The love story of Joan Rodriguez and Liz Molina is proof why LGBTs need marriage equality—now

By : Jamie Hyman
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Orlando – When Joan Rodriguez talks about her late partner, Liz Molina, she describes her lost love as strong, righteous and brave. Joan [pronounced Jo-Ann] talks about how Liz was as committed to fighting for LGBT equality as she was to making sure Joan always felt loved and beautiful. When Joan tells these stories, she gets a teary smile on her face and says, “That’s just the person she was.”

But what kind of person is Joan?

On the day Liz died, Joan had about an hour alone with her partner’s body before the funeral home came to pick her up. She bathed Liz, and dressed her in what she knew she’d want to wear. When the funeral home transport arrived, Joan was the one who physically picked up Liz’s body and placed her in the stretcher.

And she did all of these things nine months pregnant. She gave birth to the couple’s son a mere nine days later.

What kind of person is Joan? Joan is remarkable. She’s a survivor who has faced unspeakable obstacles. She’s a mother who is grieving her love who died far too young, while raising their newborn all alone, without any of the recognition or benefits marriage would provide. At Liz’s urging, when eight months pregnant, Joan pulled herself away from her dying partner’s side to appear before the Orange County Commission to tell their story in the hopes that it would encourage the commissioners to sign onto an amicus brief stating their support of marriage equality. That morning, she didn’t want to go. She didn’t want to leave Liz, even for a few hours.

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“You have to go talk, you have to tell our story because it doesn’t have to be too late for other people if we can make a difference,” Liz told Joan that day. Joan adds, “That’s just the person who she was.”

Joan and Liz have been in each other’s lives for 13 years. They were in a long-distance relationship for three years, then split up for about 7 years. When Joan moved to Orlando in 2011 to be closer to her mother, she knew Liz had ties to the area and decided to track down her ex.

“We talked on the phone for like nine hours straight that night and just kind of picked up where we left off,” Joan says. “It was the first time that we were both in the same place—in the right place at the right time. We just moved forward from there. She moved [to Orlando] within a week, and that was it. She never left.”

They reunited in 2012 and Liz was diagnosed with cancer in 2013. She started radiation and chemotherapy but had to stop after four rounds because her body couldn’t handle the treatments. Her doctor told her the treatments were working to the point where she could take a break for the holidays. They traveled to Puerto Rico and “just did not think about cancer,” Joan says. “We truly lived.”

In January 2014, they were scheduled for a PET scan. They didn’t make it—Liz’s insurance was cancelled and Joan’s employer does not recognize domestic partnerships. They turned to Medicaid but faced some resistance getting coverage.

During that time, believing Liz to be cancer-free, they decided to seize their newfound appreciation for life and expand their family. Liz proposed in January and Joan got pregnant in March—on their first try. It ultimately took them four months to get Liz insured and in front of a doctor.

They had a scan in April, and found some suspicious spots in Liz’s cervix and lymph nodes. She had her lymph nodes removed and had a hysterectomy, followed by a few more rounds of brutal chemotherapy. Liz lost her hair and her appetite, then they discovered the worst—the cancer had spread everywhere. Doctors found it in Liz’s kidney, abdominal walls, liver, intestines and spleen. Because of the gap in Liz’s medical care, Joan says there’s no way to know exactly when or how the tumors got out of control.

“Do I feel that if we would have been able to go in January we may have had more time?” Liz asks. “Yes, I do feel that way, because I think timeliness is key. Having no insurance for four months was really detrimental to her. There is no way that in that four months that cancer didn’t continue growing, whether it was in her bloodstream, whether it was undetected, we don’t know. That’s what the doctor said, it was probably in her bloodstream, and when we removed everything, at that point it didn’t matter, it was in her bloodstream so it just kept popping up in various organs.”

Joan continued to grow life inside of her while Liz’s life slipped away. In July, Liz entered hospice care, was determined terminal, and was given two to six months to live.

Liz dreamed about the unborn Liam. In the time before she died, she wasn’t very verbal, so if she said something, it was important and meaningful.

“Every time she had a dream about him, he had reddish brown hair, blue eyes, fair skin,” Joan says, and of course, he does. “She met him in spirit.”

Sometimes, anti-gay activists will declare that marriage equality is a states’ issue, stating that same-sex couples always have the option to travel to another state where marriage is recognized, to tie the knot. For Liz and Joan, there simply wasn’t time.

“I wish we would have [been able to marry in another state], because things would have been different for me,” Joan says. “Right now, it’s just like if I’m a single mom. [Their son, Liam] doesn’t get anything. No recognition at all that he’s her son.”

Liz told Joan she was ready to die except that she had worry for her love and their unborn son.

“I said it’s okay, you’ll get to see him before I do and you’ll get to bring him to me when it’s my turn,” Joan says she told her dying partner.

Now, Joan talks to Liz every day. She believes Liz is still around and sometimes when she’s occupied far from Liam’s cradle, she sees it rocking and thinks Liz is pitching in. Joan is making plans to travel with Liam, to do the things Liz never got to do.

“Now I think my strength comes from that little miracle, just every day seeing him and watching him,” she says. “He reminds me so much of her and they don’t have any DNA [in common].”

When Liam is old enough to understand, what will Joan tell him about Liz?

“Everything,” she says. “I’m going to tell him about his amazing, brave mother and how we made him together.”

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