June 28, 2013

Bill Nemitz: Supreme Court rules for ending the pain

By Bill Nemitz bnemitz@pressherald.com

Never, in the 51 years since she was born, have I been happier for my kid sister.


Tune in to NewsRadio 560 WGAN at 8:08 a.m. today to hear columnist Bill Nemitz talk about this column and other issues.

Her name is Meg. She’s a proud, loving mother, an extremely talented nurse and a devoted daughter who cared around the clock for my father before he died of cancer almost eight years ago, and for my mother before she succumbed to complications from Alzheimer’s disease three years later.

Meg is also a lesbian. And so, as I pored over the U.S. Supreme Court’s smackdown of the Defense of Marriage Act on Wednesday, my thoughts centered not so much on the legal intricacies of Justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority ruling or Justice Antonin Scalia’s scathing dissent.

Rather, I thought about my sister, our parents and a family saga that in many ways mirrors the societal ebbs and flows that led to this week’s judicial sea change.

Meg was still in her teens when she fell in love with Linda. They met in high school, lived together as college roommates and stayed together after graduation until, one day, a friend’s slip of the tongue revealed to my parents that this was far more than a platonic friendship.

This was true love. Yet to my parents, products of both their time and their devout Roman Catholic upbringings, it was a crisis of the highest order.

Unknown at the time to me or Meg’s five other siblings, they told Meg she had to make a choice: Linda or her family.

Meg, heartbroken, chose her family. And life, however painfully, went on.

Meg met and married a good man, gave birth to two beautiful daughters and did her best to live within a mold that, despite her best efforts, simply didn’t fit.

If she was bitter, she never showed it.

If she and my parents ever spoke another word about her sexual orientation, the rest of us never heard about it.

And if there was ever any question that she could still love her mother and father despite that long-ago ultimatum, it was dispelled by her heroic efforts to keep them comfortable and pain-free in the final months of their lives.

Then everything changed.

With Dad and Mom gone, Meg no longer needed their approval.

With her marriage already strained by then to the breaking point, she and her husband finally decided to wish each other well and move on.

And in one of those breathtaking twists of fate, Meg and Linda one day found themselves living, purely by coincidence, in the same suburban Boston community. They hadn’t seen each other in ... how long?

“Twenty years,” Meg replied over her cellphone Wednesday evening, recalling with a chuckle how in her first, trembling attempt to reconnect, she actually left both her first and last name on Linda’s answering machine. (Linda heard only “Meg” and all but dropped the phone.)

They’ve been together for several years now. Linda has become a beloved member of the family and, much as we all consider her a full-fledged sister-in-law, the decision on whether or when to formally marry remains theirs and theirs alone.

More importantly, never in her life have I seen my sister filled with more joy.

Which brings us back to this week’s court ruling.

Reflecting on the case that gave rise to the court’s rejection of the Defense of Marriage Act as unconstitutional, Justice Kennedy wrote that New York’s equal-rights statute “reflects both the community’s considered perspective on the historical roots of the institution of marriage and its evolving understanding of the meaning of equality.”

It was the last half of that sentence that caught my eye.

Yes, this federal case was about marriage. But it was also about something much more profound than who qualifies (or not) for spousal Social Security benefits, inheritance rights and the host of other marital allowances embedded in more than 1,000 federal statutes and regulations.

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