“Steve and I wanted to get married out of love and commitment – but also out of a need to have the same benefits as everyone else,” Robert Smith said. “We needed marriage to protect one another. And now it’s too late.” Since being diagnosed with terminal stage 3 Melanoma in November 2012, Steven Rynes and his partner Robert, who live in Chicago, were waiting for the day when they could finally marry in their home state of Illinois. They were waiting together in the hospital as Steven’s health quickly declined. And they were still waiting on September 10, 2013, when Steven passed away.
For couples like Robert and Steven, waiting for marriage equality in Illinois to pass is no longer an option. They know that it’s time for marriage across the state.
Marrying in Illinois was important to Robert and Steven because this is where their road began as a couple. Their early memories in Chicago together were happier, full of hope – they were falling in love. On their first holiday as a couple, Robert found himself unable to travel home for the Christmas holidays and decided to stay in Chicago. Robert hosted a Christmas dinner for friends who were also staying in Chicago, and he extended an invitation to Steven. “Steven was nervous about coming to a dinner party with a bunch of strangers,” Robert explained, “But I twisted his arm, and he joined us. We have been more or less together since that night.”
Robert also shared their story with the Chicago Sun Times, where he talked about their differences in demeanors, but great love for one another.
“From the moment I met Steven, I have been drawn to him in a multitude of ways,” Robert said, “Everyone in my life was so surprised, since Steven and I are so different from each other.” Although Steven and Robert came from totally different backgrounds and family structures, they fell in love quickly. “I am a very Alpha type of person, which Steven also teased me about.” Robert said, “We’re just two people who maybe don’t always understand each other’s point of view, but we fill a much needed spot in each other’s lives. I think we’ve both grown and changed for the better as a result.”
Aside from their obvious connection, the big occurrence that really sealed them as a couple though was a horrible case of food poisoning that got Robert and Steven sick simultaneously. “You really become close to someone and get to know them when you’re collectively sick for 5 days,” Robert explained, “We had to spend almost a week in bed talking and watching TV and it bonded us. Probably the most romantic stomach bug in modern history!”
In the spring of 2012, Steven showed signs of a past illness resurfacing. Two years before, he had a Melanoma spot removed, and he had assumed all was well post-surgery. “Steven did not have health insurance, so doctor visits were few and far between,” Robert explained.
When Steven started complaining of a tingling sensation along his operation scar, they both began to worry. As time passed, the scar developed a small lump. At that sign, Robert and Steven decided it was important for Steven to seek medical attention. “His appointment wasn’t until October 2012, and by that time the little bump had become a tennis ball bulging out of his neck, causing him agonizing pain.” Robert said. Steven had surgery to remove the lump in November, but by that point, Steven’s illness had developed into stage 3 Melanoma.
As time began to run out, Robert and Steven prioritized formalizing their commitment to one another. “Marriage is something Steven really wanted for his whole life,” Robert explained. Because gay and lesbian couples cannot marry in Illinois, Robert and Steven only had the option of joining together in civil union at the local courthouse. “We had a small ceremony with a few of our friends on January 4, 2013,” Robert described, “We couldn’t do anything more elaborate because Steven was so sick at this time that he was considered disabled.”
The couple was not able to enjoy their union in good health. “It’s been a constant battle with cancer,” Robert said, “It’s me staying up all night, looking up treatment options, trying to save my husband.” Steven’s health deteriorated quickly from the moment of his diagnosis. “While Steve has been sick, I’ve had to fight over and over to get FMLA leave time to care for him. I was rejected over and over by my employer’s benefits administrator for not being in an ‘approved relationship.’ You try getting told that and see how you react. I just wanted to care for my dying husband.” Robert said.
While Steven and Robert fought hard to find a way to make Steven healthy again, they were not able to see a happy ending.
“He got so sick so fast we couldn’t go to Iowa [where same-sex couples can marry]. This is it. We don’t get a redo or a second chance. Steve passed away, and he’s not coming back later so we get another chance. We are living beings with a limited time to either have a great happy life or to miss our chances and never get another. I love my husband, and the fact that I had to see him leave this world without something we both really wanted is unforgivable,” Robert said.
Steven and Robert were not able to marry in the state of Illinois before Steven’s passing – and their story is a painful reminder of why Illinois lawmakers must act now to extend the freedom to marry to same-sex couples. Illinois families can’t afford to wait any longer. And the longer the members of the House delay passing this crucial legislation, the more families suffer.
“I fought for us, for him,” Robert said. “But in the end, I am left here alone.”