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.

More about Stephanie.

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 1998-2011, 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 1998-2011 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 1998, 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.

Verklempt and amazed.

Shrine1.jpgSome days are better than others. Yesterday wasn’t one of those days. Lots of memories were flooding into my head at work, all day long. Lots of watery eyes, and at least two times I heard my voice crack while I was speaking with co-workers.

There’s no telling why, but some days at work are just basically a day at work, while other days are an eight-hour challenge to avoid crumpling myself into a fetal position and bawling. Some days, ordinary office duties almost fully occupy my mind, and the memories and overwhelming feeling of missing her don’t hit me hard until I’m on my way home; other days – like yesterday – Stephanie is in my mind virtually every minute I’m there. I’m auditing forms and finalizing documents and wishing I wasn’t, and doing it all with about 25% of my mind, while the other 75% is all about Stephanie, and I just want to shriek out, What’s the point?

Today, though, is Saturday. There’s no work, and there’s nothing on my mind that isn’t about Stephanie. At the top of my to-do list for the weekend, I wanted to get her favorite t-shirts onto the wall behind the Steph Shrine. Now it’s 10:00 in the morning and that task is done, and I’m verklempt (a Yiddish word, meaning overcome with emotion). I had thought that the t-shirts would add a nice touch of color to the Shrine, but it’s not just color – the t-shirts add Stephanie to the Shrine.

I’m verklempt and amazed. I wasn’t expecting the t-shirts to make the Shrine seem so much more substantial, but it’s overwhelming. I can hardly type through my tears.

The shelves have been slowly filling up with Steph memorabilia for a couple of weeks, and everything that’s been added means something to me because it meant something to her. The overall effect, though, has been low-key. It’s been making me wistful, reminding me of Stephanie, but, of course, I haven’t needed the reminding. The t-shirts, though, really hit me hard. The other things in the Shrine are things she liked, things she enjoyed, things she cared about. The t-shirts, thought, were what she wore when she was having fun, so how could they not bring tears to my eyes? In many of my happiest memories of Stephanie, she’s wearing one of those shirts.

So today, this morning at 10:00, the Steph Shrine went from being some weird widow’s idea to Warp Factor 7. Now I know, absolutely, that this was the right thing to do, that this is going to help, and that the Shrine is truly going to honor Stephanie. It’s set up so that it dominates my field of vision when I’m sitting in my favorite chair in the living room, and as I sit here and look at it, I want to cry but also laugh, and it makes my heart ache but simultaneously makes me smile, and I am tremendously sad yet ecstatic. It’s complicated, like she was.

Normal people, I suspect (because what would I know about normal people?), feel these strong emotions when they visit a loved one’s grave, but Steph has no gravesite to visit. And that’s as she would’ve wanted, because we both thought graves tend to be creepy. Instead, Stephanie has a Shrine under construction in her own living room, and today it began coming together. It works. It’s her.

I’ll post a picture, as soon as I can figure out one of the electronic devices lying around the apartment. [There’s a photo at the top of this post, now.] Meanwhile, I’ll offer a brief description, and ask a question.

The question is: Have you heard of anyone else doing this? It seems like such a good idea – too good an idea to be mine – so I don’t understand why all my life I’ve only heard of the dear departed being memorialized in graves and urns and speeches and ghosts. Trust me, this is way better.

A description of the Shrine, so far: The shelves are half-filled with things that meant a lot to Stephanie, with much more to come. So far we have her favorite books and DVDs, some of her favorite snacks, her pillows, her allergy medicines, her wallet, her watch, her glasses, her purse, baseball tickets, Fairy Tale Palace reservations … and of course, her cookbooks and loose-leaf recipes, her dutch oven and measuring spoons and cups, and all things related to her unofficial but undisputed Master Chef status. I even moved her entire spice rack from the kitchen to the Shrine, because I’ll never use anything but salt and pepper for what little I cook, but especially because the spices were a key ingredient to the joy she gave both of us via cooking.

And her five favorite t-shirts, hammered today to the wall above the shelves: “I met Li’l Sebastian,” with a picture of a pony from her favorite sit-com, Parks and Recreation; a Wonder Woman t-shirt that I gave her and she loved; a Beloit Snappers t-shirt, from the ball park where we watched so many minor league baseball games; a Highway 18 Outdoor Theatre shirt, from our favorite drive-in; and an ancient Bucky Badger t-shirt that she’d had since high school or college – longer than she had me, and faded and stained just like we were.

Posted 10/20/18.

More about Stephanie.

Time’s up.

I want to kick myself to Korea and back, for all the times when Stephanie and I spent the evening doing different things. She’d be playing video games, or watching RuPaul’s Drag Race, and I’d be reading a magazine or farting around on the internet. We were nominally spending time together, but not really.

Of course, on the side of my brain that actually thinks things through, I know that what we were doing those nights was smart and made sense. We were two different people with some different interests, after all. But there she was, alive and well and right there in the room with me, and inexplicably I didn’t spend that time telling her how marvelous she was and getting to know her better. How could I waste that precious time when we were together?

We were stupid. We were wasteful. There certainly was advance warning – she had three separate fatal diagnoses, three diseases where the long-term prognosis is death. We dealt with all that by having big conversations once in a while, about our frustrations with (and the occasional incompetence of) the medical system, and about what to do and what to avoid in life-prolonging medical treatment, and about what the surviving spouse should do after one of us dies. And we knew that the surviving spouse would be me.

Stephanie had been short-changed in life, and we were angry about it. But if we’d known that the end was approaching so very quickly, we would’ve talked more about love and appreciation and memories and passion and regrets and dreams-come-true. How different some of our last conversations would have been. To know that the magic was ending, and to say the things we’d never have a chance to say again. Our idle chit-chat about the news, or my work, or a movie she wanted to see or some amusing article she’d read online – all that would’ve been superseded by heartfelt words about what we’d meant to each other. I know the things I would’ve said, and I want so much to hear the things she would’ve said, if only we would’ve had a chance to say goodbye.

On the other hand, we were pretty good about telling each other sweet things. “I love you” was traded between us several times daily and whenever either of us stepped out the door or went to sleep. There were also deeper conversations of heartfelt love and appreciation, and frequently. If I was hit with mushy thoughts on the way home from work, I would walk in the door and ramble on for several minutes about how much joy she brought to my life, how much I admired and respected and loved her. She could be equally honest and, I guess, syrupy in her professions of deep love for me.

We had brief conversations like that two or three times every month, and one of those conversations was just a few days before her final hospitalization. I’m glad to remember that. It was me telling her at length how I’d spent the whole day at work looking forward to seeing her, how she brightened up even the worst of days, and she responded that the feeling was so very mutual, that she’d spent her day farting around on the internet and playing with the cat and looking forward to me coming home.

We never fully understood that we had so little time remaining, that the clock was running out. There’s so much more we should’ve said. So many things things I want to ask her, so many stories she told me that I wish I could hear again, so many things I should’ve told her when she was alive, and so many things I did tell her but wish I could tell her again, more emphatically. So I’m trying to say it all on this little website, and wishing there was a way to reach her one more time – but that only happens in the movies. In reality, time’s up.

Posted 10/14/2018.

More about Stephanie.

Good night, Stephanie.

The last thing Stephanie and I said most nights was, “I love you” or “Good night,” which meant the same thing. “Good night, Doug. I love you.” “I love you too, Steph. Sweet dreams.” It seems totally trite to type it, but spoken aloud between us, it was a warm, reassuring way to end the day. It meant a lot to us. It meant more than I understood while she was alive.

For the first month or so after Stephanie’s death, I never said good night. There was no-one to say it to, and I was barely sleeping. I’m sleeping better lately, sometimes even fading away without sleeping pills. There’s still no-one to say good night to, and there never will be, and yet I’ve started saying it again. “Good night, Stephanie. I love you.” It’s sad and silly but soothing, saying such words as I click off the lights and pull up the blanket.

Posted 10/11/2018.

More about Stephanie.

 

Last of everything.

Seeing Stephanie, spending time with her, never became a tedious thing, never became something I wasn’t looking forward to. Even as the years accumulated, thoughts of Stephanie still made my heart flutter. I often told her how much I treasured her, and in extremely mushy words, and she often said much the same to me, and I am so glad that we said it out loud, and frequently. She smiled so hugely the last time I told her all this, and said incredibly sweet things back to me. The memory is etched into my head.

Everywhere around the apartment, everywhere in Madison, there are memories of Stephanie. When was the last time we went to that drug store? When was the last time we walked down that street, past that school? When was the last night we called out for pizza?

And of course, bigger questions, questions I can’t truly answer. When was the last time she was able to relax and read a book, without a care in the world? When was the last time she laughed, or the last time she made me laugh? When was the last time we looked into each other’s eyes without both of us being full of worry? When was her last of everything?

Stephanie loved a “State Street date,” where we did something on State Street’s several blocks of “no cars allowed” pedestrian mall. There are lots of restaurants, lots of charming little shops, and not too many chain franchises, at least not yet. In the years when she walked, we did State Street dates two or three times every summer, but once she was in the wheelchair we visited State Street less often. She still loved it, though, so I scold myself that we didn’t visit State Street even once this year. To my recollection, our last State Street date was in the winter of 2016-17, when we ate at a sandwich shop, before attending a Badgers women’s hockey game. I’m a big dumb boy, and I should’ve taken her to State Street more often.

Our last scenic drive was 2017’s autumn cruise. Every fall, when the leaves were in full orange and red colors, we followed pretty much the same route across several counties and up an impressive hill in the middle of some state park. Stephanie did the navigating, though, so I have next to no idea where or what that park was, and I can’t take that drive without her this autumn.

We liked going to Madison’s zoo, and went at least once every summer. Our last visit was in July. The seals wouldn’t come out and see us, but we listened to a long talk by a staffer about one of the animals, which is the oldest living one of its species in captivity. The talk was interesting, but I can’t remember what the animal was; I think it was some kind of a biggish bird. I doubt I’ll ever return to the zoo – we had so many happy memories there, and they’re all much, much sadder memories, now. So that was our last visit to the zoo. Her last, and my last.

Our last trip to the library was toward the end of July. Steph checked out a dozen books; I checked out one. Library books are due back in four weeks, and a few days before Stephanie died I had to gather the books we’d checked out, mostly unread, and return them to the library.

Our last time playing bingo was April 23rd, at Potawatomi. We didn’t win, didn’t come close, and it didn’t matter. Stephanie was always happy playing bingo, and it was contagious, so we were both happy.

We went to three Beloit Snappers games in 2018, but I don’t know when the last one was. It’s not on my bank statement, so I must’ve paid with cash instead of plastic. I also don’t remember whether the Snappers won or lost. We had a good time, though. We always had a good time at Beloit baseball games.

Our last movie at a theater was A Wrinkle in Time. Stephanie had loved the book as a kid, and I had liked it, but we both thought the movie was a big blob of nothing much. Our last movie at home was Hairspray, the John Waters original, which we’d seen before but it’s always fun. Our last movie at the Wisconsin Film Festival was Notorious R.B.G., the documentary about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg; Steph was a tough dame, and you couldn’t ask for much tougher than Ginsburg, so we loved it. And our last movie at Madison’s Cinematheque was Columbus, with John Cho, which was excellent, and had nothing at all to do with Christopher Columbus. Like most of our favorite movies, we probably would’ve wanted to see Columbus again eventually, but there will be no eventually.

We loved going to movies at the drive-in, too. Usually we went to the Highway 18 Drive-In outside the town of Jefferson, or sometimes we went to the drive-ins in Monroe or the Dells. But this year our summer was shortened by two hospitalizations, and a long stretch where she wasn’t feeling well, so we didn’t get to the drive-ins at all. They had announced that The Incredibles 2 would play at the Highway 18 Drive-In, and we were planning to see it, but then she went into the hospital.

The last play we saw was Our Town, by Thornton Wilder. It was a student production at Madison College in April, with the protagonist re-imagined as a young woman instead of the usual older man. It was very well done, we had a terrific time, and Stephanie wore her favorite super-fancy dress.

The last time we danced was in 2008, when we went to see a Dean Martin impersonator, Joe Scalissi, at Monona Terrace in downtown Madison. He put on a great show, really captured the essence of Dino. Steph was a good dancer and I was not, but we Fred & Gingered the night away.

Our last leisurely afternoon at the neighborhood coffee and tea shop, Jade Mountain, was on Sunday, August 12th. It’s easy to remember the date, because my family was coming to visit the next day. Stephanie talked about that for a while, before she started feeling ill and wanted to go home.

Our last restaurant meal was take-out from Hong Kong Cafe, on Friday, July 27th. She had the moo-shoo pork, as she usually did. I don’t remember what I had.

The last of her leftovers was a beef stew she’d made many months ago, probably last year. It was too freezer-burned to eat, but a few days ago I let it thaw, then popped the lid off and inhaled, and oh, it smelled of Stephanie’s always-excellent stew. I miss her for a thousand things more than anything she ever cooked, but that wondrous, delicious smell brought on yet another wave of memories and tears.

The last treat I brought home for her was a mango smoothie from Culver’s, on Monday, August 20. She loved their smoothies, and I loved bringing her little treats. She finished the smoothie in one sitting. It was maybe the most she’d eaten in weeks, and I thought that was a good sign, but what the hell did I know?

Our last meal at home was the next night, Tuesday, August 21. It was nothing special. She had a bowl of tomato soup from a can, and a chunk of french bread warmed up in the toaster over. She only nibbled at both, and wasn’t feeling well. The next day I took her to the emergency room. She spent eleven days in the hospital, and never came home.

Our last kiss was in the hospital, but that was a kiss of fear. Our last real kiss was on that Tuesday night, when I came home from work. I don’t even remember it, but we always said “I love you” when either of us came home, and we always kissed.

Our last conversation was in the hospital, too, an awful place and an awful conversation. We’d had similar conversations in the past, dialogue we replayed with slight variation almost every time she was hospitalized. There wasn’t much that she abhorred more than hospitals – needles and nurses, being tethered to tubes, no privacy, no sleep, no autonomy, and an endless parade of people all asking the same questions and poking at the same body parts. It was Saturday afternoon, and she’d been in the hospital for several days, passing in and out of lucidity. At that moment, though, she was lucid enough to understand where she was, and she hated it.

“I can’t do this,” she said.

And I said, “Yes, you can. I know it’s awful, but you’ve done it before and I’ll be here to help. You’ll pull through, you’ll recuperate, you’ll be back, and we’ll have good times like we always have.”

She asked, “Really?,” and I could see the doubt and panic in her eyes. She was scared, and she needed reassurance, and I thought I was telling her the truth.

“Really,” I said. “Don’t worry. Everything’s going to be OK.”

But nothing turned out OK, nothing at all. Stephanie died a week after that last conversation.

* * * * * * * * * *

Shrine progress report: The shelves in the living room aren’t big enough to display everything I want to see, so today they were pushed and pulled into the kitchen, and swapped for some free-standing shelves that we’d been using there. By my math and Steph’s tape measure, the new arrangement will increase shelf-space in the Shrine by about fifty percent.

The pantry, as we called it, was our Christmas present to ourselves one year. Two matching cabinets, each about 4½ feet tall, bought at the Habitat for Humanity Re-Store for $110. It took both of us and a rented truck to get it from the second-hand shop into our kitchen. Today I moved those shelves by myself, and my back hurts.

Also, wow, Steph sure had a lot of canned tomato products – tomato paste, tomato sauce, diced tomatoes, whole tomatoes … all given to the Food Bank. Lots of vinegar, too, because she loved pickling beets.

Opening the potato bin on top of the pantry was like meeting a miniature monster from Doctor Who; the potatoes had become an oozing, smelly, tentacley thing, but I’ve defeated it and the spud monster is now in the dumpster. I threw away the onions, too, though they still looked good, because what am I going to do with a sack of onions? Now, all the fresh produce from before she went into the hospital is gone, which seems so sad, but what doesn’t?

Stephanie would’ve approved of today’s repurposing, I’m sure. She was passionate about cooking, and thus the pantry was important to her. That pantry will now be a major part of her memorial shrine, which is coming together, bit by bit. It’s going to include old baseball and movie tickets, her favorite t-shirts, her books, her watch, her cell phone, her recipes, her right shoe, some of her favorite snacks, and anything and everything else that inspires a memory of her.

The Shrine is also going to include a six-pack of Cherry Coke. Until yesterday, a leftover bottle of A&W root beer was on that shelf, because that was her beverage of choice over the past several years. But I saw Cherry Coke in the grocery store yesterday, and it reminded me that root beer was only Steph’s second favorite soda. Her first choice was always Cherry Coke, but cola of any kind is high in phosphorus, which makes it verboten for kidney patients, so she’d rarely had Cherry Coke or any kind of cola over recent years.

Well, to heck with that. Kidney concerns aren’t an issue any longer, right? It was very strange to be (sort of) buying something for Stephanie at the store; never thought I’d be doing that again. But in her Shrine, my lady gets Cherry Coke.

Posted 10/10/2018.

More about Stephanie.

 

Absolutely present-tense.

There are about two tons of Stephanie’s stuff in the living room – some in boxes, some on the table, some on the floor, and all of it is eventually going to be part of my planned Steph Shrine.

One of those possessions is her cell phone, sitting on top of her pillows, on top of a box jammed full of stuff, on top of another box full of stuff. Her phone rang today. It was eerie to hear that familiar ringtone, and bonkers thoughts went through my mind.

My first thought was that she’s calling me, and I’d better spring out of my chair and answer the phone before she decides I’m not home and hangs up. I moved quickly, believe me, but such fantasies had already been dismissed before I was halfway to the phone.

As I reached for it, I was asking myself whether I wanted to answer it or not. Do I really want to explain to whomever’s calling why Stephanie can’t come to the phone? But not many people have Steph’s cell number (she preferred the landline), so I figured it had to be someone she knew, or something important, and I’m trying to honor her by being a nicer man, so I answered it.

No, Stephanie does not want to make a donation to Scott Walker’s campaign for Governor, and I’m flabbergasted that her number ended up on their list. That schmuck Walker has worked very hard to ruin the economy in Wisconsin, reduce health care for poor folks, dismantle unions, oppose the concept of civil rights except for gun nuts, and on and on. I donated a profanity instead, and then sent another $25 to the guy running against Walker.

* * * * * * * * * *

Some nights, just before I fall asleep, in that final fog before fading off, I think of something I’d like to do with Stephanie. Or for Stephanie. • We should go for a walk together.It’s been too long since I bought her some ice cream.Tomorrow I’ll get up early and surprise Steph with some fancy cookies from the bake shop. Very quick, fleeting thoughts, but absolutely present-tense, as if she’s still alive.

It’s a brief moment when I don’t know that she’s gone, a tiny fraction of a second when there’s a tomorrow with Stephanie in it. Of course, it jolts me awake, wide awake, back to this tedious unwanted reality. It’s a vastly overrated concept, reality, and not my favorite place to be.

Often I need a pill to get to sleep. The sleeping pills are almost required on work nights, else I’d be a wreck at the office the next day. On the weekends, though, I try to sleep without pharmaceuticals, and of course I don’t sleep well. Crossing over to the edge of sleep and back again several times in a night, I might have perhaps two or three of those Stephanie moments before falling asleep. It’s disorienting and depressing, and yet it’s the closest I’ll ever get to having her back. Honestly, those momentary glimpses of a little more life with Stephanie are sad but also sweet, so sweet it’s sometimes worth the sadness.

* * * * * * * * * *

For all our years together, whenever I came home, if Steph was there she’d say “Doug?” as soon as I’d opened the door and stepped inside. I miss that, but I’m no longer expecting Stephanie to be at home when I get back from work or the grocery store or wherever.

When I actually open the door and step inside the apartment, though, I’ve continued being surprised that she’s not sitting at the desk, playing games on her computer or watching Judge Judy. I reckon being disappointed a couple of dozen times has let it start sinking in, because lately I don’t even have the brief fraction of a second of habitual optimism. Nope, I’m going to open the door and step inside an empty apartment and spend the  evening alone.

* * * * * * * * * *

A couple of days ago, sitting in the living room, I heard a noise that seemed to come from down the hall, where the bedroom is. It was nothing the heat coming on, or the cat attacking a piece of fuzz on the carpet, or a car passing on the street outside. But for a quarter of a moment it could be her, and then, of course, it couldn’t be.

* * * * * * * * * *

In a dream the other night, Stephanie and I were talking, and it was so sweet. It was in the bathroom, and I was in the shower while she was on the toilet. Yeah, life was cramped sometimes in our apartment. Then suddenly I remembered that she’s supposed to be dead, yet we were talking like everything’s normal. I can’t remember what exactly she said, but she was talking about the cat. I was so happy and excited to hear her voice, I yanked the shower curtain out of the way to see, and her voice ceased and I was looking at an empty toilet – in my dream, that is. I was actually in bed, of course, but the dream left me rattled and unable to get back to sleep.

* * * * * * * * * *

Sometimes I hear myself telling Stephanie that I love her. Well, obviously, since the cat doesn’t speak and I’m the only person at home, I’m not just hearing it; I’m also saying it. But I don’t habitually talk to myself and it surprises me when I do. So – I hear it, then realize that I said it, then perhaps nod my head a bit, in agreement with what I’ve heard.

It’s always “love,” by the way; it’s never “loved.” And I always hear it in a sad voice, presumably because I always say it in a sad voice. Today, though, I heard myself say “I love you, Stephanie,” in a mellow, wistful tone, instead of such a sad voice. It’s the first time since she died that I’ve heard it in anything but that sorrowful, brokenhearted voice I’d have never used when she was alive. Not sure what that means.

* * * * * * * * * *

After several weeks of imagining and planning Steph’s shrine in the living room, today I started actually putting it together. The shrine will include some of Steph’s favorite books and other possessions, displayed on a couple of bookcases, as well as several of Steph’s favorite items of clothing, some tacked to the wall and some hung on a coat-rack purchased for that purpose. Also included will be her half-finished knitting or needlepoint project (I never know which is which, and she did both), some of her oft-nibbled snacks, a bottle of A&W root beer (she loved the stuff), the Afrin she sniffed nightly at bedtime, and a thousand other bits of Stephanie memorabilia.

Even at our best financial state, we were never quite middle-class, so all of our bookshelves are either particle-board units that you buy and assemble yourself, or they’re something we found at a garage sale and dragged home. Steph’s shrine will include one shelf-set of each pedigree. This morning, I dragged our biggest particle-board shelves from their long-time spot in the spear room to their new spot in the living room. Stephanie always did the assembly of our particle-board furniture, and she was good at it, so the shelves hardly even wobbled in the move. Nice work, Love. There was nothing she put her mind to that she didn’t do well. If I had put those shelves together, they would’ve fallen apart.

The shrine is barely underway. Most of the shelves are still empty, the coat-rack is bare, and nothing’s on the wall except a couple of tiny Van Gogh prints that she loved. Eventually it’ll be a much bigger shrine, with bigger prints of the same two paintings, and I’ll pick my favorite photo of Stephanie and have it blown up huge and hung on the wall. So the shrine is only perhaps 5% of what it’s going to be, but still, when I sit at the desk I can see it plainly, and it warms my heart.

Posted 10/7/2018.

More about Stephanie.