What do you do when your phone rings in the middle of a hectic day and, on the other end, you’re greeted by a grown man in tears?

“I was going to write a letter to the editor,” Joseph Stackpole told me as he struggled to compose himself. “But I’m not sure I have the strength.”

As you read this, Stackpole is lying in a bed in Maine Medical Center’s cancer wing. He’s 68, gay, and for some time now has lived for the day when his beloved state of Maine will recognize him and his partner, Richard Johnson, as the married couple they already consider themselves to be.

In fact, just moments before he called Thursday afternoon, Stackpole had confided to his doctor his fervent hope that he’ll live at least long enough to see Maine voters legalize same-sex marriage on Nov. 6 — now a mere nine days away.

“Well,” replied the doctor with all the bedside manner he could muster, “there’s no guarantee of that.”

As we hurtle toward the next (and hopefully the last) statewide referendum involving equality for all Mainers regardless of their sexual orientation, it’s easy to get lost in the back-and-forth chatter — the claim by one side that the opposition’s latest ads are a bunch of hooey or the warning from the other side that the “radical gay agenda” will bring us all to eternal damnation.

Then all of a sudden, away from the fray, a lone voice emerges. The voice of a man who wants more than anything else to be legally married, but suddenly finds himself running out of time.

“We’re a demographic that people aren’t very interested in,” Stackpole said with a smile when I arrived at his bedside Friday morning. Sitting nearby, mostly in silence, was Johnson — the man Stackpole proudly calls “my husband.”

Not interesting? How so?

“We’re two older gay men,” Stackpole replied. “We don’t have interesting stories.”

You be the judge.

They met in 1996, both refugees from decades-long, heterosexual marriages in which they’d tried and failed to be someone they knew deep down they weren’t.

Joseph Stackpole had only come out — even to himself — the previous year. Richard Johnson, now 70, had known since he was a child that he was gay, but only in his mid-50s had he accepted it and begun, however painfully, to adjust his life accordingly.

Joseph, a lifelong Mainer and Vietnam veteran, was an accountant. Richard, a Massachusetts native who had just moved to Maine, worked with computers.

Both were scared. Both were confused. But from the night they first laid eyes on each other at a support-group gathering for men struggling with their sexual identities, it was clear to both men that this was meant to be.

“We had the proverbial ‘South Pacific’ moment — across the crowded room,” recalled Joseph with a chuckle.

It by no means would be easy. But through their divorces, through Richard’s bouts with deep depression, through the sometimes terrifying process of presenting themselves as a gay couple to family, friends and the world at large, they stuck together.

“I believed in a relationship and monogamy — and the idea of casual sex just really didn’t appeal to me,” Joseph said. “I know that’s the big image that everybody has of (being a gay man). But I’d been in a relationship for 28 years and that’s what I still wanted — the intimacy of a relationship.”

They’ve been together 16 years now. And along the way, they’ve done whatever they can to present themselves not as boyfriends, not as companions, but as two men as deeply committed to each other as any husband and wife.

When the city of Portland created a registry for domestic partners in 2001, Joseph and Richard were among the first to sign up.

When the state of Maine followed suit in 2004, they did that, too.

Then in 2008, after attending a family wedding in Massachusetts, Joseph and Richard stayed on long enough to become husband and husband — at least in the eyes of a state that neither of them called home.

“It was significant,” Joseph said. “But it was empty.”

In fact, he added, that first trip to Portland City Hall to get on a largely symbolic registry “was the most demeaning thing I’ve ever been through. There’s no celebration of anything — it’s like going and getting a dog license.”

Still, beyond all the semi-meaningful documents, their life together blossomed. They moved from Portland to Old Orchard Beach, where the condominium they now own soon filled with Joseph’s many and varied collections of art, music and countless souvenirs from their trips to Hawaii, Greece, Austria, Rome, the Caribbean, the Netherlands …

“I’m a big music fan,” Joseph said. “I’ve collected Barbra Streisand my whole life — I just got the latest Barbra Streisand album the other day.”

Protested Richard: “It just came out the other day.”

Joseph, beaming: “I ordered it before it came out!”

Richard, much more softly: “Course you did.”

Just over two weeks ago, Joseph felt a sharp pain in his side. It felt at first like a pulled muscle, but even after his doctor told him to lie low and apply heat, it only grew worse.

Soon, his appetite vanished. Then, when he tried to make himself eat, he couldn’t keep anything down.

Finally, on Oct. 20, Joseph asked Richard to take him to Maine Medical Center. He’s been there ever since.

“I’m having a pretty tough time of it myself,” said Richard, the man of few words. “He’s my rock. He does everything. I have to do the food shopping, the cooking — which I don’t do.”

And their cluttered home? Is it a lonely place now?

“It is right now, yes,” Richard replied, his voice catching.

The diagnosis finally came Wednesday — a rare, aggressive form of cancer called plasma cell leukemia.

There is no cure. And, as Joseph learned moments before he picked up the phone Thursday, there is precious little time.

In addition to the cancer’s relentless advance, Joseph’s kidneys have failed — without several hours of dialysis each day, he’d already be gone. Over the last few days, his dialysis treatments have triggered an irregular heartbeat.

Joseph had hoped that if the same-sex marriage referendum passed and he was still alive on Nov. 7, he could at least die knowing that he and Richard were, at long last, legally married in Maine. That his partner — no, make that his husband — would be treated in the eyes of the law like a surviving spouse rather than a “domestic partner.”

But even if the referendum passes, it will take longer than that. Gov. Paul LePage has 10 days to proclaim the official results of the election, and the same-sex marriage law would not take effect until 30 days after that — sometime around Dec. 16.

So now Joseph had a decision to make, assuming he’s still in a position to decide anything.

Should he stick with his original plan, refuse extraordinary measures to prolong his life and let nature take its course?

Or should he hang on for dear life and try to still be here if and when Maine finally accepts him and Richard for who and what they are?

Should he surrender? Or should he keep fighting, literally, to his last breath?

Joseph called again Saturday morning, his voice stronger, steadier, less frightened this time.

He said he’d been thinking through a sleepless night about his collections, about how it dawned on him that by hanging on to things dear to him, “I’ve been trying to document my existence because I felt marginalized.”

He recalled the countless times he’s taken people from away on wide-ranging tours of Maine because “I love the ocean. I love the mountains. The green trees all the time, you sort of take them for granted …”

He mentioned that when he was called for jury duty not long ago, the first question on the intake form asked for his marital status. He answered, as truthfully as he could, “Married.”

Finally, Joseph told me, “I’ve rescinded my do-not-resuscitate order.”

He did it because he and Richard, the love of his life, have come too far to give up now. And because when death finally arrives, he hopes to greet it with a smile.

“I’m proud of Maine,” Joseph said. “And I want Maine to be proud of me.”

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

bnemitz@mainetoday.com