David B. Maxwell, 66, and James McCormick, 72, were together for five years and had recently moved into their own home in the Midland Beach neighborhood of Staten Island, known for its beautiful waterfront views and serenity. They had cats. They had each other. And by all accounts they had planned to spend their lives devoted to one another.
When I started working with James, I learned that he had suffered a stroke in mid-2012 that left him with limited mobility and confined to a wheelchair. He had to move out of the home he shared with David and into the Carmel Richmond Nursing Home.
I never met David, but I imagine him to have been a nurturing and caring man. He was described by his neighbor as a "lovely sweet gentleman," and a devoted partner whose whole life was James. After James' stroke, David would visit him all the time at the nursing home. David's was the first face James saw in the morning and the last he saw at night.
I was heartbroken to learn that David passed away due to tragic circumstances. Hurricane Sandy had affected us all, as New Yorkers and Americans, but it put a dark cloud over what was once a joyful life for this couple. While James was kept safe in the nursing home, David's body was found in the wreckage of their home 11 days after he was reported missing. Neighbors, family and friends hoped he escaped and was safe, but the worst was confirmed when it was ruled David had drowned in his own home.
I have worked with James in the months following David's death. I asked him how he was holding up. Was he doing OK? Is he grieving? James is a fighter, determined to move forward and pick up the pieces, but the mention of David's name swells his eyes with tears. It is a subject I try to approach delicately.
Amidst grieving, James was forced to plan a funeral for his beloved partner, while sifting through the bureaucratic process of trying to get FEMA assistance to help pay for housing and funeral costs. It was a tedious process to get them to pay. There was a mountain of paperwork to fill out, and James had to secure a lot of documentation to prove his identity, as well as David's. I didn't quite understand at first how difficult getting paperwork would be for James, until it was pointed out to me that all of James' and David's official documents were washed away in the hurricane.
Somehow, someone got word to Andrew Miller, Assistant Commissioner at NYC Department of Youth and Community Development at the Mayor's office, about James. He contacted James, and it was James who connected the both of us. Together we worked to prove James' identity. First, the United States Department of Veterans Affairs agreed to pay the cost of David"s funeral (David was a former Marine who served in Vietnam), including transportation for James since he is confined to a wheelchair. During the funeral, James was presented with the flag of the United States of America on behalf of the United States Armed Forces and the president, honoring and thanking David for his service to his country. Today, David's flag hangs in James' room at the nursing home.
I still work with James as his Case Manager at SAGE. He's doing better. He's very resilient, but is still recovering. I am currently trying to set James up with Access-A-Ride, so he can attend SAGE programming at the Staten Island LGBT Community Center. When recovering, it's important to have a support network to lean on. The SAGE Center's satellite site in Staten Island is the perfect place for James to meet and be around supportive peers in his own community, many who know the pain of losing a loved one and the struggle of finding the strength to move on.
Hurricane Sandy changed James' life. It impacted us all. In times like these, we are reminded of the power in our communities when we band together to help one another. I am proud to be a part of the SAGE family, to be a gay man and to work alongside my colleagues at SAGE who work diligently in their various roles every day to ensure that LGBT older adults live full and active lives and get the support and resources they need during the most tragic times of their lives.
In the beginning of 2013, FEMA finally approved relief aid to James for property and rental assistance.
The story of David and James is one of many. Check out the next edition of SAGEMatters, the official magazine of SAGE, to read more about how SAGE responded to the needs of LGBT elders during Hurricane Sandy. SAGEMatters will be released later this month. To sign up to receive a print or digital copy of the magazine, please email SAGE.
Sign up here to receive SAGE's e-newsletter.
This was previously published on SAGE's website.