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.

wonder-woman.jpg

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.

So many times we drove to Racine to see Stephanie’s parents, or to Milwaukee to play bingo or see a museum or spend the night at the Fairy Tale Palace. Some of the landmarks along Interstate-94 are familiar to me – the little church, the outlet mall, the rest area, the hotel we’d once stayed at, adjacent to a mall we never set foot in, and the gas stations and fast-food dumps, etc. But the freeway is always under construction, they’ve added new interchanges, and the exit that was on the left is now on the right. It’s too easy to get lost, without my Navigator Girl.

And all along the way, of course, the farm country between Madison and Milwaukee has an endless supply of wingnut Republican and religious billboards. My favorite today was, “Where are you going, Heaven or Hell? Call 855-FOR-TRUTH.” Nah, I’m going to Racine, looking for the exit for County Road K.

The first time I met Stephanie’s parents was Thanksgiving Day in 1997, when she 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.

MarinaSafeway.jpg

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, there’s no telling where I’d be – certainly not in Madison, Wisconsin. There’s no telling who I’d be, but undoubtedly I’d be much crankier and meaner than I am. I’d be a 60-year-old man with no happy memories.

If she hadn’t had the courage to fly out to Frisco and fall in love with me, what would I even remember about Stephanie Webb? She would’ve been a pen-pal I’d had in the late 1990s. She’d be an old acquaintance I’d lost touch with. A distant memory. 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.

* * * * * * * * * *

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 of thousands 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.

* * * * * * * * * *

On our third day together, we were walking around in one of San Francisco’s least photogenic neighborhoods, 14th and Mission, a section of the slums where I’d lived a few years earlier. Obscene graffiti was omnipresent. A bum was asleep just off the sidewalk, with two overstuffed plastic bags in his shopping cart, and one hand on the cart to keep it from being stolen, even as he slept. We danced over some trash and an orange syringe on the curb, and stepped over a broken, empty bottle of whiskey. The scent of urine was in the air, and I was feeling romantic, holding Stephanie’s hand. I was feeling “I love you,” but scared to say it, because those are big, frightening words.

“I love you,” I said, “can be hard to say.”

“I love you,” she answered, “can be tricky, that’s for sure.”

“Some people say ‘I love you’ so often, say ‘I love you’ to so many people, you have to wonder whether they mean it, or even know what it means.”

“Some people never say it, even when they mean it, and that’s just sad.”

“I love you,” I said, “ought to be something you don’t say unless you mean it, but if you mean it you ought to say it.”

“Oh, I mean it. I love you.”

“And I love you too,” I said, and then added, “But I hate it when someone says ‘I love you too’ just as the expected response, because someone said ‘I love you.’”

“I love you, too,” she said, “but you’re right about people who say ‘I love you’ too much, or too easily, or as some kind of obligation.”

“I love you, too” I said, “but let’s never be like that, saying ‘I love you’ all the time.”

It became our habit after that, to say “I love you” and say it often. It goes without saying is the cliché, but love should never go without saying. We said “I love you” every day we were together, and my calculator says we were together for about 7,600 days. We said it like other folks say “Good morning” or “Good night,” and we said it another half dozen times every day. We said it to celebrate a good lunch, or a good bowel movement. If we said it eight times every day, then the math says we said “I love you” 60,800 times. But that’s not enough. Nowhere near enough.

I will always love Stephanie, and she’s gone but I’m not done saying it. I still say it sometimes in the hallway, or standing at the Shrine, or while I’m looking through the fridge for something to eat. “I love you, Steph.”

Posted 10/28/2018.

More about Stephanie.

Aspirations.

When we talked about the things we wanted from life, 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 aspirations. 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 shows, 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 buying a motorcycle, or living in an RV on the road. Other than her sweet talk about me, though, 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.

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Last will and testament.

Steph's will.jpg

Today, cleaning out the spare room, I came across Stephanie’s last will and testament. She had never mentioned it to me, so I’d been under the impression that she died without leaving a will. But I found an envelope – actually, it’s a return envelope from Zine World, the zine we made together in the 1990s – and in the corner of the envelope she’d written, “Steph’s will – please don’t open unless you’re really sure that I’m dead!”

I’m really sure, so I opened the envelope. It’s a brief, typed page that says,

I, Stephanie Lynn Webb, being of sound mind and blah, blah, blah, declare this to be my last will and testament.

I bequeath all my money and worldly possessions, as well as my eternal love, a love that reaches beyond death, to my dear husband Doug, whose life it has been my great privilege to share. Chin up, darling. Think twice about depriving this harsh world of your sweet and strong spirit just because I’m gone. That being said, I’ll be here waiting whenever you’re ready to join me.

Suicide. She’s talking about me killing myself in grief over her death. Stephanie wrote this nineteen years ago, and we had talked about death and suicide, way back then. It made sense, really. Before we met each other, both of us were quite certain that we’d live our entire lives alone; once we were a couple we were so rhapsodic with each other that when we discussed either of us dying, we’d both end up crying. We agreed that we wanted to go together, preferably both of us flattened by the same runaway bus, just to get it over quickly, with neither of us alone and in mourning. If perchance we didn’t die at the same time and place, well, the thought of either of us being left without the other was so horrible, we’d both said that we might consider suicide as a response.

We meant it, absolutely. But we’d mellowed and maybe matured since 1999. We’d had far less abstract conversations about death, many times, and we had both backed away from the suicide response as of, I’d say, circa 2005. Wherever Stephanie is, I am going to join her, but it’s not my plan to arrive any time soon. I’m not going to kill myself, but since she mentioned it in her will, that needed to be explained.

Back to the will:

In the event that Doug passes away before me, I leave all my estate to my mother, Karen Webb. In the event that she passes away before me, I leave all my estate to my father, Jack Webb, who should not be confused with the guy from Dragnet. The two of you brought a girl into this world and raised her to be a good and happy woman. Thank you for all you have given me. I love both of you very much.

In the event that all three of these people have passed away before me, I would like whatever money and property I have to go to the homeless shelter that is located closest to my permanent residence at the time of my death.

It’s signed Stephanie Webb, and it’s dated October 30, 1999.

And it’s not a legal will. I’ve Googled around, and found the relevant statutes in Wisconsin. To be valid according to state law, section 853.01, it would need the signatures of two witnesses. There’s no signature here except Stephanie’s.

But that’s OK. Her expressed desires are exactly what I would’ve predicted, with the exception of the homeless shelter. I would have thought she’d name Planned Parenthood as the contingent beneficiary, since in recent years they’ve been our primary charitable contribution. Back in 1999, though, when she wrote this, women’s control of their own bodies was not in immediate jeopardy like it is now.

I am of course crying here, but there’s also joy in my tears. I’ve been going through Stephanie’s stuff for more than a month now, boxing things up for Goodwill, getting other things organized, putting some objects and knickknacks on the shelf as a Shrine. There’s an entire room full of stuff I haven’t even started going through, so I’ll be at this for a long, long time. And in the back of my mind I’ve been wondering if I might find a note from her.

This is the note I’d been hoping for. I’ve always known that Stephanie loved me, and she always knew that I loved her. We told each other, thousands of times. But she hasn’t said “I love you” since she was in the hospital, so this last will and testament is simply the most wonderful gift imaginable. I’m calling her parents, and I’ll read it to them. Then I’m having it framed and mounting it on the wall, where I’ll read it often and treasure it forever.

Posted 10/24/2018.

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Stephanie before the wheelchair.

Steph-kiss.jpg
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 couple of miles both ways. 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 she battled her medical problems. In my eyes, she was astounding before her any of the diagnoses, and astounding after all of them.

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.

So 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.

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.

Posted 10/21/2018.

More about Stephanie.