What saddens me most is the curds.

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There’s not a lot of Steph’s food still in the refrigerator, but tossing it seems wasteful and distasteful. So I’ve done nothing with it; done nothing for too long, to be honest. A mostly-empty green plastic tube of pre-grated Parmesan. Two half-gone bottles of her preferred salad dressing, one Blue Cheese and one Thousand Island. A jar of shrimp sauce, which she used as a dip for cream cheese on crackers.

I don’t want to eat it – this was her food, not mine – and I don’t want to junk it, but some of the cheese has begun changing color or sprouting hair, and there’s a beer that must be skunky by now. Goodbye, cheese. Down the drain, beer.

There’s a bottle of moscato that’s been chilling in the fridge for several months. It was supposed to go well with a dinner Steph had prepared in June or July, but we forgot to put it out that night, so it’s still waiting to have its cork popped. I don’t often drink alcohol, but I’ve kept the moscato as an emergency kit, in case I get the blues extra-bad some night and decide to go on a bender.

What saddens me most is the curds. We bought a giant sack of curds when my family visited, just a few weeks before Stephanie died. Steph was crazy about curds, just loved ‘em. I like curds, but can’t bring myself to even nibble on these. And I’m not absolutely sure, but if memory serves Stephanie bought these curds herself, and that would make them the very last thing she purchased with money or plastic out of her own wallet. It would be truly difficult, maybe impossible, for me to simply toss them in the trash.

And there we are. I don’t know what to do with Stephanie’s curds, and yeah, I feel stupid even wondering about it. I ought to just throw them out and forget about it, but – I can’t. Instead I slid the sack of curds inside an oversized plastic baggie, to protect either the curds or the rest of the food in the fridge. Maybe I’ll let the curds be a refrigerated extension to the Shrine, sitting in the fridge forever and ever, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, curds to mold.

* * * * * * * * * *

Here’s an email from my brother: “Are you OK?” I haven’t answered his last several emails stretching back a few weeks, so I suppose I deserve that. I’ll answer his emails. Hey, I’m alive and well. But of course, I’m not at all “OK.”

A couple of months ago, I lost my best friend, and the meaning in my life. It would be an exaggeration to say there’s no pleasure or no joy; I’ve laughed once in a while, and had occasional happy moments since being alone. But a quarter-inch below the surface, there’s no point to any of it. There’s no warmth, nothing that matters.

I am always, always, teetering on the brink, five seconds from bursting into tears. My big progress is that lately, I don’t think it looks like I’m five seconds from crying. My long-term goal is to make it to ten.

It’s still awful coming home to she’s-not-there. I’ve always been an early riser, and Stephanie liked to sleep late, so being home alone isn’t much different than being home in the old days, when she was asleep in the morning and I’d be puttering around on the computer or watching an old movie on Netflix. But coming home to an empty apartment? That’s the worst thing in the universe.

Steph was everything I had in life, and everything I wanted in life.

For about ten minutes I’ve been staring at the previous sentence. It means more than I meant it to mean, and I’m trying to wrap my head around it. I had everything I wanted in life, which is extraordinary. Not many people can say they had everything they wanted in life, but I can say it and it’s true. And now, everything I wanted in life is gone.

Posted 11/11/2018.

More about Stephanie.

Falling in love.

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Here’s Part 1 of Stephanie’s visit to San Francisco. Here’s Part 2, and Part 3, and what follows is the end of her trip, a/k/a Part 4.

If you’re showing San Francisco to a visitor, don’t skip Alcatraz. It’s one of those rare tourist attractions that’s everything you’ve been led to expect, but also more. On the off chance anyone is unfamiliar with Alcatraz, it’s a former federal prison on an island in the middle of San Francisco Bay. The roughest and scariest prisoners were sent there, because escape seemed impossible – even if an inmate found a way out of the prison, how would he get across the water?

Alcatraz was exhausting, because there’s a lot of walking, and sobering, because there’s a lot to think about. Stephanie and I spent hours on the grounds, walking past hundreds of empty but unchanged prison cells, and it’s simply not a place for light conversation or joking around. When we broke for lunch, our conversation was about what justice ought to mean, and how prisons ought to be run, which is largely the opposite of how prisons are run. We were entirely in agreement, and while our day at Alcatraz wasn’t intended as a test, it allowed each of us to verify that the other was capable of a deep, serious conversation. In my life, I’ve known a fair number of people who simply couldn’t or wouldn’t have gone even a few sentences into the conversation Steph and I had that afternoon.

Over the rest of Stephanie’s stay in San Francisco, I tried to show her the town, because San Francisco in the 1990s was undeniably cool and I was proud of it. The Bohemians hadn’t yet been forced out of town by impossible rents, Haight-Ashbury still had an echo of its groovy vibe from the ‘60s, and a grand time could be had for the price of a ticket on BART, the Bay Area Rapid Transit system we took rides to the end of the line and back on every BART route, just to talk and hold hands, and see the sights out the window.

We didn’t visit San Francisco’s famous Fisherman’s Wharf, because that’s just a gaudy tourist trap. We did visit Golden Gate Park, because it’s gorgeous and inviting, just like Stephanie. We saw the Mission, since that’s the part of town where I lived. We had lunch in the Castro, the rainbow flag-flying neighborhood where outcasts from everywhere else gather to become each others’ families. We rode on the cable cars, halfway to the stars. We went to the zine store, where Zine World and oodles of other homemade newsletters and magazines were on the shelf.

The first movie we saw together (first of hundreds, maybe thousands) was Barbie Nation, a documentary about Barbie dolls, at the Roxie Theatre. It was my idea to see that movie; it looked interesting, and the Roxie was literally just around the corner from where I lived. We shared a big bowl of buttery popcorn, and we both thought the flick was excellent, with a lot to say about how girls are gently nudged toward gender conformity, and judged on their appearance so much more than boys are. Steph was impressed by the movie, and impressed by me for suggesting it.

So I scored points for being a feminist, which I am and always have been. Ask me about women’s liberation, and I’ll just say it shouldn’t be radical or outrageous to believe that women deserve the same rights and opportunities as men. It ought to go without saying, but apparently it still needs to be said.

We went to City Lights, the famous book store and publisher of Howl by Allen Ginsberg, and books by André Breton, Charles Bukowski, Sam Shepard, and much of the pantheon of 20th Century American literature. If you care about books or reading or the English language, City Lights is where your heroes hang out, and we spent hours there. I got lost in the basement, and we left with a bag of books for a reasonable price.

In the same neighborhood, we strolled past the hungry i (lower-case intentional), the legendary nightclub that gave big career boosts to many famous comedians, including Woody Allen, Lenny Bruce, Professor Irwin Corey, Bill Cosby, Joan Rivers, Mort Sahl – on and on. We strolled past the place but didn’t go inside, because these days their only entertainment is “exotic dancers.” It’s become a strip joint with a famous sign out front.

We went to an Oakland A’s baseball game, our first of many. We both liked baseball, a lot, and I’m not certain but we may have gone to our second Oakland A’s game too, during Steph’s two-week visit. It’s the perfect date activity – you’re outside and there’s entertainment, but it’s slow-paced entertainment, without much to interrupt an easy-going conversation between two people falling in love.

This was pre-9/11, so security guards weren’t yet digging through everyone’s backpack, and to save money on concessions I packed some sandwiches – tuna, and peanut butter and jelly. She ate a sandwich and a half without complaint during the game, but told me later that the sandwiches were far too dry – the tuna needed more mayo, and the PBJs needed more jelly. Sorry, Love.

I brought her to the office where I worked, and that was a calculated risk. It was a porn magazine, and even though I only did clerical work – data entry and proofreading and such – lots of ladies might have hesitations about a man who worked there. Steph, of course, was fine with it. (By the way, my boss at that job was a great guy, and he’s passed away since then, as has the magazine, but he’d scowl at me for calling it porn – “Doug,” he’d holler, “it’s not porn, it’s erotica!”)

In Chinatown, we visited one of the many family-run shops selling all sorts of Chinese-made doodads and trinkets, and Stephanie bought a sackful of stuff to take back to Madison and give to her family and friends as gifts. What got my attention, though, was that she didn’t take an hour dawdling around the two stories of store; she briskly walked through the place, focused on an area with affordable but interesting knickknacks, and we were in and out in about ten minutes. My lady didn’t dawdle.

We ate at a vegetarian Chinese restaurant up a flight of stairs in Chinatown. Why did we go to a vegetarian restaurant, when neither of us were vegetarians? Good question, and I don’t have a good answer, except that Stephanie was vegetarian-curious at the time. Chinese cuisine, for me anyway, is mostly about the meat, and the interesting sauces and breadings and dips they prepare – for the meat. So a Chinese dinner without meat was a screwball challenge, a dare we had to accept. And guess what? The food was bland, we left most of it uneaten, and we stopped at a McDonald’s on our way home. And never again did Stephanie express any interest in becoming a vegetarian.

The hamburger didn’t get along well with the meatless Chinese food, because later that night Stephanie said her tummy was troubling her, but she hadn’t remembered to pack her preferred antacid. I offered to run to a drug store and get it, and she said, “No, that’s silly. My stomach hurts but I’m perfectly capable of walking to a drug store.”

“Well, nobody doubts that you’re capable. I’m just doubting that’s what you want to do, ‘cuz you seem to be miserable. I’m your host and your friend, and I hope you’ll let me fetch what you need.”

She relented, and told me what brand and flavor of belly elixir she preferred. I was back in five minutes, and I didn’t even have to go to the drug store; there was a tiny this-and-that shop run by an old Pakistani guy, just a few doors down the street from my rez hotel, and they had Steph’s cherry-flavored Maalox on the shelf.

How many times did I run little errands like that for Steph, and she for me, over the rest of our time together? Many hundreds of times; that’s how many. We fetched newspapers for each other, and milk shakes, coffee, medicines, stamps, fuses, whatever. I only wish I could’ve run a few thousand more errands for her.

By her second or third day in San Francisco, Stephanie and I had decided that we were together for life. We were already married, in our hearts. The only question was whether I’d be moving to Madison or she’d be moving to San Francisco, and it was answered when we went to San Francisco’s Russian area, in the Richmond neighborhood.

Steph had a degree in Russian Language, she’d spent some time in Russia, and she was more than a little enthralled with all things Russian. It’s no surprise, then, that she was double-darn delighted to walk among all the Russian shops and churches, smell Russian food, and overhear people speaking Russian on the sidewalk. We stopped at a couple of Russianesque shops, and she bought some blini and pirozhki and ptichie moloko, all of which became our lunch. Then, while we were waiting for the avtobus back to my place, she said, “I have to move here. Madison is a great place to live, but San Francisco is better.”

With the benefit of hindsight, I’d say that’s wrong. I’ve now lived in Madison longer than I lived in San Francisco, and Madison is better, for myriad reasons I won’t list here. But right or wrong, the decision had been made that day, so we started planning Stephanie’s move to California.

Two weeks after she’d flown to Frisco for a one-week vacation, she flew back to Wisconsin, and we resumed writing to each other, letters long and frequent. We made many long-distance calls, and she packed, and we made the arrangements for our re-connection. The logistics would take a few months, but then we’d have forever.

Posted 11/10/2018.

More about Stephanie.

Talking with Steph.

Stephanie would’ve been a happy woman today. She was well-informed, left-leaning, and politically active, and yesterday’s election provided a layoff notice to Wisconsin’s troglodyte Republican Governor, Scott Walker. She hated that schmuck.

I don’t usually talk to the picture of Stephanie on the front of her urn, but this morning I gave her the good news. Walker is going-going-gone, and on the national level, Democrats took control of the U.S. House of Representatives, so there’s perhaps some hope for reigning in President Trump. Stephanie thought he was stupid, cruel, literally deranged, and a danger to the country. And I absolutely don’t disagree.

* * * * * * * * * *

As soon as I woke up this morning, I grabbed a pen and started writing down the dream I’d just had. It was too good to forget. Stephanie was alive and healthy and happy to see me, but she couldn’t get out of bed without her wheelchair, and her wheelchair is still in the trunk of the car (in the dream, and in real life). I couldn’t find my car keys, and then when I finally found the keys I couldn’t find the car. I was still looking for the car when I woke up.

What made the dream worth remembering was the part where Stephanie and I talked with each other. We only talked about her wheelchair and the car, but still, we talked, and that was wonderful. I heard her voice, and woke up smiling.

First clue that this was all a dream? It took place in the house where I grew up, in Seattle, instead of in our own apartment – but Steph never saw Seattle.

* * * * * * * * * *

Yesterday I noticed a hair of hers, stuck to the wall in the bathroom. Seems like such a trivial thing, but I cried for ten minutes. Over a hair. Stephanie was a bit of a shedder; she had long hair, and her combs were full of it, it clogged the bathtub drain and vacuum cleaner. For years I would find a long brunette hair on my work clothes or on a chair or in the car, and I’d think nothing of it. Her hair was just always there, expected, not even a nuisance, just a fact of life.

I wonder how long that one hair has been stuck to the wall. When did it come off her head? Maybe it’s been months, maybe years. We’re not total slobs, but washing the bathroom walls is not part of the ordinary cleaning schedule.

One hair, twisted and stuck to the bathroom wall. I left it there. Eventually I suppose it’ll be part of the Steph Shrine, but I’m not sure how to do that. Maybe it’ll end up in a sandwich bag, tacked to the wall. I miss that woman so very much.

* * * * * * * * * *

When we were leaving the grocery store several years ago, we saw a little girl wearing a Wonder Woman t-shirt, and Steph thought it was adorable. So, of course, I surprised her with an adult-size version of that t-shirt, and she loved it and wore it frequently. Stephanie was, you see, a bit of a wonder woman herself, so the shirt was perfect. She also liked the Wonder Woman movie that came out last year, and took to wearing that t-shirt even more often.

Steph’s Wonder Woman shirt is already on the wall as part of the Shrine, but I’d like a second Wonder Woman shirt – one that I can wear myself, in Stephanie’s memory. It’s on order from Amazon.

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Posted 11/7/2018.

More about Stephanie.

Wild Flower.

She’s faced the hardest times you could imagine
And many times her eyes fought back the tears
And when her youthful world was about to fall in
Each time her slender shoulders bore the weight of all her fears
And a sorrow no one hears
Still rings in midnight silence in her ears

Let her cry, for she’s a lady
Let her dream, for she’s a child
Let the rain fall down upon her
She’s a free and gentle flower growing wild

– Wildflower, by Skylark; lyrics by Dave Richardson

Yesterday I drove to Racine – and got lost on the way, again – to spend the day with my in-laws. It’s a little strange visiting them without Stephanie, but there’s no part of my life that isn’t a little strange without Stephanie.

The first time I met them was Thanksgiving Day in 1998, when Stephanie was just about packed and ready to move to San Francisco with me. I flew from California to Milwaukee International Airport, and Steph picked me up and drove me back to her parents’ house for a big turkey dinner and to meet the folks. Gulp. I was nervous as heck, of course. Meeting anyone makes me nervous, but meeting Stephanie’s parents just once before spiriting her away to the West Coast? Yeah, I was mega-nervous.

Of course, there was nothing to be nervous about. They’re friendly, folksy, they instantly treated me like family, and all three of them – Stephanie and her parents – were obviously trying hard to make me comfortable. It took about twenty meals and ten years or so before I was actually comfortable around her parents, but I’ve appreciated their effort and genuine good spirits all along the way.

Steph’s Mom, Karen Webb, has a delightful no-nonsense attitude, common sense and good ideas galore, limited patience for stupid people, and a sharp sense of humor. Steph’s Dad, Jack Webb, is a bright guy who knows a lot of things, a good storyteller, and has a quiet demeanor, solid instincts, and a very kind heart. They’re both quite intelligent, so it’s no mystery that their daughter was a genius. Being in fairly close proximity to them was a major factor in our decision to move to Wisconsin. They live a hundred miles away, and we saw them eight or ten times a year.

Stephanie was always a little worried before we’d visit her parents. She wanted them to be proud of her, but she always felt that there wasn’t much to be proud of. Which is, of course, simply wrong – her parents were always proud of Stephanie, and they still are. Stephanie had some major insecurities, an aspect of her personality that I’ll need to write about, and I will, but that’s not the topic for today. For now let’s suffice to say, Stephanie never realized how remarkable she was.

So she worried on the way to every visit, but on the drive home after seeing her folks, she’d almost always tell me how much she loved them. She’d found them frustrating when she was a kid, of course, but as she’d grown up they’d somehow become smarter. “They’re good parents,” she said many times, “and good friends.”

Jack and Karen Webb grew up in the same small town in Iowa, and married in 1967, when he was 23 years old and she was 20. Steph came along three years later, and she told me that she’d been planned as a 3-A baby. Under the Selective Service Act, young men Jack’s age in 1970 faced military conscription and the Vietnam War. Jack was not enthusiastic about that concept, and one way to legally avoid the draft was being classified 3-A, meaning a paternity deferment. For men aged 18-26 who had a “bonafide father-child relationship in their home,” induction to the military was deemed a hardship on their dependents, and thus young fathers were protected from the military draft.

Stephanie was born on July 8, 1970. A little research tells me that President Nixon issued an executive order ending the paternity eligibility for draft deferment two and a half months earlier, on April 23, 1970 – but the Class 3-A deferment remained available for fathers of children conceived prior to that date, and the girl who would be Stephanie was already well underway. Can you imagine the shock of hearing about Nixon’s executive order, and then the subsequent relief of reading the small print, that Karen’s pregnancy would still keep Jack safe at home? Maybe that’s not a storybook reason to have a child, but saving a man’s life strikes me as solid motivation to start a family. I’m certainly glad they did.

Jack went to college, and got a degree in Chemistry – the same degree Stephanie earned many years later. He worked in middle management at Johnson Wax (now S. C. Johnson & Son), the makers of Glade, Pledge, Off!, Raid, and a zillion other household products, until he was laid off in a corporate cost-cutting move while Stephanie was in college. Jack has always reminded me of my father, in his personality and demeanor, and my dad was also a chemist; he worked for Boeing in Seattle, and was laid off in his 50s in a similar corporate cost-cutting move while I was a kid.

Karen had been a stay-at-home Mom, but she went back to work, and landed a job in the office at a car wholesaler. Jack took most of the money out of his savings account and started a travel agency, a field where he had no experience except for having been sent on some business trips for Johnson Wax. But he found a good opportunity, signed a contract with American Express, and opened a travel agency in the outskirts of Milwaukee. He learned the ropes quickly, ran his company well, and the business was a success. That’s impressive, to me. Going from middle-management and middle-age to starting your own business doesn’t sound like an easy challenge, but he pulled it off.

Years later, as travel sites like Expedia and Priceline came on-line, being a travel agent suddenly became less lucrative, but Steph’s pop sold his company at a good price, and he’s been comfortably retired since then. Karen retired too, a few years ago. They’re not wealthy by any means, but they’re middle-class comfortable, and they own a nice three-bedroom home on a quiet cul-de-sac in Racine.

That’s where we spent the morning and afternoon, talking about Stephanie, and for me that’s a good way to spend a day. We ate lunch at the same kitchen table where the four of us had eaten so many times in the past, and my gaze kept falling on the empty space where Stephanie always sat. But I didn’t cry as much as I was expecting to. I took notes about the things Jack and Karen said, to bolster my memory of events that occurred before I was part of the family. Grabbing my spiral notebook and scribbling in it while we talked probably seemed weird to them, but they never said so.

Jack and Karen both mentioned a recipe they’re planning to try from Cook’s Country, which made me smile on Stephanie’s behalf. Cook’s Country is a magazine of recipes and kitchen hints, published by the same folks who do America’s Test Kitchen on TV. We (well, mostly Stephanie) loved that show, which led us to the magazine, and we’ve been subscribing for years and years. Every time an issue came in the mail, Steph would spend hours pouring through it, and usually at least a few – sometimes several – nice dinners resulted. Stephanie thought that recipes from that magazine had a higher success rate than any of her cookbooks, and since her mother is also a great cook, we gave her a subscription to Cook’s Country a few Christmases ago. Her Mom said thanks, of course, but I think this was the first time she’d mentioned cooking something from the magazine, and Stephanie would’ve taken that as proof that her mother’s “thank you” was more than perfunctory.

There were also delightful stories of Stephanie’s childhood days as an Indian Princess. It’s a program like Campfire Girls, with more of an emphasis on daddy-daughter bonding, and lots of dinners and organized outings for little girls and their fathers – ice skating, sledding, camping, etc. She was in the program from about age 6 to age 8. As part of the Indian Princess program, the girls and their fathers made up native-sounding names for themselves – Stephanie’s name was Wild Flower, which made me think of the 1970s pop hit “Wildflower,” a song I always liked, and with lyrics that seem oddly appropriate for Stephanie. Her father’s native name was Grey Wolf, which fits him nicely too, what with his silver hair. Their “tribe” was called the Erie Dearies, for Lake Erie, which is one state away from Wisconsin. Of course, since Steph had no native blood, all of this does ring alarms as cultural appropriation, but hey, it was decades ago.

And again, like at her wake, I learned some things I’d never known about Stephanie: In her teen years, she was active in the Racine Theater Guild, performing in several plays, and even singing on stage. There’s photographic evidence, or I would’ve found it hard to believe. She had mentioned that she was in a couple of plays, but I had assumed they were school plays, and this was outside of school. Just the idea of her singing on stage is surprising; in all our years together, I heard her sing perhaps a dozen times, and she was always embarrassed and never wanted to sing loud enough for me to listen. She could carry a tune quite nicely; she just never wanted to. At least, not for me.

And – Mad Magazine, the venerable satirical publication, home of movie spoofs and “The Lighter Side” and Spy Vs Spy. I loved Mad when I was a kid, subscribed for years, but I haven’t read an issue of Mad since high school. Well, Stephanie subscribed to Mad too, all through her high school years, and unlike me she kept every copy. So now I have a big box of Stephanie’s Mad Magazines from the 1980s. My lady definitely had a mad sense of humor – she made me laugh just about every day we were together, with the exception of the worst days in various hospitals. But she never mentioned that she’d subscribed and collected Mad.

And – Phi Beta Kappa. I never went to college, and I don’t know squat about anything smarts-related, but I’ve heard of Phi Beta Kappa. It is the oldest and most prestigious honor society in the U.S.A., and you have to be really, really smart to be a member. Wikipedia says membership is usually offered only to the academically highest-performing college seniors, and to a very small number of juniors. We found a letter, welcoming Stephanie to Phi Beta Kappa during her junior year at Michigan State. So – she was a member of a national honor society so famous that even a dummy like me knows what it is. And she never told me. She was always full of surprises, and even after she’s gone the surprises continue.

I’m especially excited by all the Steph stuff that Jack and Karen let me bring home. Steph was all grown up when we met – 26 years old – and she didn’t talk a lot about her childhood, so it’ll be fun and enlightening to go through these boxes of photos and mementos. There are pictures from the math competitions that she won, the plays she was in, graduation photos from high school and college, and lots of baby, infant, and toddler pictures. And of course, all of her report cards; I looked at a few, and saw nothing but straight-A’s. How such a smart girl ended up with someone so not-smart remains an unsolved mystery.

Thanks, Jack and Karen, for all these souvenirs of Stephanie, and for a fun day in Racine, remembering her. Thanks for (as Stephanie said) bringing a girl into this world and raising her to be a good and happy woman, the woman who made my life worth living. Thanks for never being the meddlesome or judgmental in-laws seen on TV sit-coms; but instead always being supportive and helpful, often more so than we deserved or could have expected. Heck, Jack and Karen gave us the car we’ve been driving the past ten years, a now-dinged and dented Chevy that brought me to Racine yesterday. Steph loved her parents, and the Webbs are a family I’m part of now, and glad to be, even without Stephanie beside me. She’s right – they’re good parents and good friends.

Posted 11/4/2018.

More about Stephanie.

Don’t buy fat-free anything.

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The first time we went shopping together was while Stephanie was visiting me in San Francisco, spending a week that stretched into two weeks. On our third or fourth day together, I was running out of groceries and she was yearning to cook – or to see if she even could cook in my residential hotel, where all I had was a single burner and a microwave oven.

We happened to be walking around in the Marina neighborhood, talking about what to do for dinner, and we turned a corner and – poof – there was a great big grocery store. It was the Marina Safeway, which I later learned was legendary among locals as a “pick-up” spot. Romantic entanglements at that Safeway are prominently featured in Amistead Maupin’s Tales of the City, but back then I hadn’t yet read the book.

We went inside, wandered the aisles, and bought potatoes and onions, noodles and soup and some other sundries that Stephanie did indeed turn into a delectable pasta concoction. What I remember most, though, is when Stephanie asked, “Do we have bread?,” and then paused, while we both lingered on the word “we.” There was something about the word “we” in the context of shopping for groceries, that said more than just “we.” It said, a couple. Romantic entanglements. It said something more serious than a loaf of bread, and it told the truth – we were “we.”

“We” lasted the rest of our lives, and wherever we lived, we preferred to go shopping for groceries together. For the next fifteen years we almost always did. She especially loved the produce section, where she could tell a good cantaloupe from a bad cantaloupe, and she taught me how to choose an avocado. She was a wizard with the budget, and when we could only afford $30 on a shopping trip she could do amazing things with coupons and specials, and somehow morph it all into a full cart and a week’s worth of food. She knew which brands were better and which brands were “good enough” and which brands weren’t. She rarely bought Stove Top™ after they changed their stuffing mix from “ready in ten minutes” and delicious, to “ready in five minutes” and noticeably not-so-delicious.

For the past few years, though, Stephanie’s disability made everything more difficult for her, and shopping was no exception. From her wheelchair, she couldn’t reach the upper or bottom shelves, and if she’d forgotten something and had to loop back seventeen aisles, that distance felt a lot further on wheels than on foot. So Steph would make a list, but shopping was usually one of my chores.

Stephanie’s rules of shopping: Annie’s or Trader Joe’s Macaroni and Cheese, but no Kraft. Town House crackers please, not Ritz. Melba Toast in the original flavor only. “And don’t buy fat-free anything; they might as well call it ‘flavor-free’.” Generics are allowed, but if Steph doesn’t approve of the taste or texture, don’t buy that product in generics again. Thus generic mustard and mayonnaise was OK, but the ketchup (catsup, says Steph) had to be Heinz. Generic milk was approved, but butter must be Land-O-Lakes.

Doug’s rule of shopping: Stephanie likes little surprises, so I’d always buy something that wasn’t on the list if I knew she’d like it. Crumpets. Sugar Babies. Tootsie Pops. Ice cream or sherbet. But remember to rotate the surprise treats; just because she liked crumpets last week, doesn’t mean she’d want crumpets again this week.

Once in a while, even in the wheelchair era, we still went shopping together, so she could personally pick the ingredients to prepare an especially marvelous recipe. And after paying for our purchases, we would “train” through the parking lot toward the car – I would push Stephanie in her chair, while she pushed the cart full of groceries. We called it our happy little train, and now it’s another happy little memory as I walk out of the store, pushing a cart instead of Steph’s wheelchair.

These days I shop for one, or one plus a cat. It’s a sad task when I think about it, so I try not to think about it. Virtually every aisle, every shelf, every corner in the store holds something I bought for Stephanie. That’s her preferred salad dressing, and we always had a couple of jugs of that juice in the fridge, and that’s the jam she liked, and those are her allergy meds, and we should always have a supply of her favorite yogurts in the fridge.

But we don’t. There’s no yogurt in the fridge, and most of those ordinary purchases have ended. I don’t have much appetite, and no need for most of Stephanie’s staples. If I’m still buying it, though, I’m still following the rules. If it’s catsup it’s Heinz. If it’s butter it’s Land-O-Lakes. If I ever have a hankering for mac and cheese, it won’t be Kraft. Accept no substitutes, and no fat-free anything.

Posted 11/2/2018.

More about Stephanie.

Getting to know you.

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It took enormous bravery for Stephanie to do what she did – to come halfway across the country, alone, to a place where she knew no-one, just to meet me and spend a week with me. Friends had warned her, the man you’re going to meet might be an axe murderer. He could attack you, hurt you, kidnap you, scam you, or all of the above. She listened to and weighed her friends’ warnings, and she must have worried about it. She was no dummy. But she gambled everything on me, a complete stranger who’d written her some letters. I’m sure glad she did. I don’t know that I would’ve had that level of courage, then or now. Would you?

I had booked her a separate room at the roach-filled residential hotel where I lived, on 16th Street in the Mission District slums. After I met her at the airport and we bussed back to the city, we dropped her luggage in the room and I took her to dinner.

We ate at El Castillito, the taqueria universally acclaimed (by me, prior to Steph’s arrival, and by both of us after) for building the best burritos in San Francisco or on the planet. I ordered two chicken burritos, she had a beef burrito. She loved it, which further cemented my growing certainty that she was the one. [Note: Stephanie & I left San Francisco in 2001, but the internet says El Castillito is still there, with several locations in the city. I’ve still never tasted a better burrito, so here’s an unpaid endorsement – if you’re ever in Frisco, stop by El Castillito for a cheap, yummy meal.]

After dinner, once Steph was settled into her room at the hotel, I took her up to the roof. Residents weren’t supposed to access the roof, but I knew a way. So in the loud urban evening overlooking 16th Street, we talked and talked, about everything. I wanted to kiss her, but I didn’t want to be “that guy,” the guy who gets a bit too pushy or too handsy too soon.

I don’t remember much of our conversation from that night, but I remember that it was easy. Conversation is never easy for me, but words with Stephanie were always easy. That night was loud, and not only the normal loud of traffic and arguments and music wafting up from the street; we were also just days from the Fourth of July, so there were amateur explosives in the air, punctuating everything we said. At one point we heard someone screaming far in the distance, and I quipped, “Someone’s screaming, Lord. Kumbaya.” She laughed, and man, what’s sexier than an attractive woman laughing at your lame jokes?

We stayed up late, talking and laughing on the roof and later in her room, and we told each other everything about our lives, our jobs, our families. But there were no kisses that night. In the movies, that first kiss is the falling-in-love moment, but we were already there. By the time I said good night and walked down the stairs to my room, I knew this was going to be more than a one-week holiday, and Steph told me later that she knew it, too.

Our first kiss came the next day, as we were walking across the Golden Gate Bridge toward Marin. And yeah, it was – memorable. Beyond memorable, beyond fireworks, but we kept walking. At the other side of the bridge we turned around, and as we were walking back toward San Francisco, we were talking about where we wanted to live. She said she wanted “A small house, maybe, with no children,” and later she told me she’d been a bit worried about the no-kids line, since that’s a dealbreaker for some men. Not for me; I prefer the company of grown-ups, and I’d be a lousy father anyway.

“Sounds great,” I said, “but a house is a lot of money and work. I’d prefer a cheap apartment somewhere, and we’ll run a pirate radio station out of the back room.”

“Yeah,” she said, “like Pump Up the Volume.” Of course, we had both loved that movie.

At the city-side of the Bridge, we had another moment that we both remembered fondly for the rest of our time together. We were sitting in the park area, we were a little tuckered from our mile-long walk across the water and back, and we’d briefly run out of conversation. Nothing was said for perhaps twenty seconds, and then Stephanie said, “A comfortable silence.” Meaning, it’s great for us to talk with each other all day and all night, but it’s also OK to have stretches with nothing much to say.

Stephanie had planned to stay for a week, and then she’d fly back to Wisconsin. But before we returned to the hotel that afternoon, those plans were being revised. It had only been about 24 hours since we first met, but we already knew a week wouldn’t be enough, so she decided to stay for a second week. She called her employer, and postponed her return to work. She called the airline, and rejiggered her return flight. She paid Mr Patel another $90 for a second week at the hotel. She called her best friend in Madison, and reassured her that she wasn’t being axe-murdered.

* * * * * * * * * *

You know what frightens me on an existential level, in re-telling this story? How close Stephanie and I came to never meeting. Heck, we lived a thousand miles apart, and just chanced upon each other because we traded zines. We had written each other a few notes, and the notes became letters, and at some point in one of the letters I made a flirty wisecrack, and she wasn’t offended. A few letters after that, I invited her to visit San Francisco, and amazingly, she accepted.

But what if she’d had the good sense to say no? Of course I’m not going to visit you in San Francisco. I don’t even know you. What, are you crazy?

If she’d said no, I don’t know where I’d be – certainly not in Madison, Wisconsin. I don’t know who I’d be, but undoubtedly I’d be much, much crankier and meaner than I am. I’d be a 60-year-old man with no happy memories.

If she’d said no, then I’m not sure what I’d recall about Stephanie Webb. She would’ve been a pen-pal I’d had in the late 1990s. My life for the past twenty years would’ve been as empty, lonely, and meaningless as it was before I met her, and as it’s going to be now that she’s gone.

I am so glad she didn’t say no.

Posted 10/28/2018.

More about Stephanie.

Dreams.

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When we talked about dreams, Stephanie didn’t have a lot to say. More than once, she told me that she had always dreamed about meeting a man who accepted her as she was, who’d be supportive and content to be with her, and that her dream came true the day she met me. That’s as sweet as a buttery blueberry muffin, and I was proud to be her dream spouse. The feeling was, of course, reciprocated.

Beyond such romantic talk, though, she didn’t (to my knowledge) have any particularly poetic or exotic dreams. She liked watching cooking competitions on TV, like Top Chef and Guy Fieri’s Grocery Games, and she always knew what she’d prepare to win any of those reality challenges, but she never mentioned actually applying to be a contestant. She never told me she wanted to run for Congress, or be the first woman on the moon, or anything like that. She had ordinary daydreams about getting a promotion at work, or living in an RV on the road, but other than sweet talk about me, none of her dreams ever came true.

* * * * * * * * * *

She didn’t do much writing after our zine days, but when Isthmus, one of Madison’s local weeklies, announced that they were accepting applications for a new advice columnist, Steph applied for the job with a trial column that was flat-out hilarious while also being wise and insightful. I’m hoping to find that column somewhere in a box or an envelope, and if/when I do I’ll add it to this page. Meanwhile, trust me – it was excellent. But she didn’t get the gig.

Occasionally I read the weekly advice column in Isthmus, written by the person they selected instead. It’s not 2/3 as good as Stephanie’s material.

* * * * * * * * * *

She wanted to see Europe, to visit the museums and the ancient buildings and ruins, dine at the restaurants, listen to the language. She wanted to go on a Caribbean cruise, see the ocean views, explore the ports-of-call. She wanted to return to Russia, seeing again the fabulous mosques and ornate subway stations, eating pirozhki and maybe mastering making it. She wanted to see Washington DC, and China, and the Amazon. She dreamed of traveling, but we couldn’t afford any of those trips.

She had been to Memphis once, before we met, and she wanted to go again, to show me Tennessee. A driving trip to Memphis was vaguely on our agenda, and probably would’ve been our big vacation for 2020 or 2021, but now it’ll never happen.

We moved a few times over the years, first to San Francisco, then to Kansas City, then Madison, so we sorta saw the country that way. But once we were settled in Wisconsin our only travels were day trips – puttering around in some adjacent and nearby counties, just looking at the scenery or having lunch at a park, and then driving back home. We had occasional overnight trips – brief stays at her parents’ house in Racine, or at a hotel in Milwaukee (100 miles from home), a few drives to a casino in Dubuque (100 miles the other direction), one trip to Chicago (150 miles), and our longest vacation, a two-day excursion to the Mississippi River and north almost to Minneapolis and back (350 miles).

When she went on dialysis, though, our leash got a lot shorter. The nephrology team will tell you that kidney patients can travel, and that’s true, at least literally. Anyone who can sit in a car or a plane can travel. Practically speaking, though, travel is difficult if you’re on dialysis.

On hemodialysis (where patients visit a clinic three times a week and spend several hours hooked to a machine), you can’t travel unless you book your clinics in advance like you’d book hotels, and you can’t even do that unless your insurance will cover roaming dialysis; our insurance wouldn’t. Without insurance, a single session of hemo costs about $500, so unless you’re rich or have gold-plated insurance, travel on hemodialysis is not really an option.

On peritoneal dialysis (PD, done at home seven nights a week), you’re somewhat more portable, because you can bring the machine and the supplies with you. The machine weighs thirty pounds or so, and the supplies weigh another thirty pounds – per night – which rules out going anyplace on a plane, and quite quickly fills the trunk of a car.

While Steph was on PD, we never did anything longer than one night in a hotel, before returning home. She wasn’t enthusiastic about such trips, because she was embarrassed to know the front desk at the hotel was watching me lug the machine and the supplies in, and anyway, she said, “It’s really not a vacation if I’m hooking up to dialysis. That’s what I need a vacation from.”

* * * * * * * * * *

When we first knew that we were in love and we’d be spending our lives together, we spoke briefly of running a pirate radio station out of our home. That never happened – the technology was beyond us, plus we had perhaps too much common sense to invite the Federal Communications Commission to be our enemy.

But later, when podcasts were invented, that seemed like a workable succession to our radio dream. So we planned a podcast, a weekly hour of news and commentary with a sense of humor and a leftist perspective. Since we lived in Wisconsin, it was going to be called The Cheese Report. We bought some of the necessary equipment, and we prepared  notes and talking points, as if we were doing a show. For several weeks we did “rehearsal” episodes, and it was a lot of fun. In front of a microphone Steph became “Abby,” and she was every bit as funny and quick-witted as I’d expected. I wasn’t quite as good at it, of course.

The problem was that the audio sounded cheap and tinny, and we both wanted the show to sound like real radio, not like something done by a couple of amateurs in their spare room (though that’s exactly what it was). So we did several more weeks of rehearsal without even a microphone, while we researched the purchase of better equipment. And then her health issues started, and our energy and enthusiasm puttered away before we got anything on-line.

So there’s no audio of our podcast, because there was never a podcast. All I have is Stephanie’s notes for the weeks of rehearsal shows we did – notes found on a thumb drive a few days ago, notes I’ve read, re-living our practice podcasts. It would’ve been an enjoyable show for people to download and listen to, I think. Maybe not as good as she wanted it to be, maybe not Radiolab or This American Life, but it would’ve been better than some podcasts I’ve heard. Instead it’s another dream that became a disappointment. I’m so sorry, sweetheart.

* * * * * * * * * *

She dreamed of walking again, but that was not allowed.

It was, in retrospect, a remarkable cruelty – when a doctor told Stephanie that the infection in her leg had reached the bone, and there was no hope of stopping it short of amputation, he added easily in his next breath that she would soon be walking with a prosthetic leg.

In answer to Stephanie’s questions, the doctor explained that a prosthetic leg would actually be an improvement over the leg they’d be cutting off. Walking on her infected leg had been difficult for months, and more and more painful, but her new prosthetic leg would be virtually painless, he said. Fitting would be quick and easy, said the doctor, and training and the related physical therapy usually takes only a few months. After she became accustomed to her new leg, why, she would probably have no noticeable limp.

We later tried not to hate that doctor. Perhaps his glib answers were true for most people who have leg amputations. I don’t know anything about “most people,” but for Stephanie almost every word he said proved untrue. After the amputation, Stephanie spent the rest of her life in a wheelchair.

The amputation was followed by unrelated complications, which meant that the whole process of fitting her for a fake leg was delayed by months. Much of that time, she was in a nursing home and unable to get out of bed, even to go to the toilet.

Then, her first appointment with the prosthetics lab couldn’t happen until someone judged that her stump had healed enough to wear a prosthetic, and even that took weeks and weeks – not for the healing, but simply getting someone to evaluate the healing. The evaluation was postponed repeatedly, until we started raising a stink about the delay. When she was finally seen for the evaluation, we were told that the stump looked ready to go – and looked like it had been ready for a prosthetic fitting for quite a while. The frustration was palpable, and just beginning.

When she was scheduled for that long-awaited appointment to be measured and fitted by a prostheticist, it was a morning appointment – which seems ridiculous to me now, but we were new to all this. We assumed that the professionals would know what they were doing, but they didn’t.

Here’s something you might have never had any reason to think about: Your leg is not the same size all day long. Your legs are the lowest part of your anatomy; gravity pulls blood and fluid downward, so you can reasonably predict that your legs will be plumper at the end of the day than at the beginning of the day. Most people’s legs swell up a bit each day, and then shrink a bit overnight. The swelling and shrinking isn’t much, but it doesn’t take much to make a metal and molded-plastic prosthetic leg an uncomfortable fit.

We always believed that the morning measurement of her stump was the baseline problem. That’s why her prosthetic leg was always uncomfortable, to the point of  blisters and bleeding. It was a tight fit in the morning, and hurt like the dickens a few hours later.

To compound the problem, the prostheticist would never agree to re-measure the leg or re-make the prosthetic; instead he “tweaked” it by (saying he had) loosened some setting or other. He gave Stephanie “shrinker socks” to wear on her stump overnight, putting pressure on the stump to shrink it, and then myriad “stump socks” to add circumference when the shrinker sock had shrunken the stump so much that the prosthetic became too loose instead of too tight.

Too tight, too loose, and always too painful. Stephanie was never able to wear the fake leg for more than a few aching hours at a time. At one point she had to sign an acknowledgment for receiving the prosthetic, and we marveled at the bottom line – our insurance had paid about $15,000 to have that uncomfortable, unwearable prosthetic built. It was the most expensive decorative piece we owned, sitting in a corner of the living room attracting dust.

For the last two years of her life, fighting to get the prosthetic leg re-measured and re-fit was near the top of our To Do List. We knew it would be a struggle, though, and Steph wanted to wait until she was feeling better and had no other major battles to fight. So we put that endeavor on hold, but there were so many other health issues to deal with, the battlefield was never cleared. We never marched into their office to demand a better leg. Thus the promise of walking again after the amputation, with no great effort and no perceptible limp, was another dream never attained.

* * * * * * * * * *

And of course, she dreamed about the restoration of sanity to American politics, about a time when very stupid people who believe demonstrably unfactual facts are seen as simply wingnuts, instead of being elected President of the United States.

Why, yes, it’s Donald Trump I’m referring to. We thought we’d seen some lackluster politicians and untrustworthy Presidents in the past, but with Trump the lies never end. If he’s talking he’s lying, and when he’s not talking he’s busy dismantling legal protections for the environment, for minorities, for women, for LGBTs, for immigrants, for the poor, for the disabled, for the unhealthy – everyone who’s not a billionaire is worse off under Trump.

I’m allowed to talk politics without hesitation here on Steph’s memorial website, because I know that Stephanie agreed absolutely with everything I’ve just said. The only difference is, she would’ve said it better. She loved America, and it’s no exaggeration to say that so long as Trump is in the White House, everything that makes America great is imperiled.

Stephanie would be pleased to know that I early-voted a few days ago at the library. She never missed voting in an election. Voting meant America to her. Among many other positive traits, she was a good citizen, and some of that rubbed off on me. I promise I’ll never miss an election, long as I live.

She would’ve voted if she could have, and she would’ve voted the sanity ticket all down the ballot, same as I did. I’ve added her uncast absentee ballot to the Shrine, and I’m hoping next week’s election gives her one dream come true, posthumously.

Posted 10/27/2018.

More about Stephanie.