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Susan Campbell: A Love Story About Two Fighters

It's almost Christmas, so now is a good time for a love story.

Back in the '00s, after three decades together, Janet Peck and Carol Conklin took a deep breath and entered the public eye. They signed on as plaintiffs in Connecticut's historic marriage equality case.

Then, in 2008, the state Supreme Court decided in favor of marriage equality. At the multiple press conferences and meet-and-greets, Peck was the talkative one. Conklin was more comfortable staying quiet.

But they agreed that it was important to put themselves out there, both for their love, which started decades earlier, and for the love of so many others.

"We were fighting for ourselves, certainly, but also for all other same-sex couples, especially those in the younger generations who might want to marry," said Peck, a retired licensed professional counselor.

The women find themselves in another fight now.

A few years ago, Conklin, a retired electrician, couldn't remember how to rewire a three-way switch. She sat and pondered this most basic of an electrician's job, but kept coming up blank.

"That next day, I remembered," said Conklin. "I knew something was wrong."

There were other issues, but doctors' general consensus was that Conklin's forgetfulness could probably be attributed to menopause. Forgetfulness is part of aging.

But this was different. This was more than "Has anyone seen my glasses?" and it came to a head when, on a month-long camping trip to Canada, the women's 18-foot trailer became an unsolvable puzzle for Conklin. She couldn't find anything — and "I'm the one who loads it," she said.

Conklin would berate herself for each lost moment. "I'm screwing up all the time," she said. "Nobody's believing me, something's wrong, this is my fault."

Peck and Conklin started visiting doctors in earnest, and persevered until Conklin was diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment, which meant she is at risk for Alzheimer's disease. The women knew what this meant. They had cared for Conklin's father, who'd had it, too.

For Conklin, the diagnosis — hard as it was to take — was something of a relief.

According to the Alzheimer's Association, nearly two-thirds of people diagnosed with the disease are women. A woman's estimated lifetime risk for developing Alzheimer's is 1 in 6. By comparison, a woman's estimated lifetime risk for developing breast cancer is roughly 1 in 8, according to the American Cancer Society.

When a doctor mentioned a clinical trial at Yale School of Medicine, Conklin didn't think twice. She said yes, and Peck agreed, and they signed on with the goal of having more time together — and helping future generations.

Monthly, Conklin goes to New Haven for injections of either a placebo or an antibody that's meant to halt the progression of Alzheimer's disease, said Dr. Christopher H. van Dyck, a Yale psychiatry professor and director of Yale's Alzheimer's Disease Research Unit and the Division of Aging and Geriatric Psychiatry.

The antibody is supposed to work with a peptide that's thought to play a central role in the long goodbye that is Alzheimer's. Side effects can include brain swelling, so Conklin gets frequent MRIs and PET scans, as well.

"In both cases we are fighting for our love — one for its recognition and the other for it to continue to live on as long as possible in this world," said Peck. "We want that for ourselves and for everyone else."

To prolong the goodbye, the women have changed their diet. They're exercising more. They're doing everything they can while they know that the best that can be hoped for, with this particular medical regimen, is to slow the decline. When she stops to think about that, or think that Conklin may not one day remember that she loves her, it takes Peck's breath away.

"You know where this is ending," said Peck, sitting in the comfortable chalet they built in the Connecticut woods. "I can't imagine Carol not being in my life. I just can't." And Conklin, with a small smile, reaches for her hand.

Susan Campbell teaches at the University of New Haven. She is the author of "Dating Jesus: Fundamentalism, Feminism and the American Girl" and "Tempest-Tossed: The Spirit of Isabella Beecher Hooker." Her email address is slcampbell417@gmail.com.

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