Jen Roper could not recall the name of her best man as she rolled down the aisle of a Pojoaque chapel last Friday morning on a chrysanthemum-decorated motorized scooter.
Her memory is fading, the cancer in her brain rapidly wiping out all that she knows, all that she loves.
“She’s very sick,” said the best man, Richard Rieckenberg. “You can really tell now.”
But there are innate parts of our memories that even cancer cannot kill, parts of our hearts that give us the strength to hold on, to hold firm to the love of someone even as our bodies fray and our life recedes.
For Roper, Angelique Neuman is that someone, has been that someone since the two met as New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology students more than two decades ago. They’ve built a life together in northern New Mexico, raised three boys – Jayms, 18, David, 16, and Damion, 15 – whom they adopted from foster care.
In August, they married quietly and quickly in a cancer ward moments after a Santa Fe judge granted their emergency request, a court decision that helped open the door for other same-sex couples in New Mexico to legally tie the knot.
Then, there had been no time for invitations or wedding parties. Roper, 44, was losing her battle with glioblastoma, the deadliest form of brain cancer.
But, last Friday, the 22nd anniversary of their becoming partners, Roper rallied. Freshly sprung from the hospital on that clear, crisp morning and accompanied by a nurse, she wed Neuman, 45, a second time – this time before friends and family, including two of their three sons (the eldest is in boot camp at Fort Benning, Ga.), in a traditional ceremony followed by an all-expense-paid reception, a gift from the Pojoaque Pueblo and the Cities of Gold casino.
Roper almost never stopped smiling.
She was dressed in a white tuxedo, which arrived 10 minutes before the ceremony. She struggled through her vows, her thin voice strained, her brain unable to grasp every word spoken by Archbishop Richard Gundrey of the Catholic Apostolic Church of Antioch.
She apologized tearfully when the words “in sickness and in health” caught in her throat.
Neuman, radiant in a strapless beaded wedding gown, cupped Roper’s tear-stained cheek in her hand and whispered, no, don’t apologize. Never apologize.
Roper’s smile returned.
That is what love is.
And this is what a marriage should be: The union of two loving, consenting adults who are committed to each other for as long as they have together to weather life’s storms, the good and the bad, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, till death. Period.
“Things are changing,” said Dominick Gutierrez, Cities of Gold director of sales and marketing who had the idea to offer the wedding package to the couple and then planned it in just two days. “People are more accepting now of gay weddings, and as a gay man myself this personally means so much.”
How much things have changed may be evidenced next Wednesday when the state Supreme Court hears oral arguments on whether it should issue a final decision as to the constitutionality of same-sex marriages statewide.
Clerks from all 33 New Mexico counties – including Bernalillo, Santa Fe, Doña Ana, Taos, Valencia, Los Alamos, San Miguel and Grant, which now issue same-sex marriage licenses – and the New Mexico Association of Counties asked the Supreme Court to definitively resolve the matter.
The Neuman-Ropers are among the six couples who are plaintiffs in the case. The couples are represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, the national ACLU, the National Center for Lesbian Rights and local attorneys.
Neuman said she expects to attend the hearing if Roper’s health allows.
But three days after the wedding, results of an MRI conducted on Roper were grim.
“Not sure where we stand yet, but likely she doesn’t have the full 18,” Neuman told me in an email Tuesday, referring to the 18 months doctors initially estimated Roper had left to live. It’s been 10 months since her diagnosis in December. “The thought is that the tumor has become resistant to the chemotherapy.”
On Wednesday, Neuman wrote again: She had to move Roper into hospice care. Roper’s health is failing.
Because they are legally married, Neuman can make those decisions now, even the painful ones.
I asked Neuman how she is managing her emotions, ricocheting between joy and sadness, love and loss.
“Just look at how happy we looked at the wedding,” she replied. “That explains it all.”
I wish you all could have been there Friday to see that happiness – especially those of you who still believe marriage is reserved for us straight folk.
It’s an equality thing, a constitutional thing, yes. But mostly, it’s something palpable, something between two people, two hearts. It’s love. I wish you could have seen that.
Things are changing, just like Gutierrez says. For the Neuman-Ropers, they were changing just in time.
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.