Till death us do part: the final wish of Chris and Matthew

Last week, they became the first gay couple to marry in the UK. The next day, Matthew died of cancer. Here, his partner Chris tells, for the first time, a story of joy and tragedy
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Like every newlywed, Chris Cramp still remembers the day he had his first kiss with his partner, Matthew Roche. Until then, at the age of 30, he had told no one he was gay, and was terrified of admitting it even to himself. All that changed on Boxing Day 1998, when Matthew told his friend of five years how much he wanted to be in his life.

A week later, the couple had bought rings for each other and decided to take a "honeymoon" to Australia. They began charting a future in which they would cement their relationship in front of friends and family in a legal wedding ceremony - if the law would ever allow it.

Two weeks ago, they managed to fulfil that dream when they became the first gay couple in the UK to "marry" in a civil partnership. But, just over 24 hours after what Chris describes as "the happiest moment of our lives", Matthew died in his arms.

In the first interview since his partner died, Chris told The Independent yesterday of how Matthew, 46, became terminally ill with bile-duct cancer in February this year. He described how Matthew "willed himself" to keep living until the ceremony that meant so much to him could take place.

The couple, from Southwick, in Sussex, were given special permission to go ahead with the ceremony on 5 December, when the law came into force but while other gay and lesbian couples could only register for civil partnership ceremonies which can take place in England from tomorrow.

The event was held at St Barnabas Hospice in Worthing, West Sussex, as 20 close family members and friends watched. One copy of the registration certificate is now with Chris, while the other was buried with Matthew at his funeral last Thursday.

In one of the most momentous weeks in British gay history, Chris spoke of his immense sadness over losing the love of his life but said that he would cherish the symbolic moment when they were recognised on an equal standing to heterosexual married couples in the eyes of the law.

Matthew, a nursing assistant in Brighton, first began to feel ill in April this year, and subsequently lost three stone (19kg) which left him frail. But he was not diagnosed with a tumour until October. When Matthew finally learned the source of his illness, he was overcome by fear for his partner's future alone, as well as a desire for a final commitment ceremony.

"He wasn't frightened of dying. He came to accept it. He was frightened of what would happen to me. He was frightened about my future," said Chris.

"Over our seven-year relationship, we had always discussed marriage. We knew the law was changing at the end of the year. Then, on the 16 November, he said he'd always wanted to get married and that we ought to do it.

"He knew he was very ill by then. We knew there was a possibility that Matthew might not have made it to 5 December, so we had a blessing of our commitment to each other in the hospice chapel two weeks before that. It was wonderful. We wore suits, everyone who came brought a dish and we played Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love You."

Chris, 37, who works as a senior staff nurse at Southland Hospital, in Shoreham, described how he had initially been struck by Matthew's presence at a friend's birthday celebration when the pair first met 12 years ago. But he was in turmoil over his sexuality and refused to pursue the relationship any further, despite gentle encouragement from Matthew, who had already come out years before.

"We got on really well and ended up talking the whole night. He told me I had unusual eyes, which I think was a chat-up line. But I couldn't. We found out we were both nurses and had lots in common, so decided to be friends instead. We both love country walks and the same music and we would do things together," said Chris.

The friendship intensified and Chris found himself seeing Matthew more and more frequently as the years went by. "I always wanted to be with Matthew but never expected it would happen. When he finally asked me to be with him on that Boxing Day, I said "Yes! This is what I want."

"He helped me admit to myself that I was gay. After our first kiss, I realised my own feelings and I knew I'd found someone I could totally trust."

A few months after becoming a couple, they took a life-changing trip to Australia for four months after which Chris came out to his friends and family. "Going away with him felt like a honeymoon. It also felt like the first time I'd been really true to myself. It felt liberating going away to a big city where we were accepted and where no one knew us. I decided a few days before coming back that I'd tell my family and friends. When I told one of my friends and my sister, they said they'd known for ages!"

The couple, who moved in together after returning from Australia, had anticipated a change of law within their lifetime so decided against a non-legal ceremony abroad.

"I don't think either of us proposed to the other as such, but we often discussed it as the years went by. We knew the law was changing in this country and we didn't want to go to another country to do it. We both wanted to wait until it was legal here. We thought about getting married on Sydney Harbour Bridge but I'm pleased we didn't in the light of recent events, as it gave Matthew something to look forward to at the end of his life. It made things complete.

"He'd joked about getting married in the Royal Pavilion in Brighton before and I'd always told him that we couldn't afford it. I think he had this idea that we'd be married near home with family around us."

In spite of the blessing ceremony in November, both men desperately wanted to go through formal proceedings as well before Matthew's health failed him. But the situation looked bleak a week before the date.

"He continued to rapidly deteriorate, and he went through a time when he began repeating things for a while. But he was very strong-willed and extremely determined. He was holding on for us. He kept saying to me: "I want to make it." By this time, he was losing more weight and was very weak. His face and arms were very thin but his body was swelling more and more every day from the fluid.

"I began having doubts about whether he'd make it. Of course, I was hoping he would, mainly because I knew it was his dream. But Matthew was weak and I was worried about what he could take."

Matthew's determination didn't waver. He insisted that Chris bring in a collection of his smartest shirts from which he could choose an outfit for the day and he seemed far more positive than he had been a week previously. Originally, he had only wanted a very small, intimate ceremony but over the weekend he began inviting friends too.

"He didn't want to have too many painkillers because he wanted to be fully alert for the day. He really, really wanted to stay with us and he somehow found an inner strength.

"On the day, he told me he was going to wheel himself into the hospice chapel in his electric wheelchair. He seemed so emphatic.

"He wheeled himself in and then turned around to face everyone. Like he wanted to tell everyone 'I'm here'. Everyone noticed the change. It was dramatic. He had found the blessing very hard emotionally but, this time, he was relaxed because he had made it. It was such a proud moment for both of us."

Chris said the 20-minute ceremony left Matthew and himself "ecstatic".

"He was so happy he'd done it - and really pleased he'd beaten Elton John and David Furnish to it! I felt like I had gone through one of the best moments of my life and sharing that moment with the most special person in my life.

"It was not to prove any more love for each other but it was a final commitment, in our own eyes and our families. It was so much more important to us than the signing of a form," he said.

After the ceremony, staff moved two beds together so Chris could spend the night with his partner. The two men held hands and told each other they loved each other before they went to sleep.

"For Matthew, it couldn't have been any better. After a brilliant and historic day when we saw ourselves on TV, I switched the light off and I thanked him for making the day so special and thanked him for sharing his life with me, and we both said how much we loved each other and we kissed each other a few times, before we went to sleep. The next morning, he would not wake up."

Matthew had lost consciousness overnight. He died at 4.35pm on 6 December, 29 hours after the ceremony.

"As he went, I held his hand and told him I was there with him, and then went round the room telling him exactly who was there and reassured him he was surrounded by his family. In a way it made sense that he went then. There was no other goal for him to achieve. We'd made it."

If you would like to make a donation to St Barnabas Hospice in Worthing, call 01903 265824 or email fundraising@stbarnabas-hospice.org.uk

A legal recognition of love

By Maxine Frith

In October 1970, the first meeting of the London Gay Liberation Front was held at the London School of Economics. Thirty-five years later, "gay marriage" has been recognised and more than 1,000 ceremonies have been scheduled to take place before the end of the year.

The Civil Partnership Act means same-sex couples can have their relationships recognised in law for the first time. It provides registered gay and lesbian couples with a number of legal rights and entitlements held by heterosexual couples in civil marriages, such as pension and inheritance rights.

The partnerships are not officially regarded as gay marriages; the signing of the legal partnership papers does not need to happen in public. But many couples are opting for the ceremony associated with traditional marriage.

Almost 700 "gay marriages" are due to take place across England and Wales tomorrow, when arrangements for the civil partnerships come fully into operation, the General Register Office said. Two hundred ceremonies will take place in Brighton before the end of the year; the city has taken 510 bookings for the coming months, thought to be the highest in the country.

In Northern Ireland, same-sex couples could form civil partnerships from yesterday, and in Scotland from today.

The most high-profile union since the introduction of the legislation will take place tomorrow when Sir Elton John and David Furnish hold a civil ceremony in Windsor's Guildhall.