Holiday Fantasy in Lights

There's an annual Christmas light show in Madison's Olin Park. It's put on by local electrical contractors and the electrical workers' union, who clearly know how to wire up electrical stuff. Every year, they string up what looks like a million lights in a couple of dozen displays, and thousands of people drive through it all, along a small, paved trail that winds through Olin Park.

It takes fifteen minutes or so to cruise through the lights, and there's sappy Christmas music interrupted by ads for the display's corporate sponsors, and ads for the Christmas light show while you're driving through the Christmas light show. At the end everyone gets a candy cane, and of course, they ask for donations. We usually gave five or ten bucks.

The lights and music are as corny and schmaltzy as it sounds, and it's called Holiday Fantasy in Lights, a rather lackluster name, Steph and I agreed. But it's fun! We always laughed and talked, as the line of cars rolled slowly past all the lights. It's a blast, oohing and awing at what seem to be the same displays every year — electric snowmen and Christmas trees, electric Santas and sleighs and reindeer, giant Badgers and Packers football helmets, the red white and blue Statue of Liberty, and on and on.

There are also weird things we never quite understood, like the flashing lights arranged to look like serpents and dragons, slot machines and tractors, the electric lightning, Sputnik in space, or the giant red puppy waving its giant red tail. And amidst all the elaborate, colorful lights, the brightest lights are always the taillights of the car in front of you, as you roll along at two miles an hour.

Stephanie herself would light up as we approached the electric lights arranged to look like Santa gone golfing, with Mr Kringle swinging a club, and carefully-timed lights representing a ball bouncing along in an electric hole-in-one. "It's so silly and absurd," she said, and laughed, every time we went, so it seems fair to say that Golfing Santa was her favorite part of the light show. My favorite part, though far less intricate or artistic, was driving under the flat white rows of lights strung across the roadway itself, which in the black of night gives the weird illusion that you're in an electric tunnel.

According to their website, the lights are switched on beginning tonight, November 8, and they'll be lit every night until January 4. If you're within easy driving distance, I'd recommend it. Will I drive through the lights? Nah, can't see myself doing that — seeing the Christmas light show without Stephanie would be too dang sad.

But I sure smiled this morning, returning from an errand on the south side of town, seeing the electricians are already at work setting up this winter's light show. You can only drive through the lights after dark, and it was broad daylight as I drove past, but many of the lights were on, and a dozen guys and gals in hard hats were connecting wires and nailing lumber and doing whatever else needs to be prepped.

I'm a cynical, generally grumpy old man, but I offer a sincere tip o' the hat to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the Wisconsin chapter of the National Electrical Contractors Association. The Christmas lights make people happy every winter, and definitely made Stephanie happy. It's making me happy to remember us rolling through the dark, enjoying the music and lights, holding hands and laughing, and then savoring a candy cane all the way home.

The poster

At a garage sale in our neighborhood, Steph saw a poster that she liked, and we bought it. Not sure who's the artist that created it, but it's a colorful image of a bridge over a pond, perhaps far in the future or on another world — the trees are unlike any trees on Earth, and the background includes 4-5 unexplained spheres. We both like science fiction, and the poster is absolutely sci-fi lovely.

Our intent was to have the poster framed and hang it in the living room, but for temporary storage I put it above the doorjamb in our office, wedged against the ceiling. Just until we could have it framed.

It's been at least ten years, and that poster is still in our office, wedged between the doorjamb and the ceiling. Stephanie never mentioned the poster after the day we bought it. After we stopped going into that room very often, she probably never saw that poster again. We kept the dialysis supplies in that room, so I was in there seven nights a week, carrying out heavy boxes of fluids to set Steph up for the night. In my daily visits to that room, though, I stopped noticing the poster at all.

Today, I'm clearing stuff out of that room, turning what was "our office" into my new bedroom, and finding unexpected traces of Stephanie among the flotsam and jetsam. In the dust behind her keyboard, a single Tic-Tac rolled out, and a tiny pink pill Steph used to take; so tiny that the pills sometimes slipped from her fingers. We used to find free-range pink pills every time we vacuumed or swept.

On the floor in the corner, here are two very old, very dry peanuts still in the shell. That was one of Stephanie's favorite snacks, so she must've dropped these two nuts, and they bounced too far for her to easily pick them up. So there they sat, for years.

In another corner, there was a faded box of tiny lancets, for painfully poking her fingers to test her blood sugar levels, back when she had diabetes — so, perhaps ten years ago.

In the dust behind what was once my desk, here's a bright red Christmas stocking with Stephanie's name on it. Not embroidered; looks more like it was spelled with Elmer's Glue and then the glue was spangled in glitter. On any given Christmas, the "Steph" stocking might have held mini-chocolate bars or tiny bottles of whiskey. Haven't found the "Doug" stocking yet.

And here's Minky's old litter box, clean and empty, but — why did we keep it, when we promoted her into a bigger litter box circa 2005? Most of this stuff has to go.

And everything, big and small, is a memory. Wiping away coffee stains from Stephanie's desk, well, that means she spilled some coffee as she sat there, however many years ago. Old books one or both of us read once. All of Steph's DVD collection; rock'n'roll, mostly. The manual for a piece of electronics that we junked ten years ago. Baxter receipts, for dialysis supplies. And here's a big, ugly, green, and thoroughly stained plastic trash can; it was in our kitchen in San Francisco and Kansas City, but Stephanie deemed it too unsightly for use after we'd moved to Madison. So why didn't we recycle it fifteen years ago?

Since there are so many memories in our office, cleaning and clearing it is taking much longer than it might have. But I ain't complaining. The green trash can, and most everything else in the room, is all headed for the trash, the recycling bin, or Goodwill, but I'm glad for the chance to remember where all of it's been, and how each individual item interacted with the woman who once sat at that desk — that lady who made the sun shine and the wind blow and the rain fall.

And the poster above the doorjamb? How I regret never having it framed for Stephanie, and that after buying it Steph was never able to enjoy it. Yet another of my many failings, all the ways I could've been a better husband. There's never a day when I don't kick myself for something kind I didn't do, something sweet I should've said.

And in really looking at that poster for the first time since we bought it, Steph was brilliant to buy it. It's beautiful. And it's very visible from the desk, where I'll be spending most of my awake time when I'm home, so the poster will stay where it is, wedged against the ceiling, above the door. The only thing to change is to remember to notice it, admire it, appreciate it ... instead of just taking it for granted.

Punch him in the face

My default these days is "low-level grumpy," and from there my moods range from an upside of "blah" to a downside of "extreme grumpiness." This morning was "blah," which is as good as it gets without Stephanie. I was cleaning out the apartment, going through some of Steph's old stuff, and a can of trash was full, so I wheeled it down the hall toward the dumpster.

Halfway down the hall is the stairway to the building's second floor. Through the slats of the steps, I saw a pair of shoes and the wheel of a bike, and knew it was NosyNeighbor, the creepy ex-cop who always raised the hair on the back of our necks. Immediately, my jaw clenched, my sphincter tightened, and my mood soured like last month's milk.

Nosy Neighbor turned the corner at the landing, continued down the stairs, smiled at me and took a breath, and there's no doubt that he was about to say something truly annoying — but I scowled and shook my head "no." He frowned and said nothing, walked out the front door, mounted his bike, and pedaled away.

Nosy Neighbor never talks to me these days, not since Steph called the cops on him, six or eight years ago. He makes eye contact with me, smiles, and then remembers to shut up. Thank you, Stephanie.

Sometimes, though, I'm wishing he would say something — because, you see, I have always wanted to punch him in the face. The man is strange and sinister, like an assistant to the bad guy in an old movie. He's always chatting with our neighbors, asking nosey questions. Just moments after I saw him this morning, when I emerged from the back door with my trash, he was on the sidewalk between me and the dumpster, where he'd cornered an old lady who lives in the adjacent apartment building, and he was asking her about her plans for the weekend. He never says a word about himself, but always asks about everyone else's comings and goings. He probably has an Excel spreadsheet listing what time I leave for work every weekday, and what time I return home, all down to the minute.

Most important, though, and most aggravating, that man frightened my wife. For that I still want to punch him in the face. Stephanie completely put him in his place, successfully shutting him up, apparently permanently. She handled him perfectly — and yet, it still angers me that he angered her. There remains a Neanderthal part of my brain that still wants to defend my wife, by beating that man until he's bruised and bloody.

Which is ridiculous, of course. I haven't been in a fight since I was a teenager, and my record was never impressive — one win, two losses, one draw. Nosy Neighbor is an ex-cop in good shape, and in the other corner, I'm a wimpy guy. Our trash cans have wheels, because I don't have the muscles to actually carry a heavy bag of trash to the dumpster. So if I ever punched that schmuck, my fight record would immediately drop to 1-3-1 and no doubt I'd need dental work. Plus, of course, Stephanie wouldn't have wanted me to punch him, so I never did, and never would. Dang it though, I'll always want to.

Another winter without her

Winter came early this year. Wisconsin usually sees a few snowflakes in October, but nothing that sticks or accumulates. This year, though, I've already scraped a few inches off the car — twice — and it's not even Halloween yet. Snow over a heavy layer of autumn leaves on the ground is an invitation to slip and fall on your butt, so be careful out there.  

Stephanie was a tough dame, and she liked our difficult Midwestern winters. She enjoyed bundling up and going out into the cold. We had snow-picnics — driving somewhere snowy and scenic, then munching sandwiches and sipping cocoa in the car. A couple of times, once in Kansas City and once in Madison, we made snowmen. We sometimes made snow-angels — you know, where you lie down in the snow and flap your arms, then stand up and see the life-sized "angel" impression you've left behind. Fifty-some years old, I hadn't made any snow-angels since I was a little boy, but Steph and I made snow-angels. Just another way she brought joy to my life.

* * * * * * * * * *

She picked out our snow-shovels, and we bought them at Ace Hardware. We had two, because when there was snow we usually shoveled together.

We have an assigned space in the parking lot behind our apartment building, and the management has a contract with some plow-jockeys, so the lot is plowed whenever it snows. They'll plow the individual parking spaces if they're empty, but if your car is parked when the plow comes, they'll plow a mountain of snow right up to your bumper. They're hired to plow snow off the asphalt, but the snow has to go somewhere so when they're done there might be two or three feet of snow between your car and the cleared, snowless lot. Yup, Steph and I spent plenty of time shoveling our car out of the snow.

The building superintendent has a mini-plow, about the size of a lawn-mower, which he uses on the sidewalks in front of the building. It's appreciated, of course, but he's only a part-time super — he's at his real job forty hours a week, so if it snows while he's not home we're on our own. Yup, we've shoveled the sidewalk many times.

And even when the super plows the sidewalk, he stops at the property line, so if we were feeling energetic we'd sometimes bundle up and shovel the sidewalks on either side of our apartment — the house to the right of us, and/or the apartment building to the left. Good Samaritans with a couple of snow-shovels.

Once Steph started having difficulties walking, we only needed one snow-shovel. For several years, though, we kept the second snow-shovel in the closet, hoping that Steph's problems with her legs would be only temporary. Closet space is at a premium in an apartment, so I quietly took her shovel to Goodwill after her left leg was amputated.

* * * * * * * * * *

Wisconsin is well-known for its cold and cruel winters, and winters in a wheelchair present additional problems. There's an eight-foot stretch of grass between the sidewalk and the street, and that grassy strip sees lots of foot traffic, so a dirt trail has been worn through the grass in some spots. When it rains or snows, the dirt trail becomes a sea of mud; the wheelchair's wheels would sink into the mud.

And sometimes in our neighborhood or elsewhere in our travels, the sidewalks were blocked by construction, or boxes, or storm-downed tree branches, or bags of trash — things you'd easily sidestep while you're walking, without much thought or hassle, but these are serious obstacles to anyone in a wheelchair. When I wasn't pushing, and Steph had to roll her own wheels through snow and mud, her hands and fingers were often grimy and wet, so we kept several rolls of paper towels in the car.

Winter is cold, of course, but Steph mentioned numerous times that one of the side effects of her kidney failure was that she always felt colder than the ambient temperature could explain. If the apartment was 70° Fahrenheit, to her it felt like 55°, so we kept the thermostat cranked pretty high.

At the kidney clinic, for reasons never adequately explained, the thermostat was always dialed uncomfortably low; I wore a jacket whenever I accompanied her, and it usually felt about 60° inside that place, so to Steph it felt like 45°. Which means she spent several hours being uncomfortably cold, three times weekly, in addition to all the other indignities of dialysis. She always packed a blanket in her dialysis bag, and often asked for a second blanket during her treatment. When I picked her up afterwards, she usually wanted me to run the heat full-blast in the car, even in summertime.

* * * * * * * * * *

When she was still walking easily, and working for the state, she drove to her office, parked in an open-air lot, and I took the bus to my job. When walking became difficult for Stephanie, scraping snow off the car seemed much more of a precarious challenge, so always on snowy days I'd get up ten minutes early, and scrape the car for her before she left. If it snowed during the day while we were at work, I'd try to leave work a little early, bus to her job, and scrape the snow off the car before she came out of the building.

Sometimes, if we had a date or she was in an especially good mood, Steph would drive a mile out of her way to pick me up at my job a smooth ride home in the car, instead of a herky-jerky ride on the bus.

One afternoon, with snow gently falling but not much sticking to the ground, she volunteered to give me a ride home. I waited in the lobby at my workplace, and when she pulled to the curb, I came out with a smile. Seeing Stephanie usually made me smile, even on lousy days. I walked toward the passenger side as always, but she was already stepping out of the car. Not our usual routine.

"You're driving, OK?" She said.

"Sure," I said. We opened our doors, and took seats opposite of where we usually sat in the car. "But why?" I asked.

"You know I've been having trouble walking. The leg muscles don't follow orders like they used to…"

Of course I knew this; she'd already seen a couple of doctors about it, and gotten really no help. She'd taken up exercise, and we'd joined a gym, with Steph putting most of her time and effort into strengthening her leg muscles. Lots of pedaling on a stationary bike, and standing in a machine that simulated climbing stairs. We'd been hitting the gym three times weekly for a month, and I could feel increased strength in my legs and arms, but Steph only felt weaker and more exhausted, not stronger.

She continued: "When I'm driving, my legs don't work the gas and brakes as well as they used to. On my way here just now, pulling out of the parking lot at my work, I tried to stop the car so I could look both ways before going out into the street. But my leg's response was slow. The car ended up five feet into the street before I could stop it."

"Yikes," I said, after a long pause.

"I didn't hit anything, and I drove extra-extra careful coming here, but … I think I have to stop driving, at least until I get my leg strength back."

I've replayed those words many times since that afternoon. "I think I have to stop driving," she'd said, "at least until I get my leg strength back." She spoke plainly, with no tears and no noticeable emotion, but she was scared, and so was I. She wore her brave face so I wore mine, too.

After that, Steph went through a lot of physical therapy, and countless hours of "practice walking" in our apartment. We continued going to the gym, until that horrible evening when she collapsed in the parking lot after our workout. She underwent several surgeries, but all to no avail. Her leg strength never returned, and she never again drove a car. The next winter, her left leg was amputated, and she was never able to go back to work.

* * * * * * * * * *

For the rest of her life, I drove us wherever we needed to be. I rejiggered my work schedule to drop her off at her job on my way to my job, and to pick her up on my way home. Doctor's appointments, trips to the library, to the park, to the hobby shop for crochet materials, or the hardware store for a hammer — wherever she needed to go, I drove her.

Steph was, of course, frustrated and sometimes furious at the loss of her independence. Never again could she simply get-up-and-go anyplace she wanted to go, but she rarely complained about it, and often thanked me for being her live-in Uber. "Complaining wouldn't help," she said. "What helps is that you're always willing to drive me where I need to go, always there when I need someone to talk with, always holding my hand even when I'm at home and you're at work."

In her corniest, sweetest moments, she'd sometimes add, "I don't know how I'd be able to do any of this without you — the doctor appointments, the dialysis, any of it. And without you, I don't know whether I'd bother to try."

Stephanie tried, and Stephanie succeeded. Despite all the obstacles in her way, all the bad-news diagnoses and a lot of borderline-competent medical care, the isolation of living in an apartment that wasn't disabled-accessible, and all the other unfair challenges Stephanie stared down every day, she never stopped trying.

Even in the last days of her life, in that hospital she hated, amidst all the doctors and nurses and interns, even as she was slipping in and out of consciousness, Stephanie never gave up. She died, yeah, but she never stopped trying, never stopped fighting until her heart stopped beating.

So winter is here, another winter without her. Autumn leaves, covered with snow. Scraping ice off the windshield. A snow-picnic at Tenney Park, with a sandwich and cocoa in the car. At home, the thermostat is again cranked up, making the apartment a little too warm, so Steph won't be chilled.