Big questions in Nebraska and Wyoming.

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After breakfast in Grand Island, Stephanie wanted to drive again, and I didn’t object. She drove that truck the vast majority of its miles from Madison to San Francisco, and that’s why we made it. As proven in the previous day’s ice skid, she was better behind the wheel than I was or am. And after the craziness of the day before, it was nice that absolutely nothing terrifying, frustrating, or even mildly aggravating happened during our second day of our cross-country move.

We sipped coffee from paper to-go cups for the first few hours on the road, and talked about whatever popped into our heads. I remember that we talked about her brother, whom she described as distant and delinquent. And we talked about pets – her family had never had pets, and she envied my tales of all the dogs and cats my family had while I was growing up.

“Once we get settled in Frisco,” I said, “we can get a pet. Do you want a dog, or a cat, or something exotic?”

“Dogs have always scared me,” she said. “They’re basically miniature wolves, well-trained and domesticated and all, but still – try petting a dog that’s in a bad mood, and you could easily get bitten.”

“I’ve been barked at a lot, but never yet bitten by a dog. You raise a dog up from being a puppy, and it isn’t going to bite you. It might bite the mailman, though. And dogs have to be walked every day, and taken out to poop, and cleaned up after, and they’re susceptible to fleas and ticks and such. So, yeah, we probably shouldn’t get a dog. I’m not enough of a responsible adult to have a dog.”

“Well, we can’t have a cat, either,” she said. “I have allergies, and if we had a cat I don’t think I’d ever stop sniffling at night and get to sleep.”

“OK, no dogs, and no cats. I guess we’ll just have to have a baby.”

“Nah, maybe we can have an iguana.” Spoiler: We never had an iguana, or a baby. But we had a cat, and we still do.

* * * * * * * * * *

With all due respect to Nebraska, there’s not much there, at least not much you can see from the freeway. Lots of wide open spaces. Which can be lovely and often is, but there’s also not a lot to be said about wide open spaces. Instead we had a long, weird, but enjoyable conversation about philosophy, stretching over several hundred miles.

From the day we met until not long before she passed away, Stephanie and I frequently played twenty questions, but we never stopped at twenty. It began with “What’s your favorite book?” (anything by Jane Austen) and “What’s you favorite color?” (purple) and “What’s your biggest regret?” (failing grad school), but once those ordinary questions had been answered we found further questions to ask. For twenty-one years, any time we had nothing else to say, one of us might ask, “What’s your most cringeworthy memory?” Or “What’s your secret superpower?”

On this particular winter morning, pushing the accelerator as far as it would go but never more than fifty miles per hour, Stephanie asked me, “If a tree falls in the forest, and nobody’s there to hear it, does it make a sound?”

“I’ve always thought the question is moot. When a tree falls it makes a noise. Quite a loud noise, probably. If it acts like a normal tree and falls even though nobody’s there to watch it fall, then it’s going to make noise even though nobody’s there to hear it.”

“I like that,” she said. “You think logically. So tell me, Spock, what is truth?”

“Math and science,” I answered. “And anything else where the answers come out the same, regardless of who does the calculating, long as you add up everything correctly.”

“OK, now it’s your turn,” she said. “Ask me a question.”

“Was the universe designed,” I asked, “or did it simply evolve?”

Stephanie frowned and took a deep breath, then told me, “I don’t like the question. The word ‘designed’ implies a designer – a God – and the word ‘simply’ suggests that the mechanisms of evolution are simple. Evolution is all about random mutations, and thus it’s crazy complicated. But based on our understanding of the information at hand, my short answer is that the universe evolved. Big Bang, not Great Designer.”

We rolled a few more miles in silence, until Stephanie said, “I guess the next question, or the same question, is whether God exists, but we’ve already talked about that.”

And we had talked about it, but only briefly. Saints and heretics have argued about God’s existence for centuries, but for Stephanie and I the answer was plain, and the subject wasn’t even particularly interesting. We wouldn’t argue religion with believers, because if it helps you make it through life, and you’re not hurting anyone else, what’s the harm in that? But we never argued about it with each other, either. We were just non-believers, with a yawn and with slight lapses once in a great while.

And then Stephanie asked the ultimate philosophical question. “What’s a sandwich?”

“Food between two slices of bread.”

“So you don’t believe in the open-face sandwich?”

“OK, wait, you’re right – an open-face sandwich is still a sandwich, so a sandwich is food on bread.”

“What about toast – is that a sandwich?”

“Hmmm,” I said cleverly. “Give me a moment to think.” After thinking, I announced: “If an open-face ham sandwich is a sandwich, then butter or jam on toast is a sandwich, too.”

“Does the bread have to be toasted?”

“No.”

“Does the bread have to be bread? What about Pop-Tarts?”

“Whoa,” I said, “now we’re getting all trippy like LSD. A Pop-Tart is …” Again I had to stop and think. “… mass-produced jam on toast, sort of, so yes, a Pop-Tart is a sandwich.”

“So what about a wiener on a bun? A hamburger? A taco?”

“All sandwiches, I guess.”

“What about pizza? It’s cheese and meat, usually, on baked dough. Is pizza a sandwich?”

“You could call it a sandwich, I suppose, like you could call a bowl of Cheerios soup. But it’s a stretch. If pizza is a sandwich, then so’s blueberry pie.”

“So’s lasagna.”

We chuckled and watched Wyoming roll past, and then I asked, “Is there intelligent life on other planets?”

“Science fiction is more fun if there is.”

“But what do you say?”

“I’d say, for now, there’s no more evidence of space aliens than there’s evidence of God, but I’m cautiously optimistic. With infinite planets spread across an infinite universe, the notion that there might be intelligent life elsewhere seems, to me, much more plausible than the notion that there might be an omnipotent creator keeping tabs on everyone everywhere and deciding whether we merit Heaven or Hell when we’re dead.”

“Yeah, me too. That’s what I think. God seems wildly improbably, and a universe where we’re the most advanced species on any planet anywhere – that seems even more unlikely.”

“So why is there a universe,” Stephanie asked, “instead of vast nothingness?”

“I think there’s both,” I said after a moment. “We know that there’s a universe, and smart folks know that it’s almost entirely a vast nothingness. But we don’t know why there’s a universe, and we probably never will.”

“Stuff happens,” she said. “That’s why there’s a universe.” Then one of us – no idea which one of us – started singing the first few lines of Monty Python’s Galaxy Song, and the other joined in.

“Just remember that you’re standing on a planet that’s evolving and revolving at 900 miles an hour. / It’s orbiting at 19 miles a second, so it’s reckoned, the sun that is the source of all our power…”

That’s about the point where I had to stop singing, because I didn’t and don’t know the rest of the lyrics, but Stephanie sang on without me. She didn’t sing often, but when she sand she sang lovelyly – is that a word? When she finished the song, I had to clap, she had to laugh.

* * * * * * * * * *

We lunched in Cheyenne, after entering “The Equality State,” Steph announced as we crossed the Wyoming border. “This was the first state where women were able to vote.”

We saw lots of snow in Wyoming, and lots of clouds blowing across lots and lots of sky. For hundreds of miles, the view from the truck was the same – two lanes going west, a strip of snow-covered grass, and two lanes headed east.

Wyoming is where the Interstate crosses the Rocky Mountains, but somehow the mountains seem like a view in the distance, more than feeling like you’re actually in the mountains. We stopped at the Continental Divide, where there is (or was) a sign and a small parking lot, and we marveled at the view and made out like teenagers.

* * * * * * * * * *

On the road again, a few miles later she asked, “Are you the same person you were when you were five years old? Ten? Twenty?”

“Yes and no,” I said. “Obviously, I’m the same human, but we live and learn, we re-invent ourselves along the way, so of course we’re all thinking and doing things differently than we did as kids. Or we should be, unless we’re stuck at the mental age of ten.”

“Yeah,” she said, “I’m the same person I was at ten. I’m just operating from newer and better informed assumptions and experience. More reality, fewer dreams.”

“So,” I wondered aloud, “Would little-kid Stephanie like grown-up Stephanie?”

“I think she would, yeah.” She drove a bit further, then added, “but I think she’d also be disappointed.”

“Why?”

“I was in the smart kids’ class. Someone decided that I was brighter than the average 10-year-old, and they put me in special classes to nurture that. And now I’m 27 years old, a college drop-out, no career to speak of, and I’m presently unemployed and basically homeless. What’s not to be disappointed?”

“You’re not unemployed, you’re between jobs. Between cities. And you’re certainly not homeless; when we get to San Francisco you’ll be sharing my hovel in the slums.”

“Yeah,” she said, “but still, sometimes I feel like I’m a failure.”

“We are embarking on an adventure, my love. We are doing something that many people dream of doing, talk about doing, but very few people actually do. Following your dream is never a failure.”

“What if following our dream ends in failure?”

“No, Steph. First off, it won’t end in failure. But also, it can’t end in failure. Metaphysical impossibility. Nothing you and I do together could ever be a failure, and anyway, following your dream is a success in itself, by definition.”

“I don’t know. 10-year-old me might disagree.”

“10-year-old you ought to be proud of 27-year-old you. I sure am.”

She looked at me briefly, then turned her eyes back to the freeway. I saw a lot in her eyes for that moment – love and fear and happiness – mostly happiness, I think. But it wasn’t the last time she would describe herself as a failure, and it wasn’t the last time I would disagree.

* * * * * * * * * *

After a few hours more on the highway, we started to yawn and decided we’d spend the night in the town of Green River, a scenic place nestled under steep rock outcroppings. We drove down what seemed to be the town’s main street, crossed the bridge over its namesake river, and looked for dinner and a hotel that seemed inviting, but we didn’t find either.

Instead we left the town proper, and checked into a cheap chain motel on the outskirts of Green River, where trains rolled romantically in the distance, all through the night. We called out for pizza, and had it delivered to our room. We read the very thin local newspaper, and watched something insipid on TV, and talked about San Francisco, and we were 600 miles closer to California than we’d been the day before.

* * * * * * * * * *

It goes without saying that my life sorta sucks without Stephanie, but you know what else sort of sucks without her? The words you’re reading right now. This sentence, this paragraph.

Re-reading what I’ve written, it’s painfully obvious that this story and every story I’ve told would be better if Steph were here to add the details she remembers. If Green River came up in conversation, Steph would remind me about things I’ve forgotten – maybe she’d mention that we’d chuckled about some sign we’d seen there, and she’d remember exactly what the sign said and why it struck us as funny. Or maybe she’d remember that the waitress at breakfast had called me ‘Honey’ and recommended we have biscuits instead of toast, and the biscuits were marvelous.

Steph would add all the details I’ve forgotten, plus myriad things I never noticed in the first place. She would remind me how beautiful Green River looked when we arrived at sunset. It looked pretty, I do remember that, but Steph could color in all the vivid details – where the trees were, how high was the river, and I’m sure she could accurately describe what some stranger was wearing as he or she sat on their front porch and glanced at us driving by. She would remember the name of the motel we stayed at; I certainly don’t. She would recite verbatim an amusing conversation we’d had over the pizza that night.

Or perhaps she would correct me and it wasn’t pizza at all; it was something else we had delivered to the motel for dinner. It was pizza, but let’s serve it with a disclaimer: Steph would sometimes tell me I was wrong about memories that seemed quite certain to me. And she wasn’t messin’ with my head – she would immediately provide further details that I knew were right, like, not only was it sandwiches not pizza, but they put Dijon mustard on your roast beef sandwich and you usually hate Dijon but you loved it that night. And I’d remember and say, “Oh, that’s right.” Because she usually was right. Senior moments like that do happen to me now and then. But in Green River I’m pretty sure we had pizza.

Anyway, this story and every story I’ve told and all the stories I’m planning to tell would be easier to read and more reliably accurate if Steph was here to bounce my memories off. And of course, all the writing would be better if she was writing it herself. And the stories and especially the details would all come easier if we’d been taking notes along the way, but we never did.

We thought we were good at never taking our marriage or each other for granted, and I reckon we were. Always, we were appreciative, full of thank yous and I love yous for each other. And yet, we took it for granted that we’d have more years together than we did. We took the miracle of every day for granted.

Why did it never occur to either of us, to take notes every day? To keep a diary of these events as they happened? If we’d spent just ten minutes each evening jotting down what had happened that day, it would’ve meant a tiny bit less time watching stupid sit-coms, or surfing through Reddit – in other words, it would’ve cost us nothing – and it would have left me with a million memories more vivid and focused than the cloudy ones in my grieving, graying head.

Posted 12/19/2018.

More about Stephanie.

Regrets? I’ve had a few.

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There are two popular political signs in Madison these days. You’ll see them in many of our neighbors’ yards, or sitting in the front windows of houses as you drive past. One of the signs says, “In this house, we believe: Black lives matter, women’s rights are human rights, no human is illegal, science is real, love is love, and kindness is everything.” The other sign says, “No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor,” and says it in Spanish, English, and Arabic. It ought to also say it in Chinese, Vietnamese, Russian, and Hmong, and a hundred other languages, but then the font would be so small you couldn’t read it.

Stephanie and I had admired these signs, and agreed with the sentiment. Our home is an apartment building, though, and yard signs are against the rules, so we didn’t buy the signs.

Well, my first purchase after Steph died was this web domain, five days after, and the yard signs were my second purchase. Bought ‘em at the Co-Op, because Steph loved the Co-Op and that’s the only place I know that sells them. One sign now sits inside the building, right outside our apartment door. The other sign sits in the window, visible to cars passing on the street and to kids cutting across the lawn. Whenever I see either sign I think of Stephanie. She’d be happy that we have the signs, but I should’ve bought them while she was alive. That’s something I regret.

* * * * * * * * * *

Whatever else might be on my mind, give me a moment and I’ll remember something that happened with Steph and I. Most of those memories are happy, but there’s often something I said or did that I regret, or something I regret never saying or doing. Sometimes it seems there’s always something more to regret. Feels like I’m swimming in regrets, and barely keeping my head above water.

I vehemently regret every harsh word I ever spoke toward her. There weren’t many harsh words, and we sometimes went a year without arguing about anything. Of our few arguments, almost all turned out to be misunderstandings more than disagreements. When we argued, though, we could be mean, either of us and both of us. I remember and regret the mean things I said when I last lost my temper toward her. I apologized then, of course, but I also want to apologize now.

I regret every instance (and there were far too many) where I wasn’t a very good husband. I regret all the times I wasn’t thoughtful enough, wasn’t considerate enough, didn’t bring home enough bacon, did other things when I should’ve been doing my chores around the apartment, and I especially regret any and all the times when I was doing something, anything, other than giving Steph the attention and love she deserved.

I regret that we couldn’t hold hands as often as I would’ve liked. From our start to our finish, it was delightful holding hands with Stephanie, but we could only do it sitting down. There was too much difference in our heights; holding hands meant that she was lifting her arm, which quickly became uncomfortable. If we were standing or walking, she’d hold my hand for only a few minutes at a time, because it made her feel like she was being led on a field trip.

I regret that I didn’t tell her she was pretty more often than I did. She was insecure about a lot of things, but especially about her appearance. She thought she was plain at best, or simply unattractive. I always, always found her attractive, and more so as the years went by. She was pretty, sexy, seductive, whatever words would’ve helped, and I said those words often – but should’ve said those words more often.

Stephanie was hard on herself, precarious not just about her looks but about all sorts of things she should’ve been proud about – her brains, her writing, her overall worth as a human being. Many times she called herself a failure or a bad wife, and I argued, told her she was a success and that a better wife was metaphysically impossible. But when Steph was blue, there was no talking her out of criticizing herself, so we would go a second round and a third, with her insisting she was a failure and me insisting that she wasn’t. After a while, having spoken my piece, told her she was mistaken and explained why she was mistaken, the conversation would fade or we’d switch to some other subject. Gotta say, I regret that. I should’ve never let the argument end until she agreed that she was excellent in every way. Because really, she was.

Early in our marriage, a friend who soon became an ex-friend pulled me aside, to tell me it was unwise for Steph and I to spend so much time together. That’s canned wisdom I’ve heard from other sources, too, and sometimes, I suppose, it’s true. I did know a guy who spent all his waking hours with his wife, and after a few years she divorced him. So there’s probably a kernel of truth to that canard, but mostly it’s a canard. With Stephanie and I, almost any moment we weren’t at work was time we spent together, and that is never, never going to be something to regret. On that topic, my only regret is that we didn’t have more time together.

Sometimes I worked overtime, when the office was swamped. We needed the money, yeah, but I wish I could have all those Saturday mornings and weekday late-afternoons back, and spend that time with her. On the other hand, if it wasn’t for some overtime shifts during the summer when she died, I would’ve had to borrow money from my in-laws to pay for Stephanie’s cremation, which would’ve been a bit embarrassing.

* * * * * * * * * *

With her medical issues, doctors sometimes scolded Stephanie, telling her that years of less than fully-controlled diabetes were a contributing factor. And indeed, consistently elevated glucose levels are known to damage kidneys, blood vessels, the eyes, the heart, and the nervous system – pretty much everything that’s in Stephanie’s medical chart. So in hindsight, we didn’t take her diabetes seriously enough.

When she was first diagnosed with it in the late 1990s, Stephanie did most of the things doctors told her to do – she watched her sugars, counted her carbs, poked herself with needles, exercised more, ate boring foods, etc. And I tried very hard to be supportive, reminding her when it was time to poke, going on more walks with her, and such. But Steph didn’t do everything they advised, and there were too many “cheat nights” when she had a Snickers bar or a bowl of ice cream. That’s a major regret. Oh, yeah.

These days, when anyone mentions that they’ve been diagnosed with diabetes, I say, Take it seriously. And by the way, is there an epidemic of diabetes? In just the few months since Stephanie died, three people have told me they’ve been diagnosed with diabetes. Considering that I have virtually no social life and speak with almost no-one, it seems like a lot of people have diabetes. If you’re one of them, please take it seriously.

* * * * * * * * * *

Stephanie lost about fifty pounds over her last few years, and her wedding ring slipped off her finger somewhere. We never found it, and we talked about replacing it, but we never did. We certainly weren’t held back by the expense – there were no jewels, and our original wedding ring set was purchased from a sidewalk vendor in San Francisco, $10 for both rings. We were planning the replacement set at a similar price (I need a new ring, too, as I’ve lost weight and it’s a little loose), so we bought a ring-sizer kit, and measured our fingers. We went on-line, and narrowed the selection down to four finalists. But we didn’t decide which design we wanted, and didn’t place the order.

Well, I picked the design and placed the order a few weeks after Stephanie died, and I hope she would approve of the rings we’ve received. I’d love to put this ring on her finger and hold her hand (sitting down), but instead, her new ring is displayed in the Shrine.

And my new wedding band? They can slip it off at the funeral home after I croak, and I won’t care what they do with it. But until then, my new ring stays on my finger, and my old ring is on my key chain.

* * * * * * * * * *

I regret not getting us out of this apartment. Stephanie was perfectly healthy when we moved in, but she was in a wheelchair for the last several years of her life, and our building is not wheelchair-accessible. Our apartment is on the first floor of a two-story building, but there are four steps leading to the building’s front door. Once Stephanie was in the wheelchair, those steps were an obstacle.

So we’d purchased a portable ramp made of metal, and kept it leaning against the wall in the living room. To take her out – to dinner, to a movie, to a doctor’s appointment – I would carry the ramp to the building’s front door, lay it over the stairs, wheel Steph down to the sidewalk, and then briefly leave her there (or in the car, if it was raining or cold out) while I carried the ramp back to the living room, and locked up the apartment.

For me, this was a minor chore – a few minutes of work, coming and going. For Steph, though, it meant she couldn’t leave the building without me. The ramp weighs thirty pounds and it’s five feet long; in her wheelchair, she couldn’t have maneuvered it down the hallway and out the front door. Even if she somehow could, then after she’d rolled herself down the stairs and onto the sidewalk she’d have no way to bring the ramp back in to the apartment.

Looking for a wheelchair-accessible place to live, and then packing and moving, was on our radar, but I’m old and she was disabled, so we knew it would be a major undertaking. When we talked about moving, Stephanie always said she wanted to be walking first, on her prosthetic leg. “If we’re moving because I can’t walk, that would mean I’m spending the rest of my life in a wheelchair, and I refuse to accept that,” she said.

Thus, our plan was that she’d be walking on her prosthetic leg, before we would seriously talk about moving. And indeed, when she wore the fake leg and practiced walking, she was frequently at the front door, carefully descending and then climbing those four steps.

Eventually, it became clear that the prosthetic was too painful and poorly-fitted for Stephanie to use, but she remained adamant that she’d be going back to the prostheticist, demanding to have the leg re-measured and re-constructed into something walkable. Stephanie decided that Hanger – the company that made her prosthetic – was going to fix it or re-make it, and she would walk again. That was the only solution she wanted to discuss. “We’re not moving until I can walk.”

But another battle was in line, ahead of her lousy prosthetic leg. Steph was doing in-center dialysis from 2016 until late 2017, which obliterated three days of every week for her. The other four days every week were spent, first, living her life and, second, battling the kidney crew for a transfer back to home dialysis – and winning that battle took more than a year. All the while, Steph didn’t want to fight the prosthetics war until the dialysis war had been won, and she didn’t want to worry about moving until the prosthetics war had been won, too.

And so, Stephanie was housebound. On a sunny day, if she had a whim to walk around the block, she couldn’t do it – not without me helping her out of the building. Something as simple as going to the coffee shop two blocks from home was impossible, unless I accompanied her, and took her up and down those four steps at the door. When I spent eight hours at work, it meant Stephanie spent eight hours in the apartment.

But she never complained about the stairs and the ramp, not even once. She often thanked me for helping her up or down those four steps. I occasionally mentioned how frustrating it must be for her, being unable to leave the apartment without me, and she agreed that it was less than ideal, but she never brought the subject up herself.

Still, it must have been so difficult for her. She was an independent woman, who lost much of her independence when she lost her left leg. I should’ve gone apartment-hunting, and moved us into an accessible apartment, where she could have come and gone as she pleased. It’s one of my larger regrets, to be sure.

* * * * * * * * * *

Once she was disabled and no longer working, Stephanie started spending more of her time in the bedroom and less in the living room. Our TV, however, was in the living room. So a year or so ago, we bought a second TV for the bedroom, and she was so happy. She could spend the day in bed if she wanted to, and still watch her judge shows. But, there was a problem – the new TV was frustrating and hard to figure out.

At first we chalked it up to the learning curve for a new device, but after weeks became months we decided we’d simply purchased a smart TV that wasn’t very smart. It had a tiny remote that normal-sized fingers had a hard time with, and a click-the-menu system that seemed far too complicated. Turning the TV on, it always forgot its settings from the previous time it was on, so every time you clicked the “on” button was just like the first time you clicked the “on” button. Always, eleven clicks on the tiny remote through confusing menus to reach choices that shouldn’t be so complicated, such as “watch TV” or “watch Netflix.”

I was planning to say to heck with it, get rid of that new TV, and replace it with a TV of the same make and model as the one in our living room. I never mentioned this to Stephanie, because it was going to be a surprise, and because she would’ve tried to talk me out of it. “Such a waste of money,” she would’ve said. But she also would’ve been a happier lady watching a better TV. Well, I had the idea to replace that TV perhaps two months before Steph died, but never got around to doing it. Another regret.

* * * * * * * * * *

For all the years we were together, I brought Stephanie flowers every few weeks or few months, depending on her spirits and our budget. She had some allergies, so I’d learned which flowers to purchase – alstroemeria, dahlias, hibiscus – that were pretty to look at but had less of a scent than roses and lilies and lilacs and such. During her big health scare of 2016, when she ended up in a nursing home for several months, I brought flowers perhaps more frequently than we could afford, but I wanted to do anything to lift her spirits, and she did love the flowers.

And then, when she had recovered and came home, I had a “brilliant” money-saving idea. Instead of fresh flowers, I purchased two bouquets of nice-looking, high quality fake flowers. After that, I displayed the fake flowers in a vase for a week at a time, alternating between the different fake flower sets. She said they were lovely, thanked me several times, and I did occasionally bring her real flowers too, but … only occasionally.

Fake flowers – what a stupid idea, and what a tone-deaf way to save a little money. If I could have a do-over, there would only be real flowers, and there would be more of them, more often.

* * * * * * * * * *

I’ve mentioned that Stephanie had problems with her vision. She saw an eye doctor, of course, and took prescription eye drops, and we’d re-arranged the furniture in the living room so she’d be sitting closer to the television. Once, I suggested bringing the lamp nearer to the desk, but Stephanie said “Nah,” and I didn’t mention it again and completely forgot about it until I was moving stuff to set up her Shrine. The lamp needed to be relocated to make way for a shelf, so I unplugged the lamp from the wall – twenty feet away – and plugged it in on the other side of the room – perhaps six feet from the desk. Suddenly the desk was noticeably more illuminated. Big dumb boy, why didn’t you move the lamp when it would’ve been helpful?

We loved going to the zoo, and sometimes we’d stop at the gift shop, and I’d buy Steph a trinket or a magnet. Always I’d offer to purchase anything that caught her eye, but she would decline unless it was just a few dollars, citing the price and unwilling to “waste money.” But that’s not waste; that’s the purpose of money – to buy things that add to your happiness. At Madison’s zoo, they sell a giraffe t-shirt that Stephanie fancied, and we weren’t hurting financially, but it was twenty-some dollars so she said nope. Why didn’t I buy it for her anyway? Add that to my long list of regrets.

I regret doing the laundry too often. I’ve heard people say after someone’s died, “I held her pillow to my face and it smelled like her.” But I had done the laundry just a few days before Steph went into the hospital, so her pillow only barely smelled like her, and only the first time I inhaled it. After that it just smelled like a pillow.

* * * * * * * * * *

I regret that she’s gone, of course, but I also regret that Steph never saw some of the new things coming to Madison, and specifically to the neighborhood where we lived. She loved our little stretch of East Isthmus, and the area seems to be on a minor upswing, with some interesting things announced or under construction within walking distance. We were looking forward to a new restaurant on Winnebago Street, and an artists’ cooperative being planned for Milwaukee Street. Today I read that a little shop for baked goods has opened in the mini-mall across Washington Avenue, the same complex that houses our local library and the veterinarian. Steph would’ve wanted to be that shop’s first customer.

There’s a classy bar that opened several years ago, just a few blocks from home, called The Malthouse. It specializes in local and exotic beers, and while we were never “bar people,” Steph liked a good beer and she wanted to go there and have one or two. But something always came up, and then she was in a wheelchair.

“I know I shouldn’t be,” she said, “but sometimes I’m embarrassed to be in the ‘chair. I’m not embarrassed when you take me to a park, or to a restaurant, or to a movie, but I think I’d be embarrassed at that place.” She couldn’t explain the why of it to me, so I can’t explain it to you. But I have some phobias of my own, specific things that make me nervous when there’s no rational reason for it, so I certainly didn’t insist, and we never went there. I don’t regret not taking her to The Malthouse when she didn’t want to go, but I do regret not taking her there when she did want to go, before she was in the wheelchair.

A new sushi place opened a year or so ago just a few miles from home, and Steph loved sushi. I had promised to take her there, but I never did.

I’d also promised her dinner at Buraka, the excellent Ethiopian restaurant, as her birthday present, in July. But she wasn’t feeling good that night, so we postponed it. She frequently wasn’t feeling good over the next month and a half, so we never had her birthday dinner at Buraka. I regret that, and the only thing I can do to make amends is to have dinner there next year, on her birthday – alone, of course, but with a picture of Stephanie on the table. In my mind, I’ve already made the reservation.

I’m a little vague on what dim sum is, but as explained by Stephanie it’s small portions of a lot of different Chinese dishes. Steph wanted to try dim sum at our favorite Chinese restaurant, the Hong Kong Cafe, and we went as far as calling them to confirm that they serve dim sum only on the weekends. But Steph wanted to wait until she got her appetite back to full strength, so we decided to wait a few weeks, and a few weeks later she was dead.

* * * * * * * * * *

As mentioned elsewhere, I regret not nudging Steph to see a doctor, more than I did, lots more than I did, during her last several weeks when she was feeling poorly and not eating well. Always I will wonder whether an appointment with an MD or nurse would’ve made a difference, and always I will be pretty sure that it would have. How I’ve shouted at myself over that, so many times. It’s still my most regretted regret, and always will be.

There are other things I’m sorry about but won’t mention here, in deference to Stephanie’s privacy. She’s gone, and I’m writing about her at length, but there are certain regrets that were shared only between me and she – things nobody else needs to know. Those regrets remain in my heart, not on the website.

And lastly, as she was dying, I regret not asking the hospital staff to pull her IVs and disconnect the tubes to the central venous catheter or “access port” in her chest. Stephanie was a veteran of numerous hospitalizations, and she hated being a patient, being poked and prodded 24/7, and she especially hated IVs. She never said this explicitly, and it simply didn’t occur to me in the clamor or for days afterwards, but Steph absolutely wouldn’t have wanted to die with an IV in each arm and tubes leading to an “access port” in her chest. I should’ve told someone to yank ‘em, and then refused to leave the room until they did. I’m sorry about that, sorry about so many things.

Posted 12/15/2018.

More about Stephanie.

Unfair.

unfair.jpgFor our first fifteen years together, any time death came up in conversation, our unspoken assumption was that I would probably die first. Of course I would die first – I’m twelve years older than Stephanie, and never took care of myself. I’ve never intentionally exercised, and never eaten healthy except for the meals Stephanie cooked. For all my adult life I habitually overate until I maxed out at 360 pounds, which is jumbo-sized indeed. I’ve lost weight since then but I’m still fat, still don’t exercise, and don’t usually walk any further than the bathroom or the bus stop. There’s also a history of cancer in my family, which took my dad and one of my brothers. By all rights I ought to be in poor health indeed, but instead I’m generally well for a 60-year-old man. There’s a touch of gout and high cholesterol, both well-managed by prescription meds. Other than that, I’m as fit as a fat fiddle.

Stephanie, on the other hand, was raised with a healthy and balanced diet. Her parents are both alive and in good health, in their 70s. Her mother is a great cook, and Stephanie was a great cook herself, feeding both of us wonderful and healthy meals for all the years we were together. She exercised, walking by choice and joining a gym in her 30s. She was in excellent health until she got late-onset diabetes at age 29. So she watched her sugars and poked her fingers and took her insulin and did 90% of what the doctors told her to do. Her A1Cs (the test that tracks long-term sugar control) were pretty good. Despite the diabetes, she remained in pretty good health until her early 40s.

And then, the troubles began. She had an odd, unexplained infection on her leg, which made it difficult for her to walk. After a few months of hesitation, she saw her doctor, and was prescribed some antibiotics, which didn’t work. She was eventually admitted to St Mary’s Hospital, where a surgeon cut the infected tissue out, leaving a scar on her leg but, more importantly, leaving Steph able to walk painlessly again.

She went back to near-perfect health, until a couple of years later, when she got another unexplained infection, this time on her back. Again it was resistant to antibiotics, so again they cut it out with surgery, and again she recovered fully and went back to a normal life.

Then, with no warning and for no reason we could ever ascertain, her kidneys failed, so she underwent surgery to install a catheter, and went on peritoneal dialysis seven days a week. Then came an infection in her foot, which eventually spread to the bone, necessitating the amputation of her left leg below the knee. After the amputation, there were complications that landed her in a nursing home for months.

Everywhere she went, from the bathroom to baseball games, she went in a wheelchair. And still, the scary diagnoses kept coming. A heart condition sent Stephanie to a cardiologist monthly, and put her on more medications. Vision issues brought her to an ophthalmologist every six weeks, for injections into her eyeballs, which were as icky and uncomfortable as you’d imagine, but which brought her vision back to near-normal. The kidney disease compromised her immune system, so there were more of the recurring infections, and there were other assorted medical nightmares – all of which I might detail at length on the website someday, but won’t today.

For today, my point is only that it’s ridiculously unfair. For no known reason, Stephanie’s health began fading in her early 40s. The new assumption between us was that her life was going to end earlier than we’d thought. Even at my most pessimistic, though, I wouldn’t have guessed she’d be gone in 2018. And yet, there she goes.

Why didn’t Stephanie have a chance to grow old? It’s a question that eats me alive some days.

I work for a life insurance company, and it’s my job to perform a final audit on new policies we issue, ensuring that all the financial details are right and that we’ve spelled the customer’s name correctly, etc. Some of our applications ask questions about the policy-holder’s health, so my employer can calculate the risk of issuing the policy. In any given week, hundreds of these policies cross my desk, and frequently they’re for people older than Stephanie, sometimes much older, who answer all the health questions “no,” meaning they’re in perfect health. For example, a few days ago I processed policies for a married couple, where he’s 91 with one minor medical problem, and she’s 89 with no health issues at all.

My commute to and from work takes me past two city parks, and I sometimes see old couples (younger than me, but that’s still old) walking together, maybe holding hands. I’m happy for them. And yet … Stephanie was 48 years old. Forty-frickin’-eight. That’s supposed to be middle-aged, not the end of it all.

I’m too zen to be angry about this. It’s fate, the luck of the draw. But part of me wants to be angry, and it certainly smacks me full-force in the head, every time. I tell myself that these people I’m envying, these old and healthy people, might have more years on this planet than Stephanie had, but she had more happiness than most folks, squeezed into fewer years. I tell myself that, and hope it’s true.

If there was a way, though … If there was an option, a form to file or a box to click or a god to ask … I would give everything I have and everything I ever had and everything I might have in any future, to have absorbed all of Stephanie’s health problems, and let her have all of my health.

Posted 12/14/2018.

More about Stephanie.

Welcome to Grand Island.

grand-island.jpg

Stephanie climbed up the side of the truck, and slid into the driver’s seat. She twisted the key in the ignition, and the engine rumbled. Our arms were tired from packing the truck the night before, but our spirits were riding high as we rolled out of Madison and onto U.S. Highway 151, westbound. It was Monday, December 1, 1997. There aren’t many dates that I remember without doublechecking, but this date I do recall. It was a big day. Our lives would never be the same.

We weren’t leaving as early as we’d hoped, because there had been last-minute things to take care of in Madison, but Steph had made us breakfast before packing the last box in the back of the truck. After months of planning and days of packing, we were finally rolling west. Driving across Wisconsin, we talked all morning and into the afternoon, about everything in this universe and beyond.

We started by talking about our itinerary for the trip: The drive to California would take three days, we figured, with no more than ten hours of driving time each day. We were planning to simply drive until we were tuckered out each day, and find a hotel as needed each night along the way. We had chips and water in the cab of the truck, and a map of the U.S.A., so we thought we were prepared.

We talked about what we would do and how our lives would be, living in San Francisco. Stephanie would move in with me, to the room I’d been renting in a dirty, dingy, decrepit hotel – the kind of hotel that has no concierge, no maids, no standards, and the elevator has been broken since the 1950s.

But she wouldn’t call someplace “home” where she had to share the toilet and shower with strangers from other rooms. Also, of course, she wanted to cook, and the rez hotel had a rule against cooking. And it had no kitchens. So our plan was that Stephanie would look for a job, and once she’d been hired someplace we would start trying to find a cheap apartment. Even in 1997, though (and much more now), there was simply no such thing as a “cheap apartment” in San Francisco. It’s one of the world’s most expensive places to live, and I had warned her that finding an apartment might take months.

In retrospect, I don’t think I really understood how scary all of this was for Stephanie. I had done this before – left Seattle, where I grew up, and moved to Los Angeles, where I didn’t know anyone. And then, when I decided L.A. wasn’t for me, I’d moved to Bakersfield, where I also knew no-one. And then, when Bakersfield didn’t feel like a good fit, I’d moved to San Francisco, where I knew nobody. Third time’s the charm. I’d been in Frisco for six years, and to me it was home.

For Stephanie, though, San Francisco was ominous – she’d know nobody there except me, and did she really know me? We had spent two weeks together, five months earlier, and then spent several days in Madison, packing and saying goodbye. So we’d had perhaps eighteen days together, and here we were, rolling down the freeway to forever.

We took Highway 151 southwest from Madison, entered Interstate-80 westbound, and then spent hours crossing Iowa. I don’t remember much about that part of the drive, and corn is the only thing I know about Iowa. The truck ran well, but it wouldn’t run fast; we figured out that it had a “governor” device, which limited its speed to about 50 miles per hour. Also, the truck drank gasoline like a drunk drinks Thunderbird wine – lots, and frequently.

I stupidly wasn’t taking notes, so like everything else written here, the story I’m about to tell has been reassembled entirely from an old man’s memory. I only know what freeway we took because Google says that Interstate-80 passes through Council Bluffs, Iowa, and I definitely remember Council Bluffs. That’s where Stephanie and I had our first fight.

We had been driving for several hours and we were hungry, but we wanted to avoid fast food on the trip, as it could be hard on Steph’s rather delicate digestion. So we instead parked the truck at a big supermarket, and went inside to wander the aisles. It wasn’t quite as delightful as when we’d wandered the aisles at the Marina Safeway. I didn’t know what we were looking for, just something for lunch, but we obviously couldn’t cook in the truck so it would have to be a cold lunch.

Stephanie had an idea. “We could buy a couple of heads of lettuce and some other vegetables, and some dressing, and splurge on some pre-cooked shrimp, and I could make shrimp louie.”

The thought of shrimp louie makes my mouth water as I’m typing this, and eating it in a U-Haul truck would’ve been a terrific meal indeed. But I wasn’t enthusiastic about the idea. “Sounds like a lot of work, a lot of mess. And we’d have to buy some bowls.”

“Well, I packed the bowls and silverware and spices and stuff where they’re accessible, quick and easy, right by the roll-up door. And it’s winter, so all the leftovers will keep nicely in the back of the truck.”

“Maybe,” I said. “But I’m a fat guy, and I’m not sure salad would fill me up.”

She frowned for a moment, and walked off down a different aisle. Later, slowly, I figured out that shrimp louie hadn’t just popped into her head – she’d probably planned it as our lunch all along, and I’d deflated her bright idea. But I was too many years single and too dim a bulb to figure that out as it happened. When I caught up with her in the meat section, though, she already had a back-up plan.

“They have pre-cooked chicken that looks good. We could buy some tortillas and a few veggies, and I’ll bet I could make us some cold chicken wraps we’d be happy with.”

I shrugged, and she frowned again and walked away. And no, even all these years later, I can’t explain why I was anything less than enthusiastic. A beautiful woman was offering to make lunch and share it with me, and I was being difficult.

She was waiting in the deli section. “OK,” she said, “I could make a shawarma bowl. They have tahini, so all I’d need is some Greek yogurt and a can of garbanzo beans, some vegetables, and some cooked turkey or chicken.”

“Well, you’d need spices, wouldn’t you?”

“Yeah, but I told you, all that stuff is in a box right inside the truck’s roll-up door.”

“Sure seems like a lot of work.”

She frowned a third time, which meant I’d struck out. “So what do you want to do for lunch?”

“I don’t know,” I said, and this time it was me who did the wandering away.

She followed me. “We have to eat, you know.”

“What about sandwiches?” I asked.

“Sandwiches?”

I grabbed a can of Spam off a shelf. “Yeah, maybe Spam sandwiches. I love Spam. A loaf of bread, a can of Spam, and thou.”

She stared at me, then said, “I don’t even know what Spam is. Does anyone know?”

“It’s some kind of pork concoction. Meaty. Salty. We ate a lot of it in my family, growing up.”

She took the can of Spam from my hand, and backed a few steps away from me, as I continued rhapsodizing on the culture and cuisine of Spam. Then the can of Spam went flying past my head.

“I am not having Spam for lunch,” she announced. The can ricocheted off a shelf, and knocked some other prepackaged foodstuffs onto the floor. Pondering the pork product projectile, I said nothing, so Stephanie repeated herself. “I don’t know what you’re going to eat, but I’m not having Spam.”

I don’t remember what we had for lunch in Council Bluffs, that afternoon. Maybe we bought some groceries and Stephanie made something fabulous for us, or maybe we went to a Denny’s. Whatever we ate, it wasn’t Spam.

Steph promptly and profusely apologized, of course, for launching the lunchmeat at me, and reassured me that she’d missed my head on purpose. Indeed, she had missed my head by several feet, so I don’t think she was aiming to give me a concussion. It was the first and last moment of domestic violence in our marriage. All our other arguments were settled only with words.

I, of course, apologized for my vivid cluelessness in the store, where I’d repeatedly dismissed all her suggestions, any one of which would’ve doubtless been superior to Spam sandwiches. I’d been trying to make sure lunch was easy, but easy wasn’t what Steph wanted. She wanted to make a nice meal. She loved cooking, and always wanted to make a nice meal, even on the road in Iowa.

We were both idiots that afternoon. We’d both grown accustomed to living alone, and when you live alone you decide things for yourself. For me, living alone so many years, sandwiches had been breakfast, lunch, and dinner thousands of times. But now that we were a couple, neither of us would be deciding such things alone, and instead there would be negotiating and compromising every day.

On this particular afternoon, we decided together that we would proceed across the state line into Nebraska, driving a few more hours before calling it a night. So we motored the U-Haul in to Omaha, and then flashing lights appeared in the rear view mirror, and we were pulled over by a cop on the freeway. It was, in a word, weird. Stephanie had been driving, but she wasn’t speeding, wasn’t swerving, and the shoulder where we’d pulled over seemed like a dangerous place to be, on the side of a busy freeway.

The policeman looked long and hard at Stephanie’s license, and asked her the ordinary questions, and then asked some questions that didn’t seem ordinary. “Are you moving to Omaha, or moving away from Omaha?” Huh? He’d just seen her driver’s license, so he knew she was from Wisconsin, not Omaha. “Are you two married?” What difference would that make? “Did you go to college?” Why would a cop ask that question? His demeanor was polite, but his questions were kooky. Stephanie politely answered everything he asked, while I sat mute in the passenger seat, using all the patience and prudence I could muster to keep quiet.

Then the policeman told Stephanie to get out of the truck and walk back to the police car, while I was told to remain in the truck. I very nearly shouted No!, as this request seemed miles from typical, and the shoulder was too narrow for the truck, and there was nobody else in the squad car – don’t cops usually patrol in pairs? But a quick glance from Stephanie told me to say nothing, so I sat there and waited and watched my watch, while she spent six minutes in the police car.

When Stephanie came back to the truck, it was without the police officer. She’d said she’d been scared, and that something was off-kilter about that cop. She’d been given a warning but no ticket. And OK, no ticket is nice, but even the warning was ludicrous – for using her blinkers too briefly when changing lanes. Who gets pulled over for that? And what kind of cop asks the driver if she’s married or went to college?

Stephanie was right; something was definitely off-kilter about that whole scene, but we’d escaped unscathed. She started the truck and we were on our way again. But seriously, a memo to the Omaha Police Department – bite me.

After Omaha, the sun went down and snow began falling, but Stephanie had been raised in the Midwest, and she knew how to drive in the snow. It seemed silly to slow down, she said, since the truck resolutely refused to go faster than 50 mph even when the pedal was floored.

As we approached Lincoln, it was past dusk, not far below freezing, and there was a layer of ice, utterly invisible on the Interstate. The truck began to slide. At fifty miles an hour. I’ve done some slipping and sliding in cars, but it’s much more frightening to slip and slide in a 6,000-pound truck, a truck we we weren’t familiar with, loaded with a thousand pounds of boxes, crates, and furniture. One moment we were driving on the freeway, la-di-da la-di-da, and the next moment we could feel the back of the truck sliding out of our lane.

The experts say, if you’re caught in a winter ice- or snow-skid, first, don’t apply the brakes; second, turn into the slide; and third, don’t over-correct with aggressive steering. I had heard these rules many times, but it’s doubtful that I would’ve remembered such solid advice at the moment it was most needed, especially if that moment came with no warning, as it did. So I’m glad Stephanie was driving, and not me. She reacted exactly right – didn’t brake, turned into the slide, and didn’t aggressively over-correct her steering. The vehicle rotated about thirty degrees on the sheet of ice before she regained control, and gently brought us to a stop on the shoulder.

It was terrifying, though. There had been moderate traffic on the interstate, but we happened upon the ice slick at exactly the moment when there were no vehicles in any adjacent lanes. No death, no injuries, and no damage to the truck or to the contents thereof. There wasn’t even any screaming from either of us.

But, still – sweet jeebers! If Stephanie hadn’t handled the truck precisely perfect, we were moments from death. If the U-Haul didn’t have a “governor” device, limiting us to 50 mph when we’d wanted to go faster, where would we be? In an alternate reality, one where Steph tapped on the brakes or turned the steering wheel away from the slide instead of into it, we were dead on the first day of our drive to California. We never arrived where we were going, we never had a happy marriage, and everything that happened over the subsequent 21 years never happened.

The truck remained on the shoulder for several minutes, engine idling and flashers blinking, while we caught our breath and decided that our day was over, and we would spend the night at the next hotel we saw. Then Steph carefully wheeled the truck back on to the freeway, and we soon exited into the city of Lincoln, Nebraska, where a sign had promised lodging could be found.

Lincoln, however, was almost as terrifying as the skid. We never found the hotel; we only found the blackness of night and blurriness of snowfall. From the off-ramp toward the city, we drove several miles and saw no streetlights, no other vehicles going in any direction, and no sign of any hotel. The effect was increasingly eerie.

At one point, we waited at a deserted stop light with no cross-traffic, and when the light allowed it Steph made a left turn. In the snow and darkness, however, she hadn’t noticed that she was turning on to a divided highway, so our U-Haul was ambling down the wrong side of a completely dark and empty road. Stephanie remained calm and executed a Y-turn, and as she shifted out of reverse she said, “I’m sure Lincoln is a lovely town, but whatever part of Lincoln we’re in, it’s scaring the hell out of me, and I don’t see any evidence of the lodging we were promised.”

“You’ve seen enough of scenic Lincoln?” I asked.

“I’ve seen more than enough,” she answered, and at a slow speed we began re-tracing the route that had brought us to the wrong side of the highway on the wrong side of Lincoln. We were headed back toward the Interstate. “We’ll pull over at the first sign of a hotel. You know, a hotel that actually exists, unlike the alleged hotel at the exit we took.”

“If you want a break,” I said, “I am tanned, rested, and ready to drive.”

“I’ll drive,” she said, “but I do want a brief break.” And at that moment, out of the darkness a small city park came into view, which seemed like a good place to park for a few minutes and collect our wits. But the park was eerie, too. There was one light bulb illuminating a fraction of the parking lot, where ours was the only vehicle, but the rest of the park was drenched in darkness and snow. You could see the silhouette of swings and picnic tables, and it was all quite spooky. We pulled out of that parking lot about thirty seconds after we pulled in, with out wits still uncollected.

“You’re sure you’re OK driving?” I asked.

“Yeah, I’ve got this. If you took the wheel now, I’d feel like a starting pitcher yanked for a reliever. I want to go the whole nine innings.”

“You got in a little bit of trouble, continuing the baseball metaphor. The bases were loaded, but you’ve worked your way out of the jam.”

“Hope so, and it’s about time. I almost got arrested in Omaha, almost got us killed back on the ice, and then I took us down the wrong side of some deserted highway here in Lincoln.”

“Well, let’s get out of Lincoln.”

We got back onto Interstate-80 and drove another fifty miles or so, before finding a hotel on the outskirts of Grand Island, Nebraska. The hotel was clean and reasonably priced, and the guy manning the desk made us feel welcome. We drove into town and had dinner at a Chinese restaurant in a mall, and then saw a movie at the mall’s cinema. We returned to the hotel, and Steph slept deeply that night, but I slept lightly.

I was worried, because from the window in our room, we couldn’t see the U-Haul where we’d parked it, and that truck was holding everything Stephanie owned. She wasn’t concerned about the distance between us and the truck, but I put my pants on and checked on the truck several times during the night. Everything was untouched, of course, and to the good folks of Grand Island I’d say, thanks for the memories, thanks for not breaking into our truck, and thanks for a quiet respite in the middle of an exhausting drive.

There was probably nothing grand about Grand Island. Looking it up on Google Maps today, guess what? It’s not even on an island. It’s just another town on the Nebraska prairie, I’m sure. But for us, that first night on the road, Grand Island was exactly what we needed – peaceful, quiet, welcoming, and well-lit. We were jittery and jumpy when we arrived there, but rested and relaxed when we left the next morning. Talking about everything that had happened the day before, Stephanie said, “We made it through yesterday, so I think we can make it through anything.” Smart lady. She was right.

Once or twice over the years, we spoke of vacationing in Omaha and Lincoln, but we were joking, of course. We also talked about perhaps returning to Grand Island, for a brief vacation or a longer stay, or even to retire. About that we weren’t joking – that town is sincerely a happy memory. But we never returned to Nebraska.

The next day, we went motoring into Wyoming, a story I’ll tell soon. But let’s end this entry with a tangentially-related memory: My beloved Stephanie never ate a Spam sandwich in her life. Some years later, though, she did consent to try a few bites of scrambled eggs and fried Spam I’d made myself for breakfast one morning. She pronounced it, “Not as awful as I’d expected, but also not good.”

Posted 12/5/2018.

More about Stephanie.

Skipping Christmas this year.

Judging from the snow in the street and the Muzak at work, it’s Christmas time. What am I supposed to do – put up a Christmas tree, just for me and the cat? I don’t think so.

Does anyone actually like Christmas, once they’re grown up? Maybe it’s different if you have children, but Steph and I never had or wanted kids, so Christmas seemed sort of … moot.

I don’t particularly like Christmas. There, I said it. Beginning in my late 20s, I started withdrawing from Christmas, and by the time Stephanie entered my life, I hadn’t done anything Christmassy for seven or eight years. Mailed no cards. Strung no lights. Wrapped no gifts. And this will not be “a very special episode” of stephmemorial.com; unlike every book and movie where someone says “Bah, humbug,” I will not have a change of heart and become Mr “Merry Christmas” and “God bless Us, Every One!”

In this story, the Christmas miracle comes at the beginning, and unravels at the end. Falling in love with Stephanie brought Christmas back into my world; that was the miracle, and it was wonderful. She wasn’t jolly old St Nicholas by any means – even Steph didn’t do full-fledged Christmas like some folks do. But she wasn’t on strike from the Christmas spirit, like I was. She kinda liked Christmas, and she taught me to kinda like it, too.

She liked having a tree, so we had a tree. She liked the Christmas music in the background, so we played a lot of Andy Williams and such. She liked the twinkly lights. We celebrated Christmas in our quiet way, but for all our Christmases together, I was mostly celebrating Stephanie.

Before meeting her, my only Christmas tradition was to go to a movie, at a theater. Alone. I might as well have worn a t-shirt that said, “Cranky old man.” My Christmas movie was never even a movie about Christmas – never Scrooged or Ernest Saves Christmas – it was just seeing a movie, on Christmas. In other words, playing hooky from ordinary Christmas, and having fun instead. So for our first Christmas together, I took Stephanie to a Jackie Chan double feature at the UC Theater in Berkeley. We had popcorn and snuck in Milk Duds, and it was a very merry Doug-style Christmas.

When the movies were over, though, we spent our first Christmas together in a rez hotel in San Francisco. That was our home. There was no tree, no wreath, nobody to say “Merry Christmas” to us and nobody we said it to, except each other. But we’d purchased a single string of lightweight, colorful lights and strung them across the ceiling in our bedroom.

“After I’ve taken off my glasses,” Steph said, “I’m lying here in bed and all I can see is the twinkles on the ceiling, out of focus and ethereal. It’s a little bit beautiful!” And indeed, it was a lovely effect, when the mood wasn’t ruined by drunks screaming at each other in the next room. So we didn’t do it every Christmas, but a string of lights on the ceiling became a recurring motif.

For a few years we were treeless, mostly because – where are you going to put a tree, in a tiny San Francisco apartment? We bought a very small tabletop Noble Fir one year, and we were still stepping on needles six months later, so the new rule was: no real trees for Christmas. By the next year, we’d moved to Kansas City and a much bigger apartment, so we purchased a full-sized fake tree at the Walgreens on 39th Street. After a few years, though, even the fake tree started shedding its fake needles, so we bought a miniature fake Christmas tree at a garage sale.

After the apartment was decorated for the holidays, we would share a platter of Stephanie’s ham roll-ups. That was another Christmas tradition. She had found the recipe on one of her recipe-hunts at the Milk Marketing Board, then modified and simplified it until it was the easiest dish in Steph’s repertoire. I made it a few times myself, and never screwed it up; that’s how easy it is. There are only two ingredients, and no cooking.

HAM ROLL-UPS

Pre-sliced sandwich ham
cream cheese

Let the cream cheese sit outside the fridge for a few hours, which makes it soft and easy to spread. Lay out the ham slices on a tray. Spread a thin layer of cream cheese on each ham slice. “Roll up” the ham slices, so you get long tubes of ham and cream cheese. Cut each tube into bite-sized morsels of deliciousness. Steph would put the ham roll-ups into the refrigerator for an hour or so, which made them tastier, but I would sometimes eat a handful or three without that fridge time, and they were almost as good.

Helpful hint for ham roll-ups: Don’t buy deli ham, the stuff that’s thin-sliced and packaged however the meat falls from the slicer. Lunchmeat ham is what you want – pre-sliced, like a loaf of bread.

Another helpful hint: Always make more ham roll-ups than you think you’ll need, because Doug will eat most of them, and there won’t be any leftovers.

We traded small gifts for Christmas, because small gifts were all we could afford. Steph sent cards to all her family, and gifts to her parents and her brother, and I added “and Doug” to her signature on the cards. Always there were twinkling lights, hung on the tree, or the door, the window, or the ceiling.

It’s a challenge to give your spouse the “perfect gift” for Christmas, and then give the “perfect gift” for Christmas the next year, and the year after that, so after trading less-than-perfect gifts for a few Christmases, Steph had a great idea. “Why don’t we give a Christmas present to ourselves, instead of to each other? That way we’ll always get exactly what we want for Christmas.” So around November every year, we’d talk about what our household needed that could make our lives better, and whatever we agreed became our Christmas gift to ourselves.

Our first Christmas gift for ourselves was a set of cookware, to replace our old pots and pans, and it’s been 14 or 15 years but that Christmas cookware is still our cookware. One year, we gave and received a DVD player. Another year we wanted and got a bigger and better TV. One Christmas there were mp3-players for each of us, and another year we bought wi-fi and a Roku, so we could throw files and videos from our computers onto the television. One year, we gave ourselves a weekend at the Fairy Tale Palace.

Two Christmases ago, we gave ourselves a Dutch oven – an oversized cast-iron pot that can go into the oven or onto the stovetop. Stephanie had always wanted a Dutch oven, so was it more a gift for her than for me? Yeah, it was, but I got the joy of seeing her face light up, not just when we bought it, but every time she used it. And I got to eat the stews and casseroles she made in it.

Last year, our Christmas gift to ourselves was a subscription to The New Yorker. With all of Stephanie’s medical appointments, we felt like we’d spent a month of our lives in medical waiting rooms, reading whatever magazines they had. Many clinics have magazines we’d never want to read – Golf Digest and People and Time and myriad medical journals – and good grief, who wants to read Arthritis Today or Diabetic Living at all, let alone read those magazines just before seeing a doctor? We kept noticing, though, that if The New Yorker was in the waiting room, we both wanted to read it, and we could never finish it before seeing the doctor. So, we subscribed. Merry Christmas to us!

Always there were stockings to be stuffed. That was another tradition from our first Christmas together, when Steph surprised me on Christmas morning with a few candies and trinkets stuffed into (clean) socks. After that, every year, there were stockings overfilled with stuff – candy bars, exotic treats, mini-bottles of whiskey, etc. Some years Steph bought the stocking-stuffers, some years I did, and sometimes Santa supplied them.

We decorated the apartment together, and then we’d eat ham roll-ups while Steph would point out the glaring bald spots on the tree, and we’d make minor or major repairs. There are several boxes of Christmas decorations in the storage space downstairs, though we rarely used more than a fraction of them for any given Christmas.

After several years of carefully putting away the decorations and disassembling the tree, I had the bright idea of putting the entire tree in a closet, fully assembled and fully decorated, so next Christmas the job of decorating really just meant carrying the tree up from the closet to a corner of the living room.

The tree is still in that closet. I have no desire to see twinkling lights.

Before Steph came along, I didn’t care about Christmas. She made Christmas worth celebrating, and I’m glad and grateful that she did. Christmas itself was the best Christmas present she could’ve given me, and all those holidays with Stephanie are memories I’ll cherish always.

Now that she’s gone, though, Christmas is over. I have less than zero interest in decorating a tree or hanging lights or stuffing stockings. I love my in-laws, Jack and Karen, but they haven’t invited me to Christmas with them in Racine, and I’m not sure I’d want to go. Christmas isn’t for me. Not this year, and maybe not ever. Honestly, I’d rather be alone with the cat and the memories.

Posted 12/1/2018.

More about Stephanie.

Leftovers from Thanksgiving.

pieces-of-april.jpg

We’d been married for six years when Pieces of April came out, and we didn’t see it at a cinema. I’m not sure we even heard about it while it was playing. The movie was low-budget, with no ads on billboards or TV. The director had no reputation, had never directed a movie before. It starred Katie Holmes, best known then for Dawson’s Creek (a show we hated but occasionally watched just to make fun of it), and later famous for tragically marrying Tom Cruise, and then triumphantly divorcing him. So the movie completely escaped our attention, but we later read good things about it, and had Netflix mail us the DVD.

It’s about a young woman named April, who’s always been a bit of a screw-up. She’s moved to New York City, where she lives with her boyfriend in a bad neighborhood. April has invited her family to Thanksgiving dinner, and she’s going to do all the cooking but she’s not much of a cook, and the family has agreed to come but they’re dreading it and looking for an excuse to back out. That’s the movie’s set-up, and I hesitate to give away too much more about the plot.

Pieces of April reminded us vividly of Steph’s first Thanksgiving in San Francisco, in 1998. Her family wasn’t coming, so it was just me and Steph, but she wanted to prepare a Thanksgiving feast for the two of us, and she did. In our crazy kitchen, across the hall from our apartment, she warmed-up a chunk of turkey she’d bought at Trader Joe (a pre-cooked chunk, not a whole bird). She made green bean casserole and mashed potatoes and pretty much everything else that April made in the movie, the same traditional menu that Steph’s Mom and Dad made for me yesterday. But unlike April, Steph prepped it all perfectly, and our 1998 dinner was divine.

The movie was also spot-on in the shocked reaction of April’s family, when they arrived at the slum neighborhood and run-down building where April and her boyfriend lived. It reminded us of the neighborhood where Steph and I lived for her first few months in San Francisco, before she got us in to a decent apartment. Except that our first neighborhood was far worse than the slum in the movie.

Re-watching Pieces of April in later years, after Steph developed kidney failure and a heart condition and other assorted health issues, she also identified with the character of April’s mother, who has a fatal diagnosis.

And one last, small spoiler – after Steph had her leg amputated, we laughed louder at a scene late in the movie when, after a neighbor has stolen a drumstick from April’s turkey, another neighbor carves and bakes some dough to make a prosthetic leg for the bird. The turkey’s prosthetic fit far better than Steph’s prosthetic, that’s for sure.

Stephanie and I loved that movie, and we watched it together every Thanksgiving after that. It was our tradition, as much as the meal. Watching it again today, the morning after Thanksgiving, I remembered some of the wisecracks Steph had made during the movie, over the years. The movie has a wonderful but realistic “family” vibe, and I remembered the warmth of being part of her family. There were parts of the movie where we’d pause it to talk about our Thanksgiving memories, and of course, I paused the movie today, to think about our Thanksgivings together.

Let me tell you what I’m thankful for: meeting Stephanie. That was the day everything changed. Everything was so empty before she came along. From the beginning, my luck and her courage were both unfathomable. She flew to San Francisco, not to see San Francisco but to see me, which still amazes me. To be clear, I don’t have a lot going for me, and I had even less going for me when we first met. I was not a catch. I was a middle-aged loser when Stephanie and I met, and I was never good enough to be the man she deserved. And yet, she gave me the rest of her life.

Now she’s gone, and I am devastated. I am missing her every moment of every day, and can’t imagine that I’ll ever stop missing her. But even after saying all that, and everything else I’ve said on this website, and the book-length future posts I’m already writing – after everything is said and done, I have to say this:

I am the luckiest schmuck who ever walked on this planet. I won the lottery the day I met Stephanie and fell in love with her. Won it again, because she inexplicably loved me too. And then I won the lottery again and again, every day we were together, all the time we spent together – the good times, sure, but even on the worst days I’d rather have spent that time with Stephanie than by myself or with anyone else on Earth. Every moment with her was something to cherish.

I spent years and years with the most interesting, adventurous, intelligent, funny, fascinating, frustrating, fulfilling, fun, and just generally fabulous person I’ve ever met. I had great times with her, and she had great times with me, and we helped each other through times that weren’t so great. We told each other all of this, often, so I know she felt the same way, but I also know that I got the better end of the deal – I got to spend much of my life with her, while she was stuck spending much of her life with me.

And now she’s gone, and I miss her more than I ever thought I could miss anyone. But does the luckiest schmuck in the world have any real grounds for complaint when, after all those years of all that impossibly good luck, his luck runs out?

We were nowhere near ready for “us” to be finished. We wanted many more years together, but it’s Thanksgiving so it must be said: I am immeasurably thankful for the years we had together.

OK, sorry, I’m bawling here. A paper towel dabs my eyes, and a clean, dry t-shirt replaces one that’s soggy from teardrops. Now, what was I saying?

If you never met Steph, or if you knew her and miss her, you might want to rent Pieces of April. Stephanie was not at all like April in the movie … but then again, she was. Today I spent three hours watching a movie that’s only an hour and a half long, and you know what? It was almost like spending time with my wife.

Posted 11/23/2018.

More about Stephanie.

It’s spelled like it sounds.

It had been four months since we’d seen each other, and we’d traded dozens of letters and called on the phone every few days. This was 1997 – back when long-distance calls were metered by the minute and rather expensive, so our calls had to be brief, but the letters were long and mushy.

The plan was that I would fly from San Francisco to Milwaukee on Thanksgiving Day. She would be at her parents’ house in Racine, and I would call when the plane landed, and then she would come and pick me up at the airport. We would have Thanksgiving dinner with her folks, then drive to Stephanie’s apartment in Madison, and prepare for the move to San Francisco, where Stephanie would be staying for keeps.

But my plane was two hours late, and I didn’t have a cell phone so my call was late, too. Her folks had no internet yet, so there was no easy way to check my arrival, and Steph didn’t want to call the airline because then the phone would’ve been busy if I called. So she waited. She told me later that as her parents’ phone resolutely refused to ring, she knew I was coming, but she thought her parents might think I was a figment of her imagination, or that I’d chickened out and was standing her up.

Well, I hadn’t chickened out. Once the plane landed, I called her folks’ number as soon as I could find a phone booth, and half an hour later I was kissing the woman I loved. Twenty years I had spent alone since moving out of my parents’ house, but my time alone was ended and our time together was underway. It was Thanksgiving Day, 1997, a story I’ve already told, about a nervous dinner with Steph’s parents.

Today, Thanksgiving Day 2018, I returned to that house on a twisty residential road in Racine, and had a very nice turkey dinner with Stephanie’s parents. Steph loved her parents, loved visiting them, but she especially loved visiting them for Thanksgiving. It was, I think, her favorite holiday – a big fancy meal, and some quality time with people she loved. Her parents would always tell Steph she didn’t have to bring anything, but she would always bring something – usually dessert and a bottle of wine, maybe some flowers.

Her parents had told me I didn’t have to bring anything, and I didn’t bring anything. But strangest of all was not bringing Stephanie. It’s my first major holiday without her, and it hit me while I was scraping the snow off the car, that she wasn’t coming. The passenger seat was empty. Well, of course she wasn’t coming. She’s been dead for almost three months, but still – she wasn’t coming. I couldn’t stop crying about that, all the way to Racine.

Especially on Thanksgiving, I am truly thankful that her parents consider me family. But on Thanksgiving in 1997, that afternoon when I first met Stephanie’s parents, I was more anxious than thankful. I’m not good with strangers, and I’m especially not good with strangers when I’m at their home to take their daughter across state lines.

Plus, Steph hadn’t originally told them the truth, a few months earlier, about her visit to San Francisco. She had told them she was visiting a female friend from college, and when she later confessed that she’d instead spent two weeks with me, a complete stranger, and a man, her parents weren’t amused. So there I was – a fat, bearded, scruffy-looking man, a dozen years older than Stephanie, in their house to steal her away. I half-expected her folks to come at me with a shotgun, but instead they came at me with turkey and mashed potatoes.

The four of us spent a few hours eating and talking and playing Bananagrams, and then Steph and I were going to drive from Racine to her apartment in Madison, where we’d rent a truck for her move to California. We all assumed, correctly, that it would be years before Stephanie would see her parents again, so it was difficult for her to say goodbye. Mr and Mrs Webb walked with us through the garage toward Steph’s car, and her dad said something that always stuck with me. “Doug,” he said, “Take good care of our daughter.”

Sure, it’s an expected line, but it made Stephanie cry. She heard it as “I love you, Stephanie,” something she knew her parents felt but they didn’t often say out loud. I heard it exactly as Mr Webb said it, “Take good care of our daughter,” but with “or else” added at the end. There were hugs and tears, handshakes for me, and then we got into the car and waved goodbye.

Steph and I talked along the way to Madison, but there were some uncomfortable silences, and we were both perhaps unsure of everything. The first time we’d met, in San Francisco that summer, we talked easily, almost instantly, but this wasn’t a vacation like her visit in June. This was our lives, our future, and that evening we came close to running out of words as soon as we left her parents’ house.

After four months of letters and phone calls, we were together again, but yikes, what if the magic is gone? What if it all starts to feel like a big mistake, like too much and too fast? I had expected to be nervous with Steph’s parents, but I hadn’t expected to be nervous with Steph. No denying it, though. For thirty miles on the freeway, we talked only intermittently.

“Oconomowoc,” she said, as we rolled west on Interstate-94.

“Excuse me?”

“We’re coming to an exit sign for Oconomowoc. It’s a town. It’s spelled like it sounds, and every other letter is an O.” And as she spoke, we approached and passed that sign.

“That must be a native word, right?”

“Yup. A lot of our odd-sounding geography came from the natives. Milwaukee,” she said, sounding it out. “Wisconsin.”

“Yeah, we have some great native-derived names where I grew up. Seattle. Tacoma.”

“We took the natives’ land, and killed anyone who objected, but hey, we kept a few of their words as souvenirs.”

“American History 101,” I said. “And I love NASA and the idea of space exploration, but I’m a little glad we’re not pushing out into the stars just yet.”

“Yeah, because we’d do the same thing on any planet where we found life.”

“We’d conquer the natives, kill them all or hide them away on space-reservations …”

“But we’d name our new off-world cities after some native phrase, mispronounced.”

We listened to the radio, until the station faded out of range and into static. We talked a bit about our childhoods, and about our plans for packing in Madison and moving to San Francisco. We talked about Thanksgiving, and what it meant to each of us. We’re Americans, so we have a heck of a lot to be thankful for – American prosperity, public education, the modern welfare state, and so much more. We were thankful for both our sets of parents, who raised us to be decent people and generally good citizens instead of hardened criminals. We were thankful for each other, of course, and for falling in love.

Bit by bit along the freeway, our nervousness faded, the conversations came easy again, and the magic returned. We weren’t children and it wasn’t a fairy tale; we knew and acknowledged that there would be hassles ahead, probably arguments and certainly some unexpected problems. Whatever the future held, though, we were pretty sure that we – Stephanie and I, as a couple – would be OK.

“Hey,” I said, reading another sign as we crossed a bridge. “Crawfish River!”

“That’s where I got the name for my Crawfish zine,” she said.

I’ve seen those signs for Oconomowoc and the Crawfish River, many, many times since that night. I saw those signs today, driving to and from Racine for Thanksgiving dinner with the in-laws. Sometimes I’m lazy, and the signs don’t literally bring a smile to my lips. Always, though, every time, riding with Stephanie for all those years or riding without her today, those signs make me smile inside.

* * * * * * * * * *

We stayed at Stephanie’s apartment for several days, meeting and then saying goodbye to her friends. There was a big going-away party at a pizza place, where it was probably obvious how astoundingly uncomfortable I was, hanging out with a dozen strangers and trying to remember their names, as they grilled me – gently and politely, but still – on who the heck I was and why the heck I was taking Stephanie away.

I remember meeting Amy and Matt, two of Stephanie’s friends from childhood, who were not a couple and weren’t even together in the same place at the same time; I’m just mentioning them in the same sentence because they’d both been in the Lighthouse program (the genius classes Steph attended as a child). Also mentioning them because they’re the only people I met in Madison that week that I ever saw again, which is why I remember their names.

Steph drove a bright gold Ford Festiva that she called the Screaming Yellow Zonker, which she had sold but continued driving. I’m partly cloudy on the sales arrangement, but I think she’d taken a check from the buyer, but agreed not to deposit it until she’d left town, at which time she would mail him the keys and tell him where the car was parked. People are trusting that way in the Midwest, or at least used to be, and in San Francisco you really don’t need a car.

Steph had quit her job at the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, a dairy industry group in Madison. She had humdrum, ordinary office duties, and some duties not so ordinary. She liked the part of her job where she was supposed to look through “women’s” magazines and other publications that include recipes, and add the recipes to WMMB’s database if they included cheese as a major ingredient. That’s a sweet job responsibility, if you’re someone who loves to cook. Oh, and the Milk Marketing Board had milk on tap in the office, your choice of either homogenized or chocolate.

Steph showed me the WMMB offices, and she took me to WORT, the community radio station in Madison, where she volunteered, overseeing the nightly newscast one night a week – Mondays, I believe. I met a few voices and names I still hear on WORT today. The Zonker had a flat tire when we came out of the WORT building, and we jacked it up and changed the tire, got mud and snow all over our clothes, and laughed about it.

She lived in a studio apartment on Mifflin Street, which seemed to be a comfy, homey neighborhood, but she said she wouldn’t miss it. It was too close to the college, so there were often drunk students hollering on the sidewalk or in the distance. And it was ground zero for the annual Mifflin Street Block Party, which has since been tamed by the cops, but back then it was basically a few thousand drunks pissing on your hubcaps one afternoon.

What else do I remember, from my visit to Madison? Not a lot, really. I remember shopping at the Mifflin Street Co-Op, a cramped and crowded little store half a block from Stephanie’s place, with a beautiful mural on the outside wall; the Co-Op is now gone, but the mural remains. I remember walking a few blocks in the other direction to a hardware store that’s still there, to buy bungee cords we’d need for packing. And I remember a superb lunch at a place called the Radical Rye, a sandwich shop run by hippies or ex-hippies; now gone.

Stephanie had another tummy ache one night, like she’d had in San Francisco, but this time she had Maalox handy. And on our last morning in Madison, Steph and I walked along the shores of Lake Monona as the sun came up, and it was post-card beautiful. Then we dropped her apartment keys at the landlord’s office, and dropped the car keys in the mail. We rented a truck from U-Haul, and practiced driving it in an empty parking lot, then loaded it with everything Stephanie owned, with help from a few of her friends.

I remember wondering why Stephanie was giving up what seemed to be a comfortable life, to come live with me. Our apartment in San Francisco was a dump, compared to the apartment she was leaving. In San Francisco she’d have no friends except for me, and whatever strangers she could convert to friends. She’d have no family nearby, and no job, no car.

There was no doubt that I loved Stephanie and she loved me, and that we were going to be better together than either of us had been apart. But as we drove away in that big orange U-Haul truck, I was worried that somehow I was going to screw something up.

* * * * * * * * * *

Returning to the here and now, today was exhausting – a long drive, a big meal, an afternoon of being sociable, and then a long drive home, followed by several hours writing my memories about our first Thanksgiving, and about leaving Madison with Stephanie, all those years ago. One important Thanksgiving tradition remains, and I haven’t forgotten, but I’ll need to postpone it until tomorrow, first thing in the morning. Right now it’s past midnight, and I’m triple-tuckered and need to sleep.

Posted 11/22/2018.

More about Stephanie.