the government can help them is by extending to them the most basic of rights: equal protection under the law.

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