Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=225936
Story Retrieval Date: 7/31/2014 6:39:42 PM CST
Photo courtesy of Jan Carson
Jan Carson, left, and Anne Rogers at their civil union in 2011.
Two lives, filled with the joys, support and pain of life – now equal under the law
Maybe the happiest same-sex couple in Evanston to hear the news about Illinois allowing them to marry was Jan Carson and Anne Rogers. Both are the same height, blonde hair, clear blue eyes and display joyful personalities. But being in a civil union for 22 years and wanting to profess your love for another person is a long time to wait – a wait that, for them, is finally over.
Rogers knows this decision is a game-changer.
“Very, very excited. I never thought I would see [this] day in my lifetime. We did have our civil union two years ago. I think this will change the attitudes of our younger generation, and I think that it already is changing. We’ve noticed it’s easier for our grandkids to accept things sometimes than the older kids. And it’s important because it validates our love for each other. We think that’s very important.”
Their long, strenuous journey toward equality began not only in the most uncommon of ways, but also in the most polar opposite set of circumstances.
In 1990, the most dominating all-women softball league team in Evanston history was assembled called the Sandlot Saints. Two of the original members of that team are Carson and Rogers, who met each other on the team that summer.
Carson was a 38-year-old retired P.E. teacher struggling with multiple sclerosis, forced into early retirement due to her disability. But life isn’t all about money to Carson.
“It was rough, it was very tough, but you don’t have to have a lot of money to enjoy life, and that’s what I found out,” Carson said.
Carson was a star pitcher in high school and at the collegiate level before her disability set in. But the game was calling her back.
“I heard of a softball league starting up for women, middle-aged and older starting up in Evanston. And I missed the game and that hill so much that I said to myself right then and there, if it’s going to be, it’s up to me,” Carson said.
During that time Carson was in a dark place. The turning point in Carson’s life came when she met the manager of the team, Rogers, who gave her a chance to do what she loved.
“I wasn’t mentally or emotionally all there my first year on the team,” Carson said. “The pivotal part of turning my life around was meeting Anne. I went up to her the first day of practice and said I’m a pitcher. She gave me an opportunity. No one knew the circumstances, but I aim for perfection.”
Carson was nearly perfect, yielding only two earned runs that season and led the Saints to a championship in their first season. The two had some chemistry and enjoyed each other’s company. This led Rogers to not only make the right decision by starting Carson, but starting to date her as well.
Rogers was 50 years old, also a retired P.E. teacher, mother of four, divorced, had just ended a 14-year relationship with another woman, and was lonely. The two found solace in one another and after that season they said they knew they wanted to be committed to each other for life.
“We quickly learned we were right for each other. She has a kind heart and the same beliefs. We knew it was a lifelong commitment and it’s been that way. We’re beyond close friends; we’re partners. I know she’s there for me every day and I’m there for her too,” Rogers said.
Carson never had children, but she’s been there for Rogers’ four kids and eight grandchildren from the beginning and considers them her own.
“When I met Anne’s kids they were wonderful, had a great base and good morals because they have a great mom. They’re just lovely children and they were older. My job was to provide them with any help or guidance that they would need. I wasn’t there to replace their mom. I was there to add a little bit if they needed something like researching a car or how to fix a faucet or anything I could help them out with,” Carson said.
The toughest thing a mother can endure in life is losing a child. Five years into their relationship Rogers faced that fate: Her oldest son, Jeff, 28, was diagnosed with leukemia.
Jeff had a daughter on the way and was newly married to his girlfriend of seven years. But life isn’t fair, and there will always be a point in everyone’s life where life brings them to their knees, even to the best of people, and you can accept it, make the best of it and own life or let life eat you up and spit you out.
Jeff could either give up on life, let leukemia take him without a fight or fight back, see his daughter grow up and live the life he was supposed to live with his family. Leukemia forced him to quit his job, lose his hair and his morale. But Jeff chose to go down swinging. While his wife went out and got a job to support them, Jeff stayed home with their little girl and, after eight years of treatment and using his daughter as inspiration, he beat leukemia. Life seemed to be back to normal.
Rogers thought she had survived her worst nightmare. Then on a late, cold November night in 2003 the phone rang. Carson picked up. Jeff had been killed in a horrific motorcycle accident.
“I took the call when we got the news and I’ll never forget it. I told her and it was sort of surreal. It’s an everyday struggle, but we learn to live with it,” Carson said.
Rogers highlighted how Carson got her through the pain.
“She just listened. All I wanted was someone to talk to. She was close with Jeff and it hurt her, but she was strong for me and was my rock when I needed it. We realized we could never get over it,’ Rogers said. “We just had to live with it.”
A tree is planted now in Jeff’s memory near their house in Evanston, so they can spend some time with him when they need it. They still keep in contact with his daughter and widow. If you leave their house they both stay at the door and wave till you drive off, even if it’s from their back alley window. Because they learned the hard way that you never know when your last goodbye may be with the people you love the most.
When you walk in their home the fridge is covered with pictures of their kids and grandkids. Their family room displays a whole wall full of pictures of their families and a computer room features a dresser stacked with family photos. Rogers visits Carson’s family frequently, the same as any other couple, gay or straight.
And if you ask Carson what her biggest passion in life is, it’s spending time with her and Rogers’ eight grandchildren – because they are hers too.
“A big passion is to go, and anytime we can go to one of the grandkids’ games. The biggest thing that I think we do with them is when they come, we play with them. We play ball, we play kickball out in the backyard, we play games with them. We try and do as many things in a short amount of time as we can when we’re with them,” Carson said.
Even with Carson, 60, and Rogers, 72, both can still play the game they love every summer. Though the Saints may have a holy name, they show no mercy on their seven league opponents, not only by winning the championship that year, but 21 out of the last 23 years.
They haven’t lost a game in 12 years. A big part of their success has been the nearly perfect Carson, who led them to an undefeated season last year, yielding a lone run all year. Saints head coach Steve Gill knows the team’s success can be attributed to Carson.
“It’s amazing how consistent Jan is on a game-by-game basis. She never gives up on a play or game, and you’d be hard pressed to find a woman who loves the game more than her. The way she dominates a game, you would never know she has MS and she’s inspirational to the team and to anyone close to her who knows what she has.”
To Carson, life is all about embracing what you have and taking life for what it is.
“I wake up every morning and count my fingers and toes, and treat every day as a blessing. I have more abilities than disabilities and I enjoy life one day at a time. I’ve been retired since I’ve been 27 years old. That’s been my saving grace, because I do rest a lot and I can do what I want when I want. Maybe I’ll play that game, that softball game. Then I may be in bed the next day. So it’s a give and take,” Carson said.
Rogers is there at every game as the stats person. She’s there for Carson once again, this time in the form of a team supporter. And no one admires Carson more than her biggest fan.
“I totally admire her every day. I mean, what you see is what you get. She lives for the day. I wish that sometimes I could. I’m always worried something’s going to happen tomorrow or what should we do tomorrow. She totally lives for today. That’s one of her mottos, that you have to live this day because you don’t know what’s going to happen to you tomorrow. And she has the attitude of being the best you can be that day. It’s impressive to live with someone like that,” Rogers said.
Off the field, the couple is content eating cheap meals at McDonald’s, taking boating trips with their grandchildren and spending the winters in sunny Florida, walking the beach and reflecting on life.
‘‘We enjoy being together in a natural setting, and we like to bird watch. It’s just a relaxing time for us and we get some exercise. We enjoy each day,” Rogers said.
With gay marriage now legal in Illinois, the couple can now walk that beach feeling completely gratified, free and finally equal. Life has a funny way of working itself out with the ups and downs it throws at you; like a ride. You can bet that Jeff is smiling down upon his parents because he knows they’ve reached their final destination called fulfillment.