More than just 'I do'

A widow, a death cer­tifi­cate and the fall of Ge­or­gia's same-sex mar­riage ban

GA Voice - - Front Page -

By PA­TRICK SAUN­DERS

When mar­riage equal­ity be­comes the law of the land in Ge­or­gia, thou­sands of same­sex cou­ples across the state will line up to ex­change vows. That’s the pic­ture ev­ery­one will have in their minds and on their so­cial media feeds that day—happy cou­ples, flow­ers, un­in­hib­ited en­thu­si­asm.

But another vic­tory—no less im­por­tant or pro­found—will also take place, and it won’t be in a county pro­bate court or a chapel or an elab­o­rately dec­o­rated event space. It will hap­pen in a non­de­script room at the State Of­fice of Vi­tal Records, when the mar­i­tal sta­tus on the death cer­tifi­cate of Pam Dren­ner will be up­dated from “sin­gle” to “mar­ried.”

A few days later, her widow Jen­nifer Sis­son—a plain­tiff in Ge­or­gia’s fed­eral class ac­tion law­suit chal­leng­ing the state’s 2004 same-sex mar­riage ban—will re­ceive that death cer­tifi­cate. An egre­gious wrong will fi­nally be made right.

A re­la­tion­ship be­gins...even­tu­ally

Sis­son, a 35-year-old engi­neer who lives in De­catur, and Dren­ner’s re­la­tion­ship wasn’t ex­actly a story of love at first sight. In fact, it wasn’t even love at first decade.

They met through mu­tual friends around late 2001. They ran into each other ev­ery so of­ten there­after, but didn’t spend any sig­nif­i­cant amount of time to­gether. But come 2011, cir­cum­stances had changed for both, and a re­la­tion­ship bloomed.

Sis­son’s low-key, al­most soft-spo­ken per­son­al­ity and fierce in­tel­li­gence paired up well

“Even sit­ting there that day with them telling me that, I was just com­pletely dumb­founded. I was Pam’s full-time care­giver. I’d spent six or seven months solely 24 hours a day car­ing for Pam and I feel like that type of com­mit­ment only comes with some­thing like a mar­riage.”

—Jen­nifer Sis­son

with the more ex­tro­verted Dren­ner.

“She was very unique, very dy­namic, funny. She made ev­ery­one laugh. She was al­ways very cre­ative so you never knew what each day was go­ing to bring. You were al­ways en­ter­tained, al­ways do­ing some­thing. She was rarely bored. If she got bored she de­vel­oped some new ad­ven­ture for ev­ery­body to go on, and some­times that would in­cor­po­rate the whole neigh­bor­hood. Very in­tel­li­gent.”

They mar­ried on Valen­tine’s Day in 2013 in New York. Six weeks later, Dren­ner went in for a fol­low-up for the ovar­ian can­cer she had first been di­ag­nosed with in 2008, and new­ly­wed bliss came to an im­me­di­ate halt. The can­cer was back.

Dren­ner went through sev­eral treat­ments over the fol­low­ing year. They didn’t take. She died on March 1, 2014, leav­ing be­hind not only Sis­son, but also Dren­ner’s two chil­dren from a pre­vi­ous mar­riage.

‘He tells me the state of Ge­or­gia doesn’t rec­og­nize our mar­riage’

The day af­ter Dren­ner’s death, Sis­son went to the fu­neral home with a friend and Dren­ner’s 18-year-old son Evan.

She be­gan fill­ing out a form that would pro­vide the in­for­ma­tion for Dren­ner’s death cer­tifi­cate, not hes­i­tat­ing when she got to the sec­tion on mar­i­tal sta­tus. She checked “mar­ried,” filled in her name as the spouse, and gave the form to the fu­neral home em­ployee.

“He tells me the state of Ge­or­gia doesn’t rec­og­nize our mar­riage,” Sis­son says.

They went back and forth, with Sis­son un­der­stand­ably un­will­ing to say her late wife was sin­gle, wid­owed or di­vorced. The only other op­tion avail­able was a box called “un­known.” Sis­son checked it and they left.

One day a few weeks later, Sis­son got a let­ter in the mail from the State Of­fice of Vi­tal Records. She opened it and pulled out Dren­ner’s death cer­tifi­cate. Un­der mar­i­tal sta­tus, it said “sin­gle.”

Ap­par­ently, “un­known” de­faults to “sin­gle” in the state’s sys­tem. And their mar­riage wasn’t legally rec­og­nized by the state, so there was noth­ing to be done. The state of Ge­or­gia had erased Dren­ner and Sis­son’s mar­riage.

“Even sit­ting there that day with them telling me that, I was just com­pletely dumb­founded,” she says. “I was Pam’s full-time care­giver. I’d spent six or seven months solely 24 hours a day car­ing for Pam and I feel like that type of com­mit­ment only comes with some­thing like a mar­riage.”

Tak­ing a cue from her late wife, she sprang into ac­tion.

‘It’s a chance to write a dif­fer­ent end­ing to the story’

It was April 22, 2014, less than two months since Sis­son had said good­bye to her wife. She stood in a con­fer­ence room in Midtown with three other cou­ples (a fourth would join them a few months later) and a team of at­tor­neys from Lambda Le­gal. She looked out at an army of lo­cal and na­tional press who ea­gerly waited to hear from the plain­tiffs at the cen­ter of the fed­eral clas­s­ac­tion law­suit filed that morn­ing chal­leng­ing Ge­or­gia’s 2004 same-sex mar­riage ban.

Now it’s in the hands of the U.S. Supreme Court, with a de­ci­sion to come down any day now.

Beth Lit­trell, se­nior at­tor­ney for Lambda Le­gal, says, “If the Supreme Court rec­og­nizes that state mar­riage bans vi­o­late the con­sti­tu­tional rights of same-sex cou­ples, we ex­pect De­fen­dant [state reg­is­trar Deb­o­rah] Ader­hold to is­sue a cor­rected cer­tifi­cate re­flect­ing the re­al­ity that Pam Dren­ner was mar­ried to Jen­nifer Sis­son at the time of her death.” Sis­son can’t help but smile at the thought. “I think it is a sense of clo­sure. Also kind of a dis­be­lief of, ‘Man, look at this path I just came down. Did this re­ally hap­pen?’ Be­cause from that mo­ment in the fu­neral home, I’ve never felt so alone and just so much against me. And yet to come out on the other side of that less than a year and a half later, I think there will cer­tainly be a lit­tle bit of ‘We did it.’”

(Photo by Pa­trick Saun­ders)

Sis­son, 35, hopes to get clo­sure when same-sex mar­riage is le­gal­ized and Ge­or­gia rec­og­nizes her and her late wife’s nup­tials.

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