It was the fall of 2000 when I got a phone call from M asking me to drive her to the hospital. Her longtime housemate E had been taken there in the night by ambulance and M didn’t drive. She asked if I could pick her up and take her to sit by E for the day. Later that afternoon, I went up to see E myself and take M home. But before I left, I talked with the attending physician and nurse to give them M’s phone number on a neon green Post-It to place in E’s file.
Me (the pastor): It’s very important for you (the medical staff) to call M if anything should change with E in the night. I will bring M here every morning. She is E’s next of kin.
Nurse: Are they sisters?
Me: No. Her sisters live in South Carolina. But E and M have lived together since the war. She is like her sister.
This is what I knew about both E and M: They had moved to Washington, DC after the attack on Pearl Harbor to serve their country in federal service. One had grown up in South Carolina. One had grown up in Oklahoma.
They met while living in a boarding house in the 1940s with several other young women. They joined a local Presbyterian Church together. Eventually, they moved to Northern Virginia to a one bedroom apartment (they were so frugal!) and while E remained a member of the church in DC, M wanted to join a congregation closer to their new home. Both of them were among the first women ordained to the office of Ruling Elder in their respective congregations. They were active teachers and Bible study leaders. Both of them gave sacrificially to the Church.
On the morning of October 30, I went to pick up M to take her over to see E and – because E had not been doing well – I went up to the room with M.
The room was empty. E had died in the night. No one had phoned M and the body had already been taken to the morgue. Because M was “not related” to E, she was not allowed in the morgue to say good-bye.
M sat in the chair beside the empty bed. and took out a pen and paper and started writing. She didn’t cry. She didn’t speak. She just wrote. I found out later that she was writing a final letter to E.
She folded the letter and placed it into her purse. And then she looked at me and said, “Losing E is like losing part of my body.” Her voice was cracking. “Do you know what I’m telling you? Do you understand what I’m saying?”
“I think so,” I said. It had never occurred to me that E and M were a couple. But when E’s obituary was published, there was no mention of M.
E and M had been together for 57 years. M died – most likely of a broken heart – several months later.
When Edith Windsor and Thea Spyer married in Toronto in 2007 because they could not marry in the United States, little did they know that – after Thea’s death – Edie would win a Supreme Court case that advanced the case for marriage equality.
Edie joined Thea on the other side yesterday and it reminded me of that heartbreaking morning in 2000 when M tried to explain to me who E was to her.
She was not E’s sister. She was not merely E’s best friend.
That morning with M changed my ministry forever, and Edie Windsor’s tenacity changed the lives of countless others seven years later and beyond. I have no idea what happens in the next life, but it’s my deepest hope that we are reunited with those we loved in this life.
But while we are living this life, we deserve to have our covenant relationships respected and valued, no matter who we are, no matter who we love. Today many of us thank God for the life of Edith, and for E and M and so many others who have gone before them.
Image of Edie Windsor and Thea Spyer. Source here.