“I think we should get married.”
These weren’t the words Stephen Rainbow was expecting to hear at 3am when Greg, the man who’d slept beside him for more than a decade, woke him up to say something important.
It was the stuff of romantic comedies: Stephen was a staunch traditionalist, and marriage had been on his mind for much of their time together, despite there being no legal avenue but for civil unions in New Zealand.
But his delight for Greg’s early morning acceptance of a tacit proposal was coloured by a visit they’d made to Auckland Hospital earlier that day. Greg had cancer, it had spread to his brain, and they now had as little as two weeks left together.
“Greg loathed being the centre of attention, he hated anything public really,” Stephen recalls. He holds up his right hand, displaying a solid silver ring. “He went out and bought me this ring.”
It was Greg’s impending death that put aside any of his own fears or embarrassment about being on display. In that 3am epiphany, nothing else mattered except cherishing the time they had left.
“It was the middle of July,” Stephen recalls. “We got married in the garden at Northcote Point where we lived, and then we walked from there down to the Engine Room, which was Greg’s favourite eatery.
“I have a photo of us still,” he says with pride, “walking hand-in-hand in conservative Northcote Point, down Queen Street as we went to the restaurant.”
The physical change in Greg, a handsome architect, from the candid family snaps of earlier years compared to the wedding photos, is marked.
He is bald, and has aged visibly. As he and Stephen join hands to cut the cake, you can see the hands that once would have moved with precision as he designed buildings are losing the strength they once had.
Some years before, the couple had bought a house in Nelson, their collective home town. They’d been driving through the town and saw an old Art Deco house by the sea that was being sold as a development site.
“We were both passionate conservationists, so we just had to buy this house to stop it from being demolished,” Stephen remembers.
It was this house, rescued from destruction on a chance whim, where they spent their final months together.
There’s a collection of photographs from their time together in this house. Some are taken from inside the house, holding each other and looking into each other’s eyes, or facing toward the light from an unseen window. They are not sad images. They are of a couple who are completely in the moment, content to have found each other in the world and to be in a space that represents their shared values of love, family, security and tradition.
A second series is taken in the garden. Greg sits in a white chair, and Stephen joins him in various poses. In one, they stand and embrace to face the camera, and Stephen is clearly holding Greg up. In another, Greg sits alone, contemplative but alert. He could well be pondering his next project, or what he and Stephen are planning to have for dinner that night.
“It was the most beautiful place for him to die,” he recalls quietly, with a smile that fades with the next sentence. “He’d sit for hours in the window seat, looking out over the sea.”
Stephen has always been a man driven by his career, but work life became difficult after Greg’s death, despite the support he received from a number of colleagues.
“So much of what one does, particularly in working life, is so banal and meaningless. Petty squabbles, for instance. My patience for those things just diminished, and I think it’s remained diminished because we spend so much time focusing on things that actually don’t matter,” he says.
It was a month after Greg’s death when Stephen first returned to work. That day, he handed in his notice. He took up a part-time job to ease himself back into work. He’s reluctant to make grand generalisations about why he chose to do this, but the experience of Greg’s death changed his outlook on life and work irrevocably.
He filled up his social calendar as well. Barely a night went by that he didn’t go out. Friends rallied round, and invited him out to dinners. The spaces in-between were filled with random hook-ups, and drinking. At times, he feels he was self-destructive. But he didn’t see another option.
What were people saying to him?
“A counsellor once said to me, ‘are you ready to let Greg go?’” he remembers. “I said absolutely not. I don’t know why I need to, and I don’t feel I want to, and I have no intention of letting him go at this stage.
“I still have people expecting that three years after Greg died that, it’s just something you get over and move on from. I don’t think that’s the case actually. I think the people that you’ve lost stay very much as part of one’s life, you just get different perspectives on what happened over time.”
In the end, the thing that helped Stephen most during his darkest period was surprisingly simple.
“My doctor said – ‘you will get through this’,” he emphasises the words. “‘Things will change.’ Just hearing that it wasn’t always going to be like this was what I needed to hear.
“When you’re in those periods, what may seem obvious, the fact that all things do pass, do not seem obvious at all. Waking up every morning feeling nothing but blackness is a pretty horrible place to be.”
Truth is, you may never know how your simple words or support for a friend can be making a difference in their life.
“I can’t imagine how I would have got through these periods of grief without the support of other people,” Stephen says. “And that support took many forms. I guess my wish is that the way we lived our ordinary daily lives reflected that richness and level of support, and not just at periods of great trauma.”
Stephen’s full story can be found in the feature-length documentary Men Like Us, now available on DVD on digital download.