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Roger Barbee: A piece of paper

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By Roger Barbee

With the recent Supreme Court decision concerning what does and does not meet the definition of marriage, I want to look at another aspect of that institution. But first allow me to tell a story that is real, but the names are not.

John and Mary had been together for 37 years. They were educators who lived near Baltimore and had met when his marriage ended. They moved in together, worked at their teaching jobs, and shared all of life, including his two children from his failed marriage and the grandchildren.

They purchased together a house and made it their home where family and friends often came. Theirs grew into a relaxed middle-class life that seemed endless. Mary and all the family saw John as a person full of life, be it teaching a granddaughter to sail, or running with a buddy, or teaching a class. Mary, too, was involved in living a full life with her teaching and keeping of their home, and sharing life with family and friends.

They retired and with the house paid for along with their two retirements and Social Security, life was comfortable. Their golden years had arrived until one day in early June when John came home from a run, kissed Mary, and went to his basement gym to lift weights. Mary went upstairs to dress and later, as she went into the basement, she found her life's love dead. John was a fit and youthful 67 who everyone thought was destined for many more years of living. Even Mary thought that she would die before he.

At his viewing, his 90-year-old mother and I sat talking in the hushed, sad voices of the living at such affairs. Nodding toward the open casket, she said, "I can't look at John. He's laying down, and I never saw him like that. He was always doing something. Always busy. Always helping somebody. Now we can't even help him. No, I won't look at him like that."

Driving home, I thought of how accurate her words were -- his aged parents, children, grandchildren, Mary, siblings, nieces and nephews -- all counted on John to do so much for them and to outlast them. After all, he always had because he was like the red wheelbarrow in William Carlos Williams' poem -- "so much depends/upon..." So much had depended on John.

During my life, I have heard marriage sometimes described as only a "piece of paper." Well, that is somewhat correct. Yes, the union of two people is recorded on a sheet of paper and this dismissal of that "piece of paper" seems to be offered as a way of explaining that a bond of love between two adults cannot be established or justified simply by a sheet of paper -- so why bother. It is certainly true that a marriage is not made by the recording of information on an official document. And it seems to me that more and more heterosexual couples are choosing to co-habitat and not be bothered by that "piece of paper."

This week in a conversation with Mary, she shared some sad news. Not only does she have to deal with John's death and all that that entails, she has been told that since they were not legally married she has no rights to his retirement and Social Security. They lived and shared life for 37 years in all ways but two -- they had no children and they did not have that "piece of paper." Fortunately their home is in both names, she has her Social Security and retirement, but that of the man she loved for 37 years would have helped her better manage life without his presence.

It is a piece of paper, so if for no other reason than that, get it. If you are in a relationship where you share and do for someone else, whether you are the primary provider or not, then protect yourself and any children. Don't float along assuming that everything will be fine. Don't count on someone to take care of you. Mary spent 37 years sharing with John and supporting John and loving John, as he did for her. Theirs was a good relationship and that is how our legal system, right or wrong, views it -- a relationship, not a marriage. .

Now, because she and John saw no need for that "piece of paper," her life is poorer on many counts.

Roger Barbee is a retired educator who lives in Edinburg with his wife Mary Ann, four dogs and five cats. Email him at redhill@shentel.net. See more at: http://www.nvdaily.com/columns



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