The big, ever-present regret

For the few weeks leading up to her final ride to the hospital, Stephanie was feeling poorly and not eating much. And that certainly wasn't unprecedented. Since the kidney diagnosis seven or eight years earlier, she'd occasionally had days or weeks when she'd felt poorly and not eaten much, but always she eventually started feeling better, or made a doctor's appointment. She didn't seem any sicker those last few weeks than she'd sometimes seemed in the past, but it lasted longer than it usually had.

Either three times, or maybe four times during those weeks, I suggested that she see a doctor. Each suggestion was a violation of our rules, and she got cranky and told me not to suggest it again. A few days later I suggested it again, and she got cranky again. In hindsight it's obvious, of course, that I should've insisted and started an argument and raised my voice and never relented. I should've called the doctor's office and made an appointment for her myself, and then demanded that she go, but I didn't do any of that.

Here's the way Stephanie said it, several years before her death: "We can talk about anything, you and I, including my medical issues, but I need my days off from the medical crap. It's not fair talking about kidneys and dialysis and all the related trauma and drama all the time. If we're talking about my medical issues every day, then I've become my medical issues and it's swallowed my life, and we're not going to let that happen. So let me make the decisions, let me be me, and we'll talk about it on days when I have a doctor's appointment, since those days are ruined already. But not on other days."

And that was our deal. We both went to all her medical appointments, and we both engaged with the doctor or nurse, offering up facts or asking and answering questions. She wanted my input before and during every appointment, and my thoughts afterwards, wide open and with no limits. When the post-appointment conversation was over, though, it was over, and she didn't want to discuss her medical matters until her next appointment.

I rarely violated those rules, by talking about medical stuff on non-medical days. And everything always worked out fine, until that one time when it didn't. That time when Stephanie died.

There isn't an hour that goes by (at least while I'm awake) when I don't regret not crossing the line and nagging her more to see a doctor in the last weeks of her life. I'm always wondering whether that would have been the difference, whether she'd still be with me, and I'm pretty sure the answer is yes.

I try not to type it too much here on the website, because there isn't much to say about this particular and painful topic that I haven't said already. This entire post is a rerun, isn't it? I've typed all of this before. 

And I try not to kick myself too much, because Stephanie once said, "If I should've seen a doctor but I postponed it too long, if I end up hospitalized or worse, well that's on me, not on you. It's my decision when to make an appointment."

The regret, though, is always on my mind, or not far from my mind.

Some stories are hard to tell

One particular Saturday, Steph and I went on a long country drive, wandered through a small town's proudest park, watched a deer munching some grass and the deer watched us. We spent thirty bucks in a cheese store, and got a mango smoothie (Steph's favorite) at Culver's. All of it was great fun, and I can't remember hardly any of the details. What I remember most clearly is that we wandered into an utterly bland chain-dollar-store in that tiny town, and bought a new, bright blue plastic hamper at a really good price, and Steph was delighted. The littlest things usually gave her the biggest smiles.

Stephanie and I had so many happy days and nights like that, but such memories don't make for compelling stories to be told. There's not a lot to be written or read about Steph and me just hanging out at home, feeling warm and comfy together — that's the whole story.

Other one-sentence short stories: Steph and me sitting in a coffee shop all morning, reading books or newspapers and sipping java. Steph and me going to the movies. Steph and me going shopping, and then putting away the groceries. Steph and me eating dinner, and laughing at stupid stuff, or telling each other what happened in our separate days. Steph and me just quietly being in love was 90-95% of our time together, and it was magic, heavenly.

We sat, we walked, we talked, we laughed and we cried, for years and years but not as many years as we wanted. Almost all of it was lovely and enjoyable, but most of it doesn't yield lovely and enjoyable storytelling years later.

Stephanie was the light of my life, so life without her is — well, maybe not pitch black, but it's very poorly lit. Most days are boring, some days are OK, but every day is worse than it would've been if she were here. Every hour. Every errand. Every sneeze is worse, now that there's no-one to say gesundheit. I miss Stephanie so much, sometimes I wish she would haunt me like in the movie The Ghost and Mrs Muir, but I know better and so did she. We didn't believe in life after death or reincarnation or the supernatural, or any such poppycock.

* * * * * * * * * *

We also had some not-so-delightful days and nights, all fueled by worries and frustrations over Stephanie's medical battles against what's called the "health care system" in America. That's a story that needs to be told, and Steph would want it on the record, because if we don't tell what happened, you'll think Stephanie simply had a rough diagnosis.

Well, she had several rough diagnoses, but that's just humanity — everybody has medical issues, sooner or later, followed by death. It's not my intent to complain about that, because that's just life. All you'd hope is that when it's your turn to have medical issues, the doctors and nurses and clinic staff provide competent care and treat you with respect. That ain't a lot to ask, is it? And that's what compels some complaining.

The truth is, Stephanie sometimes she did receive adequate medical care, occasionally excellent medical care ... and she often received medical care that was disgraceful, downright dangerous, and ought to be illegal. It was infuriating, and there wasn't much we could do about it while she was alive, for reasons I'll explain — but not today.

Living through years of uncaring medical care was horrendously frustrating for Stephanie. Am I angry about that? You bet your sweet bippy I'm angry, and so was she. So, yeah, I'm going to tell those stories, and name a few incompetent medical practitioners by name. That's the least I can do in Steph's memory and honor, so you can count on it. Consider today's final five paragraphs a preview of coming attractions.

I'm not tough enough to write about that today, but soon.

Happy birthday, Stephanie

Once, in a dark mood about a year before her death, Stephanie said, "I'm going to die before I'm even fifty years old." I told her she was wrong, and we spoke at length about her health frustrations and prognosis, and that conversation ended with a hug that helped both of us.

Sometimes when we disagreed over factual matters, Steph might playfully taunt me after she'd been proven correct, by sing-song saying, "I love being right!" And we'd both laugh. I don't think she wanted to be right about dying before 50, but she was.

Today is July 8, Stephanie's 49th birthday. She's been gone for a little more than ten months. I miss her tremendously, of course, and constantly, permanently. Her birthday should be a celebration, though, and I'm going to celebrate it, even without her.

We'll begin with breakfast at Ogden's North Street Diner:

For the first ten years after we moved to Madison, there was a small, abandoned, rather depressing brick industrial building, at a nearby corner of our otherwise residential neighborhood. Someone bought the place several years ago, and we were curious as they began remodeling. Over the weeks we watched as tables and chairs and windows were installed, and we cleverly deduced that the neighborhood was getting a restaurant. It was christened Ogden's North Street Diner (Ogden's in honor of the owner's dog, and North Street because, well, it's on North Street). We were among their first customers, and ate there often. It's an excellent diner — a Mom & Pop place with prices comparable to Denny's but much, much better food, service, and decor. Heck, they even have fresh (not fake) flowers on every table, every time we're there.

And we were there quite often. Once a week or so we walked to Ogden's, me pushing Steph's wheelchair, and it felt like we were walking toward a special treat. On the walk home afterwards, we always talked about how much we liked Ogden's. Steph was disappointed with her meals at Ogden's once or twice, but we ate there dozens of times so that's a solid batting average. Me, I was never disappointed, but she had much higher standards than me, for food and for everything.

I'm not a brave man, so I haven't been to Ogden's since Stephanie death. But today's her birthday, so dining alone at our favorite restaurant seems like an appropriate way to begin the day. Even the walk to Ogden's was weird without her; I've walked past Ogden's alone many times, but until today I'd never walked to Ogden's alone.

There was some trepidation: Am I going to burst into tears? Is breakfast at Ogden's going to leave me deep in grieving all over again? I paused at the entrance, where a tiny step made wheelchair access a little tricky. I always had to help her over that hump.

In the restaurant, I was greeted by a different waitress, not one of the two waitresses who usually served us, and that was a relief. It meant she wouldn't ask, "Where is your wife?", and I wouldn't have to explain. I sat at the counter, where I'd never sat before, thinking that I'd be less likely to dissolve into blubbering than if I'd sat at one of the tables where we'd had so many breakfasts and lunches.

I ordered an omelet and coffee, and in Stephanie's honor a stack of blueberry pancakes, because that's what she often ordered. And also, let's be honest, because I've always enjoyed eating big meals. The food was excellent, I tipped half the tab, and I only sniffled, didn't bawl like a baby. If anyone noticed, they probably thought I had a cold. It was good to be at Ogden's, and maybe I'll return. But not weekly.

After breakfast, a cat:

This morning, soon as they were open, I went to the veterinarian's office to pick up our cat. Boarding her at the vet while I was in Seattle was more expensive than hiring a high school kid, but offered more peace of mind that the cat would actually have her prescription pills plopped down her throat twice daily.

Minky — that's the cat — seems crazy-happy to be home. She won't stop happily meowing and following me around the apartment and hopping into my lap like a puppy.

Stephanie was always delighted to have a cat, the first non-lizard pet she'd ever had. She was convinced that Minky was especially brilliant and beautiful, but I've had many pets; I'm fond of this one but not quite persuaded that she's exceptional. It's nice, though, having the cat in the apartment again. She's a living link to my wife, and I sometimes wonder whether the cat wonders where Stephanie's gone.

After bringing home the cat, a walk through Olbrich Gardens:

Another of Stephanie's favorite places in Madison was Olbrich Botanical Gardens. It's a public park, with a substantial curated collection of flowers, bushes, shrubs, and trees, and trails, benches, and views.

We almost always went through Olbrich along the same paths, so that's the way I walked the park today, starting at the Sunken Garden — flora with fountains and long rectangular pond. At the pond, I always wisecracked that I wanted to bring and release a few goldfish, and Steph always rolled her eyes. She was patient with my very few jokes, told over and over again.

Next came the Meadow Garden, a broken-stone trail through the tall grass, and around and behind a little lake that's always full of fish. In recent years, though, we'd started skipping the trails around the lake and into the hill behind the lake, because a broken-stone pathway, while lovely to walk or look at, makes for a bumpy, uncomfy ride in a wheelchair. Steph said she felt like a James Bond martini — shaken, not stirred. After that area, though, the rest of the trails at Olbrich are brick or concrete, dirt or gravel, any of which are kinder to wheelchairs and their occupants.

Then we came to what's officially called the Herb Garden, but we called it the Stinky Patch. It's an area full of spice plants and other odoriferous weeds and flowers, the only section of the park where you're allowed and even encouraged to touch the plants, and then sniff your fingers. It was always fun, and more fun later, when we came home and Minky was fascinated by the scents on our hands.

After the halfway point at Olbrich, I'd sit and rest on one of the park's many benches, and Steph waited patiently as my batteries recharged. We would linger and wander through Olbrich for hours, into the Perennial Garden, across Starkweather Creek to the Thai Pavilion, back through the trails to the Rose Garden, and across the Great Lawn — Olbrich's overly fancified name for a big circular patch of grass where we sometimes attended free concerts.

All throughout Olbrich Gardens, there are thousands of plants and flowers, all accompanied by educational markers. All that living flora brings birds, of course, so Olbrich is also Madison's most reliable place for up-close bird-watching. We always enjoyed the people-watching, too.

The climax of every visit was climbing the tower, accessible via stairs or a winding, sloping, wheelchair-accessible walkway. Without Stephanie, today I could've taken the stairs, but the walkway had become our walkway, so that's the way I went up and down and and always will.

At the top of the tower, there's a view of the fountains, the circular lawn, Lake Monona across the street, hundreds of trees and people, and the shady and sunny patios surrounding the tower. It's quite lovely, and my meager description doesn't do it justice. I should've brought my camera, but didn't, and on-line I find only pictures of the tower, no pictures from the tower. Here's a picture of the tower and fountain:

The waterworks under the tower probably aren't intended as drinking fountains, but after walking so long you'd be thirsty, too. It has ten nozzles shooting water into the air at an angle, so yeah, bend over and take a drink — there are no signs saying "Don't." We would also playfully slap the water into each other's faces, and we'd laugh.

It was pleasant to walk through Olbrich Gardens again, and same as Ogden's it was my first visit since her death. Instead of walking and talking with Steph, I was walking alone, talking to myself, and scribbling notes in my journal to be later typed up for the website.

On our way out of Olbrich, on the covered walkway adjacent to the big circular lawn, there are numerous engraved plaques on the pillars, saying thanks to major donors. "Thanks" start at $10,000 and proceed upwards to "$500,000 or more," so obviously, Stephanie's name won't be on a pillar at Olbrich Gardens.

The benches are all dedicated to donors, too. Today I sat on one that said, "In memory of Joe Schmoe, who loved flowers." But I called and inquired shortly after Steph was gone, and the cost for an engraved plaque on a bench is thousands of dollars — not the low thousands, the high thousands. $25K, if I'm remembering right, which doesn't include the cost of the bench.

An engraved memorial stone on one of the walkways can be had for as little as a few hundred dollars. I'm hesitant, though, not because of the price but because, well, they're engraved stones on a walkway. Over our years visiting Olbrich, we saw the lettering on those stones wiped away by thousands of footsteps, and a memorial stone with lettering that says Stephanie Webb doesn't seem appropriate. Stephanie doesn't fade.

If there's a memorial for my beloved wife at Olbrich, it'll probably be goldfish, when I finally bring some in a baggie and release them into the pond in the Sunken Garden.

We usually wandered through the gift shop on our way out, but the prices are steep for our income bracket, so we rarely bought anything. The last time we'd come to Olbrich Gardens, Stephanie had mentioned that she wanted a sun-hat, and she had considered one hat in the gift shop. It was pinkish-purple, and Steph said, "I wish it was a little more purple and a little less pink," but still she held it, looked at it for a few minutes. "It's too expensive," she finally decided. "I'd like to support Olbrich Gardens and I do need a sun-hat, but I need a $20 sun-hat, and this is a lot more than that." She said she'd look for something similar but cheaper on-line; I don't know whether she ever did.

The gift shop was still selling that hat today, for $52, which is probably twice what it's worth. I bought it and brought it home and added it to Stephanie's Shrine. Wish I would've bought it for her when she could've worn it, but the hat looks nice, and Steph was right again — it ought to be a little more purple and a little less pink. She loved being right.

Back at the apartment:

After the big breakfast and the long walk through Olbrich Gardens, I spent my afternoon in the Shrine, and petting the cat, and remembering the lady I loved more than everything else. Wish I could've spent the day with her, instead of remembering her.

Not long after she'd gone, a friend said to me, "At least she's at peace." I said thanks and smiled, because that's what this person hoped I'd do. He was trying to be supportive and optimistic, and nobody knows what to say after someone's died, so you don't quibble, you just smile.

Honestly, though, I don't believe she's "at peace" — that's spiritual or religious thinking, and Steph wasn't particularly spiritual or religious, and neither am I. She'd say that "peace" and "dead" aren't synonyms, so she's not "at peace."

When I'm trying to be optimistic, I'd say "at least she's no longer sick, as she was during the last few weeks of her life." Of course, I'd rather she was aliveand well. I wish she was here at home with me, as Stephanie instead of as a box of ashes. I want to hear her voice, see her smile, take her to breakfast and to the park. Happy birthday, my love, forever and ever.