Last December, Challis Gibbs and Elvie Jordan exchanged vows, uniting them as one. Their opportunity to make an eternal promise to one another was long-awaited, but sadly, time was not on their side.
For Elvie, it was sweet to be able to marry the woman she truly loved, but bitter because of Challis’ terminal illness. Two months later, Elvie had to mourn the death of her soul mate.
“Challis said she would never leave me,” Elvie wept for her beloved wife and friend. “I thought I would have someone forever.”
Challis and Elvie were one of the first same sex couples in Illinois to be legally married. Because of Challis’ rapidly declining health, the couple won an emergency marriage license through a ruling made by a federal judge on December 16, 2013. It ordered the Cook County Clerk’s office to start issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples who can establish that a life-threatening illness prevents them from waiting until the new marriage law takes effect in June. Gibbs died on February 25th, 2014.
“When I die, I want Elvie to be able to say, ‘I lost my wife,’” Gibbs wrote in her declaration to the court last year. “I do not want her to have to say that she lost her civil union partner.”
Traditional weddings are celebrated with bells, flowers, a palatable cake and the time-honored white gown; all systematically organized in a grand hall. While this same-sex couple was familiar with living what social codes deemed unconventional, they were left with little choice on how to plan for this pivotal day. Challis was dying and every day Elvie had left with her was significant. So the arrangements were simple. They were married in their living-room in casual clothing, sitting hand in hand as Gibbs was too weak to stand.
Challis asked Elvie to marry her on her birthday in September.
“It was the last thing I was expecting,” she recalled with tears.
Signs of Challis’ compromised health creeped in slowly. But Challis was a successful business woman who worked for a Fortune 500 company. She was active, Gluten-free and sugar-free. Her strength and health regiment made it inconceivable that she could even get sick.
“We got the diagnosis the first week of November,” she said as she began to cry. “I asked, ‘Is it bad-awful but fixable?’ And the doctor said, ‘It’s bad-awful and not fixable.’”
Sadly, Challis was at level four Endocrine cancer when she was diagnosed. There wasn’t much she could do to retaliate. The disease had already traveled to her spine, vertebrae, lungs and liver, and was rapidly on its way to her brain.
“I wanted to die,” Elvie recalled. “[Challis] taught me how to live.”
Along with the mourning are the memories.
“We were very close. We had a good time. I have been very lucky,” she said. “We had a lot of best memories.”
One of her favorites was when they attended a march on Washington together 21 years ago. Originally Elvie wanted to go on the trip with her girlfriend at the time. Though it was the girlfriend’s idea, she bowed out. So was the case with Challis, whose girlfriend had lost interest in going. As a result Elvie went with Challis, and the couple had been inseparable since.
“Challis was a lot of fun. When she was around other people she said I brought the fire,” Elvie said. “She was always very proud of me.”
However, like most relationships, there were times when Elvie wanted to call it quits.
“I packed my boxes and everything and seriously considered leaving the relationship,” she said.
Challis decided to enlist outside help.
“She said, ‘We’ve got to see a therapist because I don’t want to lose you.’ We found out through therapy [that] we needed to simply talk it out,” Elvie recalled. “I was very weary of her because she used to get rid of people fast.”
They arrived at the following tenets of their relationship:
1) They never went to sleep angry with each other
2) They vowed never to argue about the same thing twice
3) They chose to value each other
“It’s easy to walk away and call somebody an a**hole,” Elvie said. “She was the first person I’ve met that I never thought ‘I wish they would do this or be that.’ I can only remember three major arguments.”
And as Challis was rallying for her health she asked her sweetheart, “What arguments were those?”
Both Elvie and Challis had a strong sense of self when they met in their 40’s.
“The most important thing is for people to get to know themselves. You have to know who you arefirst,” she said.
Though Challis was married to a man for three years, she knew she was homosexual as early as college. From there she wasn’t afraid to inform the public of who she was and who she loved.
Elvie didn’t realize she was a lesbian until the age of 30 while she shared a home with her husband and two young children. It was at this time that she embraced her love for another woman and left her abusive relationship.
“My husband tried to kill me. He tried to run me down the street,” she recalled. “It was hard maintaining custody of my children.”
The divorce was difficult, but she also had to deal with her grandmother who raised her.
“The biggest barrier was to overcome [the perceptions held by] my grandmother,” she said.
At the age of seven, Elvie’s mother was killed. Consequently, Elvie and her brother were raised by their grandparents in Chicago, Illinois. Her grandmother was adamant in teaching her grandchildren to respect people and their beliefs. Thus, her grandmother was challenged to adhere to her own teachings. And eventually she did.
“You love who you love. There’s no choice in the matter when you sincerely love someone,” Elvie said, further explaining that her grandmother learned to embrace this notion.
Along with love comes heartache. And this sentiment defines the new chapter in Elvie’s life.
“I cry. I’m a widow,” she cried. “I loved her as hard as I could.”
Losing someone close to you is always hard. While Elvie gets that loss is a natural part of life, she can’t help the moments where she’s overcome by confusion and shock, as well as elongated periods of sadness.
“She would call everyday at 4 o’clock telling me she was on her way,” she said as she broke down. “I still wait for her to come home at 6.”
Ironically, Elvie’s own deteriorating health has sprung into her to life. Recently, she went into complete renal failure. She’s currently on dialysis, but will need a kidney transplant to survive.
“She (Challis) would say, ‘That’s good baby,’ that I’m out moving, sharing and living,” Elvie said with a smile. “There’s always hope. I’m going to see the world by hook or by crook.”