Weddings often induce tears, but few like those that flowed during a marriage ceremony for cancer patient Jen Roper and her partner, Angelique Neuman, a couple that got caught up in New Mexico’s same-sex marriage debate.
“I’ve never been to a wedding where the priest was so moved he could barely speak,” said Richard Rieckenberg, godfather of the couple’s three adopted sons and the man who had the honor of giving Roper away.
Archbishop Emeritus Richard Gundrey of the Catholic Apostolic Church of Antioch at Santa Fe drew laughs from a group of about 60 people at the chapel at Buffalo Thunder Resort in Pojoaque with a couple of quips, but he clearly got choked up at one point during the reading of the vows – the part about “in sickness and in health…”
A whimper could be heard from Roper after those words were said.
“I’m sorry,” whispered Roper, who last December was diagnosed with glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer, and was then given 18 months to live.
That poignant moment aside, it was a happy occasion for the couple, who have been together more than 21 years.
“I’m thrilled beyond belief over the marriage to my wife,” said Roper, dressed in a white tuxedo as she left the chapel in a wheelchair. “I’m very happy. I feel especially honored and proud.”
This was the third time the couple has committed themselves to each other.
Seven years into their relationship, they dedicated themselves to each other by exchanging rings. Neuman said they did it on their own, knowing the laws of the land wouldn’t legally recognize their commitment.
In August, two days after attorneys with the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Center for Lesbian Rights filed a court action on their behalf that would allow them to be married, they were legally wed in a simple ceremony in the lobby of Christus St. Vincent Regional Cancer Center, where Roper was undergoing treatment.
That ceremony took place the same day that Santa Fe County Clerk Geraldine Salazar complied with a district judge’s order to begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
But the third time, a traditional church wedding, was the most charming. The couple entered the chapel to the sound of a classical guitar playing “Romanza” and exited to “Ode to Joy.”
They had a full complement of attendees, wore formal garments – Roper in her tux and Neuman in a white wedding gown – and were surrounded by friends and family.
“At least it wasn’t in jeans and a T-shirt,” joked Neuman, recalling their impromptu legal wedding seven weeks earlier. “I feel like the memory of the wedding at the cancer center was enough. But this was so beautiful, now I have two beautiful memories.”
And though they are already legally married, Neuman said it was important that they were wed in the traditional fashion and by a priest, not just a justice of the peace.
“Even Jen was saying she didn’t think it was that important, but once she did it she felt it was important to have that spiritual and religious bond and not just a piece of paper,” she said.
It was also made special by the presence of the two sons they raised since the boys were toddlers. Their eldest boy was unable to attend; he joined the military last summer and was dispatched to boot camp.
“They are quite a family,” said Rudy Herrera, a neighbor and friend who was enlisted to give Neuman away during the ceremony. “The fact that these two people have been together almost 22 years and have showed their dedication, and the fact that they took on a huge responsibility of raising three boys, I think is wonderful.”
The ceremony almost didn’t happen. Roper’s health has been deteriorating in recent weeks, and there was some doubt she’d be up for it.
“We were going to call it off last Friday, but Jen said, ‘No, I want to go through with it,’” said Dominic Gutierrez, director of sales for Pojoaque’s Cities of Gold Casino Hotel, who took on the role of wedding planner.
Gutierrez said he was motivated to do so after seeing a news report about their August wedding.
“I wanted to make sure they got a proper wedding,” he said, adding that the fact that he is gay also compelled him. “And just to see them as human beings come together with one another in love and compassion, I wanted to make sure it was very, very special.”
Gutierrez said he spent the week scrambling to get things together. Several local businesses chipped in or donated items to the affair, which included a reception dinner at Cities of Gold.
“I’ve been overwhelmed with the outpouring of love that came in this week,” he said. “It all came together, thankfully.”
Barely. The final piece wasn’t in place until minutes before the ceremony.
“We had to get the tuxedo shipped by Federal Express. It didn’t get here until 10 minutes before the wedding,” he said.
Roper, meanwhile, had been hospitalized at Los Alamos Medical Center and only that morning was released.
But she and her tux both showed up on time, and the event came off without a hitch.
After the ceremony, the couple waited by the front door and accepted best wishes as their guests filed out of the chapel.
“I think they would have rather have been quietly wed without the hoopla of the same-sex marriage issue,” said Rieckenberg, standing nearby. “For them, it was a lifetime goal to formalize their marriage, and it means a tremendous amount to Jen and Angelique.”