And then I remember


Sometimes (not often) I briefly forget that she’s dead. It happens when I’m falling asleep, or barely awake in the morning or in the middle of the night. In my hazy mind, Stephanie and I are talking, or laughing, or on our way somewhere in the car, and for just a moment she’s there with me. I hear her voice, and the sound of it is beautiful and wonderful. It makes my spirits soar, I’m suddenly so relieved, so joyous … but then I’m awake and the truth kicks me in the face. I’m not sure whether that moment of false happiness is a fair exchange for the repeated catastrophe of knowing in the next moment that she’s gone.
There are times when I’m OK for a few hours at a time, at work, mostly. It’s just a normal day at the office, no worries, I’m doing my work and then … and then I remember, and I need to scream louder, more horrified than any man has ever screamed. Screaming is not workplace-appropriate, though, so I just sit at my desk and try to keep my eyes dry. I scream inside, my brain winces, my world evaporates, and I need the refuge of the men’s room, or I step outside.
It also hits me especially hard when I’m on my way home from work. The end of the workday was something I always looked forward to, because it meant I’d be coming home to Stephanie. But now, when I get to our apartment there won’t be anyone to talk to except the cat. There’s nobody I can do something nice for, fetch a beer for, nobody who’ll listen as I explain what some stupid co-worker did today. No-one I can help, and no-one who can help me. Stephanie is not going to give me a hug when I walk in. She’s not going to be happy to see me. She’s not going to see me, ever again.
I haven’t told anyone at the office about her death, except my boss. He needed to know, so I could stay away for a few days of round-the-clock crying. He knows that I’m a private person, so when I called to tell him, he offered his condolences and said he’d keep it quiet in the office. That’s probably the wrong thing to say to most people, but it’s exactly the right thing to say to me. The last thing I’d want is for co-workers to stop at my desk all day and tell me they’re sorry for my loss.
Work, then, is something of a refuge, at least while nobody knows. On good days, the humdrum duties of the office block out most of the agony. But then there are moments when I can’t shut out the memories.
Thursday was the first weekly office meeting I’ve attended since Stephanie’s death. As meetings go, our departmental hubbubs are better than most, but still, my mind tends to wander. In the past, when my mind wandered, I was thinking, What can Steph and I do this weekend that might be fun? At Thursday’s meeting, of course, that’s not where my mind wandered. There will be no joy in Mudville this weekend, or any time soon.
In hindsight, everything was optimistic when my wife was alive. Even with the worst things in life – her illness, our bankruptcy a few years back, the Trump administration – there was something deep down under the surface that said, “Things will get better.” If I was at work or running errands, just out and about doing humdrum tasks with or without her, there was always optimism in my footsteps. Always I knew, When I’m done buying these groceries or returning this library book, I'm going home to Stephanie! And she’ll be happy to see me!
Man, you can’t top that feeling. We weren’t rich, I knew I’m not getting a promotion any time soon, and we had problems, sure — enormous problems, actually. But almost any time I was doing anything, that feeling of just plain optimism was either at the surface or a few layers under. Stephanie felt that way too, at least on days she wasn’t sick in bed or seeing a doctor.
That feeling is gone now. Completely gone. Everything has changed from vaguely optimistic to explicitly craptastic. You will see me smiling sometimes, at work or at the credit union or anywhere I'm required to interact with humans, but the smile is completely fake. There’s nothing at the surface or underneath, nothing at all except Pain, and What’s the point?

Where is your wife?


I contacted my family and a few old friends after Stephanie’s death. That’s what people do, I figured, and I was trying to do what people do.
There were some heartfelt responses, and had some teary phone calls with my family, and with Stephanie’s parents. But there was no real response in Madison. Stephanie and I didn’t have any real friends here. I’ve always struggled making friends, and she was almost as introverted as I am. What few friends we had, we’ve been out of touch with for a long, long time.
To my genuine surprise, though, I received a quick response from an old friend, Joe Gallo. When we’d lived in San Francisco, Joe and his then-wife Shawna lived there too, and they were probably our best friends at that time and place. We’d all drifted apart since then, and Joe and Shawna got divorced, but when I emailed Joe and told him that Stephanie had died, the years disappeared quite quickly. He volunteered to come see me, something I wouldn’t have thought of, but it didn’t take me long to say yes. So, Joe arrived last Monday and spent a week sharing the apartment with me and my memories of Stephanie.
Stephanie would have been delighted to host Joe at our apartment, and in a way she almost did. He stayed in our bedroom, where I had emptied the closet and cleaned out everything, swapped out the dresser and end table for furniture from a different room, moved the bed to a different corner, and put on newly-bought sheets of a different color — effectively changing everything. It didn’t look at all like our bedroom, so when Joe opened the door it wasn’t a violent assault on my memories.
A week with Joe was perhaps an odd interruption of my grief, but I have no experience with grief, no idea what’s odd or what’s not, honestly. I don’t have any idea what “works” in dealing with something like this, to tell the truth.
I’m 60, but death is new to me. My father died twenty-five years ago, but I was estranged from the family and didn’t even hear about his death for a month. And when I did hear about it, I dealt with it by not dealing with it, compartmentalizing it away and actively trying not to think much about it. When my brother Fred died a few years ago, I hadn’t seen him in decades. I’ve had a few old friends die — it starts happening on a regular basis at about my age — but there was always distance and time between me and those deaths.
Stephanie’s death is the first I’ve experienced that was truly close to me, and I haven’t gone half a day without crying. I’m not yet eating normally, and I haven’t had anything even approaching a good night’s sleep, unless you count the sleeping-pill nights.
All I know is that it was very helpful to have Joe around for several days — someone who knew and remembered Stephanie, someone who could give me a hug when I needed it, which was often. Joe and I even talked about things other than my wife, which was strange as hell but also helpful.
* * * * * * * * * *
On Tuesday evening, Joe and I had dinner at Maharani. For Stephanie and me, Maharani had been our favorite Indian buffet, and one of our favorite restaurants in Madison, period. They have a fabulous all-you-can eat lunch at a reasonable price, and I can eat a lot, so Stephanie and I went there maybe monthly, beginning when we arrived in Madison in 2004. Their buffet ends after lunch, and dinner prices are substantially higher, so we had never eaten anything but lunch at Maharani.
In my mind, Maharani was on a list of places in Madison that I would have to avoid — places that Stephanie and I had visited too many times, where the memories might be dangerously overpowering for a widower without his wife. Never again, Ogden's Diner. Never again, baseball in Beloit. Never again, Maharani. But when Joe suggested Indian food, well, it just seemed natural. Maharani was the place to go.
At the restaurant, the waiter seated Joe and I at the same table where Stephanie and I had frequently been seated. We’d been seated there so often, I suspect that table is strategically held for fat customers, as there’s a bit of extra space around the periphery. I sat in what had usually been Stephanie’s chair at that table, and Joe sat in what had usually been my chair, so it didn’t feel overwhelmingly weird or wrong, only somewhat weird or wrong, and only at first. By the end of the meal it was just a table in a restaurant.
The dinner was too expensive, but truly delicious, and we didn’t have to worry about the price, because Joe’s ex-wife Shawna had pledged to pick up the tab. She had been a good friend to Stephanie all those years ago, when we'd all lived in San Francisco, and Shawna had offered to mail me a casserole when she’d heard about Stephanie’s death. Paying for dinner was probably a more practical idea, since she still lives on the West Coast. Thank you, Shawna. It meant a lot to me. Also, it’s sweet that Joe and Shawna are on good terms.
After dinner, Joe and I napkinned our faces, and Joe settled the bill. We were on our way out of the restaurant when the nice manager lady made eye contact with me and asked, “Where is your wife?”
I had to explain, “She passed away,” and then I had to explain “passed away,” because English is the manager's second or third language. She shook her head “no,” as if she didn’t approve of the idea or perhaps didn’t understand it. Then she clasped her hands together as if she was holding her own hands, which I took to mean, “You seemed so much in love.” She said, “I’m sorry,” and I didn’t burst into tears, which surprised me then and surprises me now.
The restaurant manager was essentially a stranger. Stephanie and I had stopped coming to Maharani a few years ago. Steph said she’d felt like a spectacle going through the buffet line in her wheelchair, plus she had trouble reaching the food at the back of the buffet from her chair, and she said she felt like a little kid if I offered to help her. So, it had been a long while since we’d been there, and yet the manager remembered us.
That will probably happen again. We’re memorable, Stephanie sometimes told me – a fat guy with a beard pushing a woman in a wheelchair. And we went to the same places all the time, our favorite spots over and over. We never introduced ourselves or anything, but we were not exactly anonymous. That lady knew us, without ever really meeting us.
The main takeaway from this story, though, is that it’s good to have friends, especially when you feel like you’re alone in the world. I have never felt more alone, and yet I’m not. Thank you, Joe. Thank you, Shawna.

Angry


When we first became a couple, Stephanie was in perfect health. Over the years, though, she developed a lot of health issues. She endured several unexplained infections, including one in her left leg that eventually reached the bone, necessitating the leg's amputation. Her kidneys failed without warning roughly six years ago, and she began dialysis shortly thereafter. She also had a heart condition, and a compromised immune system, and other medical issues. With all these diagnoses, she was seeing a fleet of doctors and nurses on a regular basis. We had appointments almost every week, often two or three appointments  and she hated it. 
 "I don't want to be a permanent patient," she had said when she was first diagnosed with kidney failure. But there was really no way around it. The kidneys are supposed to cleanse toxins and waste out of the body, and without working kidneys she had to rely on dialysis, a mechanical system that mimics what the kidneys do, but not as efficiently or effectively. Dialysis meant going in to the kidney clinic three times a week, for treatments that lasted several hours and always left Stephanie so drained of energy that the rest of her day was spent asleep. So dialysis wasn't just a four-hour session three days a week; for Stephanie it was, in effect, three whole days lost out of every week.
When they let her switch to a different kind of dialysis that she did at home, it meant fewer trips to the kidney clinic. But it also meant she was tethered to the bed for treatment, eleven hours a day, seven days a week. Plus, there were two required trips to the clinic every month, first for tests and then for what we called "hollering," where the nurse and dietitian analyzed the test results and peppered Steph with questions and advice about her diet and her activities and her meds and every aspect of her life. Plus, there were other frequent trips to the clinic, or the drug store, or the emergency room, if the tests showed that the dialysis was leaving too much of a particular chemical in her system, or too little.
When some new health issue arose, Stephanie usually delayed making a medical appointment. This was a road we'd been down several times, through numerous illnesses and hospitalizations. I would gently suggest making an appointment, and she would tell me that she was in charge of her own health care, and that the more I nagged the less likely she'd be to make an appointment. Which might sound like a bitchy thing for her to say, but I could see her perspective then (and even now).
My thinking was always, if I was in her situation, I would make an appointment to see a doctor. But then I'd tell myself, that's too easy for me to say, because after all, I'm not in her position. I don't see doctors all the time, to the point where the mere thought of another medical appointment makes me feel sick. I don't have to hook up to a machine overnight, every night. I don't have nosy nurses asking me what I eat, and always telling me to eat more of this and less of that. I don't have people telling me to pull up my shirt and expose the catheter in my belly, so they can judge whether I'm keeping the site clean enough. Health care was exhausting for Stephanie, and exasperating. She had become, against her will, a permanent patient – exactly what she didn't want to be.
So as Stephanie's appetite faltered in the weeks leading up to her final hospitalization, every few days I suggested that she should see a doctor. She kept saying no, it'll pass, don't worry about it. "I have enough medical problems. I don't need any more." And I let her win those arguments. Or even worse, I didn't much argue. I said my piece, but I didn't pound my fist on the table.
And now, I'm angry about that. It's possible that seeing a doctor even a few days earlier might have made all the difference in the world.
I am angry at Stephanie. Damn it, when you're sick, see a doctor!
But I am especially furious at myself. Why the hell didn't I argue with her, and demand that she see a doctor?
Sometimes I'm doubtful, but on darker days it feels like it's entirely my own fault that she's dead. It wakes me in the middle of the night, makes my eyes wet while I'm at work, or makes me scream when I'm alone. It seems so obvious now, that we needed to get Stephanie to a doctor. And it feels like it should have been obvious at the time. But ... it wasn't obvious, or at least it wasn't obvious that it was literally a matter of life and death.
I can't think of a greater regret in my life.