After spotting Kathleen’s profile, which featured a photo of her volunteering after Hurricane Katrina, Lou Ann sent her a note. Soon the two were texting and talking by phone several times a week. Kathleen had been living in Washington since 1997, working for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Wetlands, Oceans and Watersheds. At first she was taken aback by their age difference — Lou Ann is 11 years older — but that concern dissipated once she was assured Lou Ann liked to play outdoors and drink good wine.
That September, Lou Ann packed up her car and drove to Washington with her two sisters, Glenna and Susan, and her Jack Russell terrier, J.J., in tow. With Lou Ann behind the wheel, Glenna and Susan took it upon themselves to text Kathleen along the way, teasing that they expected a round of Singapore Sling cocktails to be waiting for them upon their arrival.
Kathleen decided to take the challenge and left a basket with all the ingredients, including a recipe card and fresh pineapple, outside the door of Lou Ann’s new apartment. A few hours later, Kathleen’s phone buzzed with a text message insisting she meet Lou Ann and her sisters for dinner in Dupont Circle.
“Oh my gosh, meet who? All of you?” Kathleen remembers thinking. But at the restaurant, she felt almost immediately at ease with the Sandstrom sisters. “They’re hilarious. They’re just so fun.”
That night, after Lou Ann’s sisters went to bed, she and Kathleen stayed up talking until dawn. “I definitely felt like this could be ‘The One,’ ” Lou Ann says. “I think I fell in love pretty quickly with Kathleen’s spirit. I felt like we had very similar values — what’s important to us. And I knew that as we talked. Plus I just thought, ‘Oh my gosh, she’s beautiful.’ ”
The four women spent the rest of the weekend together, and once Lou Ann’s sisters left, she and Kathleen became an instant duo. They met up for dinner most weeknights and filled their weekends with adventures around Washington.
From the get-go, Kathleen told Lou Ann her first priority was her aging grandmother in Falls Church. “And she respected that and has respected that ever since and has helped me live that value with my grandmother,” Kathleen says.
When Lou Ann’s position in Washington became permanent in 2009, Kathleen went with her to pack up the rest of her stuff in Oklahoma and move her into Kathleen’s one-bedroom condo near Logan Circle. Both women had always known they wanted children, and in the spring of 2010, they visited a fertility doctor to discuss the possibility of insemination.
“We came home that night and we were like, ‘This isn’t right. We’re not starting our family like this,’ ” recalls Kathleen, who was adopted as an infant. “We just knew that our path was not to bring someone into the world. It was to absorb a piece of the world that needed it.”
They wanted to marry but were advised to hold off because they could be disqualified as adoption candidates if a child became available in a state that doesn’t recognize same-sex marriage. The next few years brought a series of disappointments, as one lead after another fell through.
On their fifth anniversary, in September 2012, as they began to accept that an adoption might not be in the cards for them, they decided to marry.
“We were like, ‘Let’s just move on,’ ” remembers Lou Ann, now 54. Her mother was growing increasingly ill, so she was with her family in Chicago when a December call came in saying a birth mother in Texas had chosen them as adoptive parents.
The next month, they traveled to Texas to visit the birth mother. Then Lou Ann’s own mother passed away from heart failure.
In the meantime, both of Kathleen’s parents were experiencing health crises in Ohio. She spent much of the winter rushing between different floors of the same hospital — her mother’s leg was amputated, and her father lay intubated in cardiac critical care. She returned to Washington in March to be with her grandmother, who was undergoing surgery on an infected knee replacement.
Normally she would spend the night in her grandmother’s hospital room, but, exhausted, she drove home to Lou Ann. That evening, as they sat on the couch, the phone rang. The birth mother in Texas was about to undergo an emergency C-section. They boarded a 5 a.m. plane the next day and arrived within hours of the baby’s birth.
“When we landed and could turn phones on, there was a text with a picture of Ava,” Kathleen says. “We just started crying, ‘Oh my gosh, she’s beautiful! She’s beautiful! We just had a girl!’ ”
After two weeks in Texas, they combined their frequent flier miles to buy two first class tickets to bring their baby, Ava Kae, home to the District. During the flight, they watched a live streaming of the Supreme Court hearings on same-sex marriage.
“The range of emotions has been incredible,” Lou Ann says.
As they adjusted to 3 a.m. feedings and life with an infant, they decided their wedding would double as Ava’s baptism. “We knew this was the one time all our family would be together,” says Kathleen, now 43.
On Sept. 28, the two women walked down the aisle of Foundry United Methodist Church. Ava rode ahead in a red wagon lined with pillows and roses. They exchanged vows and witnessed the christening of their daughter before a crowd that included Kathleen’s grandmother and birth mother, as well as both of their fathers. After the ceremony, they rode a rickshaw to their reception at the Hay Adams.
“It seems surreal,” Kathleen said after the wedding. “We just can’t believe it. We feel like we’re living a dream right now.”