A Widower’s Grief is Compounded by DOMA
Colin Atterbury and Andrew Sorbo were married by two minister friends at their home in Cheshire, Connecticut, on Jan. 14, 2009. There was just one other guest, Andrew and Colin’s oldest friend Francis O’Connor, who served as ring bearer. But while weddings herald the start of a long life together for most couples, their intimate ceremony was, sadly, the final chapter of Colin’s and Andrew’s 30-year committed relationship. Colin, 66, was gravely ill with pancreatic cancer; he passed away just four months after the wedding.
“It was very moving,” Andrew (pictured on the left, with Colin) tearfully recalls of the wedding. “It was a little sad, too, because we all knew that the end was coming for Colin. But it was so sweet having two of our good friends perform the ceremony.”
Andrew, 64, nursed Colin through three years of grueling chemotherapy treatments that devastated Colin mentally and physically. “When the time comes for somebody you love, you don’t even think, you just go on autopilot and do it,” Andrew says.
The couple made the most of their time between treatments, enjoying opera festivals and travel. But Andrew, who for 35 years was a teacher and principal in both public and Catholic schools, and Colin, a retired VA hospital administrator and professor of medicine at Yale, also spent time organizing their finances to ensure Andrew could support himself when Colin was gone. Because DOMA would prevent Andrew from receiving Colin’s federal pension and lifetime spousal health insurance coverage, they had begun saving and investing what they could. It was a wise move: after Colin’s death, DOMA effectively reduced Andrew’s monthly income by 80 percent. The $8000 he pays annually for health insurance represents a third of his $24,000 annual pension.
Andrew is grateful that Colin’s higher income allowed them to save and plan accordingly. “If he were a teacher like me, I would be in real trouble, because I basically don’t get anything from my years teaching in the Catholic school, and I only get a small pension from my eighteen years in the public schools. If I were a woman I would inherit part of his $80,000- plus annual pension. There would be no issue.”
The two met by chance in New York City in 1979. Andrew, a theater enthusiast, was on a weekend visit from his home in Rhode Island to see some shows; Colin was visiting for the day from Connecticut. A friendly conversation in a theater lead to lunch at a Thai restaurant where they “talked and talked and talked,” says Andrew. “There was this electricity between us.” As he walked Andrew to the theater where he had a ticket to see another show, Colin asked if he could see Andrew again after the performance. When the show ended, Andrew wondered to himself whether Colin would be waiting or whether he’d decided Andrew wasn’t so interesting after all. “I walk outside and there he is,” Andrew recalls. “He’s waiting for me.”
Colin was an avid gardener – a passion he nurtured among fellow congregants at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Cheshire, which he and Andrew joined in 2004 as they prepared for their civil union ceremony. Noticing the bare earth that surrounded most of the church, Colin anonymously donated several hundred dollars worth of bulbs, which parishioners planted that fall. The colorful flowers that bloomed the following spring inspired church members to grow the garden, which now beautifies the front and back entrances of the church.
Prior to his death, Colin also arranged to bequeath funds to the church that are now being used to create a prayer and meditation garden on the church grounds in his memory. Andrew is overseeing the plans with church leaders, ensuring that Colin’s love of water is reflected in the design, and that it blooms with all of his favorite flowers, especially his beloved lilies.
“Colin just loved lilies – they were his favorite, favorite flower. We have hundreds of them in the yard and I’ve grown to love them as well. So that’s one flower that I know I want to have in there.”← Stories Home