Stephanie and I at Kettle Moraine State Forest, circa 2008.
It’s hard to remember the details of life with Stephanie, from before all of her health issues. When I drive by her former workplace, my memories aren’t of her several years healthy there; instead they’re of helping her in and out when she could hardly open the door. Hundreds of times we walked around our neighborhood – both of us walking – but what comes to mind now is pushing her wheelchair gently over the cracks in the sidewalk. When I’m in our kitchen, where she loved to cook, what I’m usually remembering is the era when I had to help her open the oven door, because guess what? It’s nearly impossible to open an oven and put in or take out a pot full of food when you’re in a wheelchair. Her disability has taken over my memories of her, and that’s not fair to her.
For all the time we were together from 1997-2011, Stephanie was a tough, fearless, independent woman. You can’t get much more fearless than flying across the country to meet a potential boyfriend – me – and then flying back, only to start planning and packing everything and actually move across the country and live with that guy she’d just met. That’s our story, some of which I’ve already told on this site, and some of which is yet to be written (spoilers).
It probably goes without saying, but every time we moved, to and from San Francisco, then to Kansas City, then to Madison, Stephanie did her share of packing and loading the moving vans, and more than her share of the planning, driving, and navigating.
In San Francisco, we walked across the Golden Gate Bridge and back, and we weren’t particularly tired afterwards. We walked from downtown to our apartment – three miles or so – with no worries. We climbed around in the ruins of the Sutro Baths. We walked for miles along the Pacific Ocean shores and out in the Avenues.
In Kansas City, we walked up and down the hill to movies at the Country Club Plaza, a mile or so each way. We often walked to the museums, not necessarily to go to the museums, but just to walk. When we discovered that an apartment without air conditioning was unlivable in the summer, Stephanie found a sale on portable air conditioners and brought two of them home – 25 pounds each, on the city bus, since we didn’t have a car.
In Madison, we walked every path in every park, and made Tenney Park our most frequent destination, for walking, for picnicking, for pontoon boat rides, for fishing. Stephanie often went shopping or ran errands without me. We might walk a dozen blocks from our apartment to a restaurant or a park, with no hesitation. We once walked across Monona Bay on the railroad tracks, and would’ve had to jump into the water if a train came.
We went camping, and she didn’t think twice about the long walk to the toilet pits. We bought baseball tickets in row 22, and made our way up the bleachers without any particular stress or strain. We would occasionally go on hikes, and climb mini-mountains and lookout towers in state parks.
All through her adult life, Stephanie was a self-reliant woman, in control of her life and career – she was what used to be called liberated. She wasn’t always on about it, and she wasn’t looking for an argument, but she was very much a feminist. She understood from first-hand experience that many men, subconsciously or consciously, view women as inferior. She sometimes wasn’t taken seriously herself, at work, at school, and in life, because of her gender.
That’s just plain stupid, of course. Dismissing a good idea without a good reason is counterproductive to running a profitable business, or building a better society, or whatever your goal might be. Like any form of bigotry, misogyny ought to be challenged and never tolerated. Steph would challenge it, always. When someone tried to shush her or ignore her or dismiss her, she would insist upon being heard.
She was a strong, smart, vibrant, take-no-guff woman. She was college-educated, well-read, had thoroughly-thought-out opinions, and she had a natural attitude of being in charge in almost any situation, because in almost any situation, you’d want her to be in charge. And she certainly didn’t change when we fell in love; I wouldn’t have wanted her to change, and anyway, she wouldn’t have.
We split the chores evenly, but there was nothing she couldn’t do on a whim. When we decided we wanted to go somewhere or do something, she was ready to go quickly, usually before me. We went to movies, plays, parks, restaurants, shops, museums, garage sales, political rallies, vacations, excursions, baseball or hockey games, the library, and everywhere else we wanted to go except France. Nothing held her back, except that she had a rather dull, not-too-bright husband.
When the garbage disposal clogged, she grabbed a wrench and took it apart and got it working again. When we needed to file bankruptcy, she handled all the paperwork, and was actually complimented by the court clerk, who told her they were the tidiest forms he’d ever seen. When we needed to argue with anyone over poor service or billing errors, she knew exactly how to plead her case winningly and politely, while my style would have just been to holler ineffectively. There wasn’t much Stephanie couldn’t do, nor much she couldn’t do better than me.
She was never subservient to anyone unless she actually respected that person’s expertise. She was certainly never subservient to me, and I never wanted her to be. Adjectives like “dainty” or “demure” would not apply. She was a tough broad, in the best sense of that term.
In all these ways and many more, Stephanie Webb kicked ass, perpetually. But those memories and a million like them are now hidden in the back corners of my head. Toward the front, clearly visible through the windows of my mind, are more recent and less pleasant memories – like the time her legs gave out and she crumpled in a parking lot, when the doctors hadn’t yet figured out why walking had suddenly become difficult. And make no mistake, moments like that are part of Stephanie too; I don’t want to forget anything that happened, the bad or the good. But it seems unfair and unkind and below-the belt, that my strongest memories are of Stephanie at her weakest.
I remember her problems walking, her kidney failure, her leg amputation, her stay in a nursing home and more – and her triumphs over all of it. Yeah, triumphs. What else do you call it, when she kept coming back from every diagnosis, every hospitalization? That was a winning streak.
From the day we were married I was always proud to be her husband, and I grew more and more proud of her as the years went by, and prouder still as she battled her medical problems. In my eyes, she was astounding before her any of the diagnoses, and astounding after all of them.
So it’s hard to imagine how difficult the disability was for Stephanie. How terrifying it must have been, to go from being that autonomous, strong, stand-alone chick to being someone who literally couldn’t stand alone. I did everything I could to help her, but what she wanted most was to not need any help.
That’s why it is pissing me off that a lot of my memories of Stephanie circa 1997-2011 have been overwritten by more recent memories, of Stephanie’s health issues and disability. I had to take over all the shopping and most of the household chores and almost anything that required physical strength; I drove her to all her medical appointments, and pushed her wheelchair. Et cetera. Which means, the memories of Stephanie needing help are newer and fresher, and thus more vivid.
Of course, that’s the way memory works, but it’s a thunderous disservice to the sensational woman she already was, before all the doctors descended on her. I have never known a better person – wiser, stronger, or more independent – than the Stephanie I met in 1997, and she became even more impressive as her health faded but her determination never did. I will never forget Stephanie in a wheelchair, but I also and always want to remember Stephanie before the wheelchair.
More about Stephanie.