Failures


It's important, I think, to remember all aspects of Stephanie, even the painful things, and this will be painful. She was a complicated lady, and spectacular, in my opinion — but in her own opinion, not so much. She second-guessed herself, as we all do but perhaps more so, and once in a while she told me that she saw herself as a failure.
Most of us have insecurities, of course — aspects of ourselves we're not quite satisfied with, or shortcomings that we're working on. Anyone who doesn't see their own failures, well, that's someone who's likely to be cocky, full of themselves, and insufferable to be around.
Stephanie had insecurities, far more than she ever earned. She could be awfully hard on herself. She could spend ten minutes listing all the ways she'd screwed up her life, when in reality, almost nothing on her list was really her fault. Stephanie's biggest shortcoming, by far, was only that she thought she had so many shortcomings.
I never figured out why Stephanie judged herself so harshly, but my suspicion is that it had to do with being such a prodigy as a kid. Remember, she taught herself to read before kindergarten. She made straight-A's in school, and was sent to special classes for gifted students. In college, she made Phi Beta Kappa. We talked about it a few times, about having been the girl genius as a kid, and Steph sometimes said that she thought everyone must have been disappointed when she ended up with just an ordinary lower-middle class existence.
Realistically, though, almost all of us live ordinary lives, doing ordinary jobs. We're all failures by that measure, unless you're Elon Musk or Marie Curie. If you ask me, Stephanie's life was a series of victories, big and small. When she tried to do something, she almost always did it and did it well.
Here's a woman who held stable jobs all her adult life, lived on her own before meeting and marrying me, traveled to Russia and to England, and earned two college degrees. She faced a fatal diagnosis at the age of 40, but kept fighting and enjoying life for another eight years. And I daresay, she had a happy marriage, something a lot of married people can't claim. In just about every way to define success, I'd say Stephanie was successful. And yet, she sometimes said that she was a failure. I couldn't convince her otherwise.
The closest she came to failure, actual failure not imagined failure, was in graduate school. This topic was painful for her, so she rarely talked about it, but she'd been booted from grad school at the University of Wisconsin, a few years before we met. For the first time in her life, her grades had slipped from always A's to C's and D's. She'd largely stopped attending classes, stopped turning in assignments, and she'd been warned by her teachers and finally by the dean. So she wasn't particularly surprised when she was called into the dean's office and officially expelled.
She never told me the underlying reason why all of this had happened — why she'd stopped attending classes. I asked, and she shrugged. "Maybe I'll tell you some time, but not now. Later." It was a 'later' that never came, but when Stephanie was in a funk and listing all the ways she was a failure, "I flunked out of grad school" was usually near the top of the list.
On a few occasions when we she mentioned her grad school days, I told her, I'm a quitter. Always have been. I consider it a strength, not a weakness. If I'm not seeing the value in something — a book I'm reading, or a pointless job, or a frustrating friendship, almost anything — I'll simply stop. So I always figured, Steph must have had a good reason to quit grad school, even if she couldn't put it into words. On some level, consciously or unconsciously, she concluded that pursuing a Master's Degree wasn't worthwhile, so she stopped showing up. And I wouldn't call that a failure.
It's better and wiser to quit, once you've decided in your heart that something isn’t worthwhile. Following through and sticking with it, we're told, is more gallant, more respectable, but that's hogwash. Doing something you don't want to do, just because people expect it? That path leads to a wretched life. Sadly, a lot of people do what's expected and lead wretched lives, have wretched marriages or work at wretched careers they abhor. A lot of people lack Steph's good sense and willingness to walk away, like she walked away from grad school.
When I trotted out that argument, Steph seemed to understand the point I was trying to make. She kissed me, and her spirits rebounded … but she still circled back, months later, to saying again that she was a failure because she'd flunked out of grad school.
Another of her occasional self-described failures was the piano. When she was a girl she'd been a whiz kid at the piano, but as an adult she hadn't made music in years, and she sometimes kicked herself for not playing. We didn't own a piano, but a few times I suggested that we could buy an electronic keyboard — not quite a piano but it would be music, and we could have easily afforded it.
Stephanie said no to a keyboard, and I never heard her play the piano. I rather wish I had, as I'll bet she played beautifully, but I wouldn't say it was a failure, not tickling the ivory. Would you? She never mentioned the piano unless her mood was way, way down, so it seems more honest to conclude that she didn't particularly want to play the piano again. And that's a perfectly valid choice, of course. But when she was feeling especially blue, she felt like the piano was another failure.
In her last few years, the medical worries wore her down, and she sometimes included poor health on her list of failures — as if the kidney disease was somehow her fault. Of course, it wasn't; she ate healthy and lived healthy, and her kidney failure was just godawful bad luck.
Her health issues grew almost unfathomably difficult, yet she worked so very hard at recapturing her health. She rarely missed a medical appointment, she followed doctor's orders even when the pills were making her puke and poop, and you've never seen anyone put as much effort into anything as Steph put into her physical therapy after any of her surgeries. Yet she sometimes listed these as failures, which was just plain bonkers.
Once, while she was having so much difficulty walking, we went to a baseball game with Steph in a wheelchair, and she very much wanted to stand during the national anthem. She struggled to her feet, and stayed up for the length of the song, which was very, very difficult for her. As usual for Stephanie, failure was not an option.
After the amputation of her leg, standing for the anthem was no longer possible, of course. But once, she wore her poorly-fitted prosthetic leg to the ball game, and that night she stood for the anthem, even as that ghastly leg was painfully digging into her skin. Later, the aching and itching became so bad, we left in the fifth inning. On the way home, she said, "I'm such a failure I couldn't even make it through a baseball game." As if the misfit prosthetic was a character flaw? That was ridiculous, and of course I said so, but Stephanie could be so mean to herself.
She was sometimes embarrassed just to be in the wheelchair, or worried that I must have been mortified to be seen with her. She couldn't have been more wrong. I was always proud to be with Steph, whether she was on two legs or one or rolling in her chair.
Her medical issues cycled from better to worse and back to better, a merry-go-round of highs and lows over several years, and when her health was in a low phase she stopped returning her parents' calls. She still wanted to talk to her Mom and Dad, but she wanted the conversation to be good news. If she had only bad news about her health, she would put off calling until there was some good news. Which meant that, during times when her health was the worst and she most could've used a conversation with her parents, I was talking with her parents more than Stephanie was.
Her most commonly self-cited shortcoming was that she felt she wasn't attractive. She had horrible stories, of reverse catcalls she'd heard on the sidewalk from strangers in passing cars, or teenaged classmates taunting her with shouted comments like, "You're so ugly!" or "Woman, you're fat!" Such memories must have been awful for Stephanie.
In western civilization, so much of a woman's perceived worth is tied up in whether she's attractive. Many men and even some women have an unacknowledged, unspoken, perhaps even unaware assumption that a woman who's pretty or young or sexy is worthwhile, and woman who isn't, isn't. It's infuriating, dehumanizing. It's wrong.
Stephanie asked me to cut her hair, every few months for many years. It wasn't a complicated cut, just snip a straight line at her shoulders. "Ladies' haircuts are expensive," she said, "but having your husband do it is free." Once, I goofed and cut her hair an inch shorter than she wanted it, and she was distraught and a little angry, but most of my cuts were fine, she said.
We could have afforded a visit to a beauty salon, a hair stylist, wherever women go for hair care, but each time I suggested it she said no. "You don't know how it is if you're a woman but not pretty," she said. "The stylist will cut my hair, but she won't give it any real effort, and when she's done it'll be obvious — to me, at least — that she didn't care. And then, for weeks after that, every time I look in the mirror I won't just see myself, a woman who's not pretty, with a haircut that I don't like. I'll see a woman that some stylist couldn't even be paid to give a damn about."
We had that conversation three times, once for each of the three times I suggested that she should go to a stylist for a better haircut than I could give her. All three times, and in fact every time she mentioned that she thought she was unattractive, I gently but emphatically argued. Stephanie was a good-looking woman, who never saw herself as good-looking.
Maybe she wasn't up to whatever's the current unattainable standard of absolute facial and body perfection — because nobody is; it's impossible — but I'll say again what I said to Stephanie: From the moment we met till the moment she died, I always found her attractive. And the more time I spent with her, the more attractive she became. And most importantly, she was much, much more than merely an attractive woman. There are millions and millions of attractive women, but Stephanie was one of a kind.
She was smart, funny, had a kind heart, and she could accomplish almost anything she set her mind to. She was absolutely awesome. I called her Wonder Woman, and it wasn't an exaggeration. If anything, it was an understatement — in the comic books, Wonder Woman wasn't even born, she was sculpted from clay. She's the daughter of Zeus, the Greek god of thunder. She has genetic advantages over normal women, and wears bracelets that somehow deflect bullets and energy blasts, and protect her from injury should she fall from a great height.
It's easy to be a superhero when you have superpowers, but Stephanie was human, which makes her the real Wonder Woman. She was the most successful person I've ever known, by far. And yet, she had a shortage of self-confidence. She might talk about her frustrations at work, or complain about the hassles of dealing with barely-competent medical providers, and then she would grow quiet until I asked what was wrong, and she would blurt out, "I'm a failure."
"What do you mean?" I asked, the first few times this conversation played out.
She would reply with a litany of the reasons she considered herself a failure. "I flunked out of grad school. I have a nothing job. I haven't played the piano in years. I'm a burden on you, because of my health issues. Hemodialysis leaves me barely alive." Sometimes the list would be longer, sometimes shorter, and sometimes it would include temporary setbacks — "I spent an hour and a half making dinner but dinner sucked." Or, "My boss hates me." Or, "We're never going to save enough money to move to Kansas City." Or, "I'm not very good as a wife."
I would respond to the items she mentioned, as best I could. "You're a terrific wife, Stephanie, the best wife any man ever had and the best friend I've ever known." Or words to that effect. "You're not a failure. You're marvelous and I love you," or words to that effect. I always tried to say the right things, but I was never sure that I had. "And you did the right thing quitting grad school when you lost interest, and your job is miles better than mine and pays more too, and you're the opposite of a burden, and dinner was pretty good and I'll eat all the leftovers."
But she wasn't fishing for compliments. And sometimes she really thought she'd failed me as a wife, though I can't begin to imagine how. I argued, but I don't know whether she was ever really convinced, and then she wouldn't want to talk about it any more. That was the template for all of our conversations about her perceived shortcomings, insecurities, and failures. She would list them, I would refute them, and then she'd lose interest in the topic. Until the next time she announced she was a failure.
The "I'm a failure" conversation played out perhaps fifty times during our marriage, and scraping the bottom of the emotional barrel fifty times over 20+ years isn't a lot. I don't want to leave the impression that Steph was frequently depressed. She was occasionally depressed, and everyone has that right. I am certainly depressed occasionally. Who isn't?
"Hold me," she asked whenever she was troubled. I would hold her, and talk with her, for as long as it took for her to feel better. She held me through my troubled times, too, and I wish she was holding me tonight.
And lastly, what kind of crazy talk was "not very good as a wife"? Stephanie was the best. She made me a happy man for years and years — far happier than I'd ever been before; far happier than I'll ever be again. My goal was always to make her happy, too, and many times she told me that she was, but I wish I could've made her happier, for longer. And I wish somehow I could've convinced her that she was never a failure at anything, always wildly successful, because that's the truth.

As fertile as the Nile


We were at the zoo in Kansas City, and we'd gone on the wrong day. It was too hot to be strolling on asphalt, and the Kansas City Zoo is huge but being cheapskates we didn't want to pay to ride the tram, so we'd walked miles. Being surrounded by hundreds of children was getting on our nerves too, but what are you going to do? Like going to see a Disney movie, you know at a zoo that there will be children.
A few hours into our visit, we were sweaty and tuckered, and borderline cranky. I wouldn't have argued if Stephanie suggested going home, but I wasn't going to suggest it myself. We'd seen only about half the zoo.
We were standing in a short line to buy a frozen concoction at a concession stand. Shaved ice chips for Steph, and an ice cream sandwich for me. The woman behind us in line had three pre-teen kids with her, hollering, screaming, hitting each other — a bit out of control, but we've all seen worse, and I try not to judge. Kids can be difficult; that much I know.
The woman, presumably mother to those kids and yearning for a conversation with adults, started talking with us. Steph and I weren't outgoing people but we could chat, so we chatted with this lady: "Sure is hot today," and "I'm ready for an ice cream," etc.
This stranger's second sentence to us was, "Where are your children?"
I opened my mouth to say something, but Stephanie was already answering. "No kids for us," she said cheerfully, and this woman's face wilted. You'd have thought Steph said, "We ate them," or "We came to the zoo but left our kids in the car."
"You mean you're barren?" Yeah, that's what this woman said to Stephanie. This was someone we'd never met before, assuming that our lack of children was a problem, assuming that only a medical issue could explain someone being childless, assuming that the medical problem must be Stephanie's instead of mine, and assuming that she had the right to ask personal (and potentially painful) questions of a stranger. That's a whole lot of assuming. Also, who uses the term "barren" outside of The Bible?
Steph smiled and sounded sweet-natured as she gave this woman an extended answer to the second question she shouldn't have asked. "Oh, goodness no. I'm as fertile as the Nile — had two abortions in the past year. I just don't want children, and neither does my husband. It was one of the first things we made clear on our first date."
Stephanie was lying about one thing, maybe two. First, she never had an abortion, though she strongly supported a woman's right to choose. And I'm pretty sure it was our second date, not our first, when we talked about neither of us wanting children.
Meanwhile, this nosy woman's mouth had fallen open, and I began silently counting the fillings in her teeth (eight). Her face was turning red, her skin tone deepening even as we looked at her. Several seconds passed before she whispered, "Oh." The kids she'd brought were playing "tag" or "it" or something rather rowdy, and in a moment that could've been scripted but I swear actually happened, one of the kids accidentally stepped on the woman's toes. Her expression became even more comically pained, and I smiled, not trying to be obnoxious but amused and unable to hide it.
Steph stepped up to the counter and ordered our treats, and this stranger turned to me. She scrunched her face as if deep in thought, and said, "But what is a woman's purpose, if not childbirth and child-raising?"
At that I laughed, only for a moment, and more amused than angry. "My wife's purpose is the same as mine — we're here to enjoy life as best we can, and maybe to make the world a better place."
Steph turned around, holding her flavored-ice in one hand and offering me an ice-cream sandwich with the other. "My purpose in life, at this moment, is this snow-cone," she said, and she face-pointed in the direction she wanted us to go, so of course I followed.
"What the heck was that about?" I asked, intentionally loud enough to be sure that stranger heard as we walked away.
"Some people speak before they think," Steph replied, equally loudly, then added, "if there was any thinking at all." We heard nothing more from that woman, and within a few footsteps the sounds of those three children faded.
Stephanie was quick-witted and almost always knew the right thing to say, but with this woman she had an advantage — we'd had similar conversations before, perhaps a dozen times by then, with strangers incredulous about our choice to be childless. Missouri is a Republican state, so we heard such questions quite often while we lived there, and Steph had heard the questions many times more before we'd met. The rudeness was always astounding but no longer surprising.
Of course, we cast no aspersions on those who choose to have children. It's your life and it's the only life you get, so do what you want to do. If you want children, please have children and please love them and raise them well.
And if you don't want children, don't have them. It's not complicated, but it's a rather personal decision, so never once did we bring up the topic with strangers. Frequently, though, strangers brought it up with us, and an honest answer often brought aspersions our way.
Sometimes, like that day at the zoo, these too-chatty strangers would stop talking when we answered plainly. Sometimes, though, they wouldn't shut up they'd bluntly offer fertility advice, or they'd say we would change our minds and have children soon. Occasionally, we were told with a smirk that we'd have kids accidentally, as if the decision was not ours to make. We were threatened with having no-one to care for us in our old age, as if that's the purpose of having children. And sometimes when we said we simply didn't want kids, people responded with anger, as if we'd said, "We hate kids."
* * * * * * * * * *
All the above is only an extended preface to what I'd intended to write today. It was an hour or so later, and we were still at the zoo, still hot, sweaty, and tired but having a good time. There were children everywhere, and the sound of children being children was background noise, so I hadn't even noticed the one child who was crying.
Stephanie, though, noticed. A little boy, perhaps four or five years old, was by himself in front of the elephants, afraid and bawling. Steph quickly let loose of my hand and ran toward him, and as she approached, she said in a soothing voice, so as not to frighten the boy, "Hey, it's all right, it's all right." With a few more words she was crouched next to him, and she asked, "Are you lost?" He shook his head yes, and she said, "Well, we'll find your family." The kid smiled, and Steph asked, "Is it OK if I pick you up?" He nodded yes, and she lifted him in her arms.
Soon we were sitting on a nearby bench with that boy between us, and Steph handled all of it perfectly. She asked the boy's name, and remembered it, made him the center of attention and referred to him by name over and over. She distracted him from his worries by talking about the elephants, and who knew Steph had so much knowledge about elephants? She delivered an elephant-monologue that ran at least several minutes.
When I suggested that we take the boy to the zoo's main office, Steph said, "His family must be terribly worried, and the office is a long walk up the trail. They'll be looking here, long before they'd go there." Which makes sense, so we stayed where we were.
And indeed, a few minutes later the boy shouted his brother's name, and his brother far away turned and saw him and shouted out-of-sight to their parents. Soon we were surrounded by this boy's family, happy to have found him safe and sound, full of thanks and kind words for Stephanie and I. Though I hadn't done much of anything; it was all Stephanie to the rescue.
So, no, we didn't hate children. Steph had worked as a baby-sitter and as a nanny. I babysat nieces and nephews a few times, and did some paid work as a baby-sitter too. Steph was great with kids, and I'm OK with them. We simply wanted to spend our lives with each other, not raising children.
And in all our conversations with rude, incredulous strangers inquiring about our plans for having children, not one of them ever seemed to understand that life without children is a valid choice, too.
Moms and Dads out there, please, stop and think before you say something. Asking strangers when they'll be having children is right up there with asking about politics and religion. It's a question you simply shouldn't ask of someone unless you're already close friends, and if you're close friends you probably know the answer already, so you wouldn't have to ask.