Every day and always

Every day without her is awful, because she's gone.

But also, every day is amazing, with at least something and often many things to thank her for, because she was here. We were good together. She's the only thing I got mostly right in my life. Sixty-three years I've been around so far, and exactly one-third of that time — 21 years with Stephanie — is just plain happiness we can both look back on and be thankful for. Even death can't take that away.

I will always love that lady.

The wall

For years we lived in what’s supposed to be the living room of this apartment, because it's bigger than the bedroom, and has a better view. When Stephanie started having difficulty walking, though, we moved to the room at the end of the hall, because it’s closest to the bathroom and shower. The hallway ends, and the bedroom is to the left, the bathroom is to the right.

When Steph was unable to walk for her last several years, she got around in a wheelchair. A manual chair, of course — the electric ones are crazy expensive. It was a pretty great wheelchair, though — never gave us any mechanical problems, as Steph rolled through rain and snow and mud, sometimes on summer hikes, or on the sand at the beach. We went all over Wisconsin with Steph in that chair, because Steph never wanted to slow down, so we still ate at our favorite restaurants, occasionally visited her folks in Milwaukee, and we still had weekend adventures, definitely. Steph insisted.

Her most common trip in her wheelchair, though, was across the hall to the bathroom. That’s everyone's most common trip, but if you're walking it's easy. In a wheelchair, it takes some effort.

To get to the bathroom, Steph needed to use a slideboard (basically, a small wooden plank) to shimmy herself off the bed and into her wheelchair. Then she’d roll her chair into the hall, and since the bathroom is small and the toilet faces the hall, she’d need to turn her wheelchair around in the hallway, and roll in reverse into the bathroom. Using another slideboard we kept there, she’d shimmy herself from the wheelchair onto the toilet. When she’d finished her business, she’d slideboard-shimmy into the wheelchair again, wash her hands at the sink, and roll back across the hall and into bed. 

Every time she went to the bathroom, she needed to turn around in the hallway, and sometimes, her wheelchair’s wheel bumped the wall as she turned. It was a tiny bump, never a problem or worry. After years in the chair, though, making that twirl in the hallway thousands of times, we noticed a faint streak of gray on the wall, from where the wheels had bumped the wall so many times.

Steph was a far neater person than me, but she never washed the streak off the wall. “It is my intention,” she once said when I’d mentioned it, “to make that streak much blacker, by bumping the wall many thousands of times over many years.”

We laughed at that when she said it, and she did indeed make the streak darker. Not as black as we would’ve liked, of course, but it’s fairly thick, wouldn’t you say?

I’m hoping to live in this apartment until I follow Steph wherever she’s gone, and it’s my intent to never wash the wall.


Steph liked bagels, but bagels aren't much of a thing in the midwest, so she’d settled on Einstein Bros. “Not great,” she said, “but pretty good.” Today's entry is a memory, not an endorsement, and Steph even said, "You want a real bagel, they're in New York City and they're not Einstein's."

We may have eaten at Einstein Bros once or twice, but there's no real ‘atmosphere’ there, so usually we’d get bagels to go. It was something that made my lady happy, so we did it as often as we could afford. If I had the car and she was at work, maybe I’d bring her a bagel at lunch. More often, if she’d had a rough day at her office, a bagel for dinner made a bad day go away.

When Steph started having medical issues, there were more bad days to chase away, you know? So the bagels kept coming. Einstein had a location on the west side of town, a few blocks from the clinic where Steph got shots into her eye every month, and after that ordeal, it was always bagels for dinner.

That same shop was also near Madison’s main hospital, and when Steph was a patient, and the hospital food was so inedible, several times I bought the bagel and spread she wanted, and brought it to her bedside. A bagel was also her guaranteed going-away meal, on the day she was discharged. The only times she didn't get a bagel for checking out of the hospital was when she'd been at some other hospital, or, sigh ... the time she didn't check out. I owe you a bagel, sweetie.

Of course, I knew exactly what she wanted. Her first choice would be the asiago cheese bagel. Her second choice, if all the asiagos were gone, was an onion bagel. Third choice: sesame. And if all those bagels were gone, she’d still be pretty happy with just a plain bagel. 

Important: Remind them to slice the bagel, but never get it toasted at the shop, because Steph preferred to smear on the shmear and then put it in the toaster oven. Or she’d sometimes eat it cold, and still she’d be bagel-happy. 

She'd like the garden vegetable cream cheese please, or onion/chive cream cheese. When she was walking and we went in together, she always oohed and aahed over their display of side treats — cookies, muffins, pastries, etc — but she never ordered any. When she was no longer walking and instead I went into the shop without her, the bagel was always accompanied by a cookie, a muffin, or a pastry.

There was also an Einstein location on our side of town, near the grocery store where I did our shopping, and I’d usually bring home a bagel for my baby. It always made her smile, and I loved (and miss so much) seeing her smile. Without her, just driving past the bagel store always made me smile.

No smile today, though — the bagel shop on our side of town is permanently closed, and the big Einstein sign is gone. It’s silly, but seeing the building without the bagel sign made my eyes well up. I haven’t been there since Steph died, and I hate bagels so I was never going there again, but I wanted the bagel shop to be there, serving fresh hot memories, sliced.

Time for a walk

Every day, unless it’s raining or snowing, I take a walk around the neighborhood. It’s the same neighborhood, the same sidewalks, past the same houses, crossing the same streets, as when Stephanie and I walked together.

In early years she walked beside me, in later years I pushed her wheelchair, and in the years since she’s left I’ve always felt that she was walking beside me, or rolling in front of me, on all our daily walks.

Hey, love! It’s sunny and 70° outside. Would you like to go for a walk with me?

"Happy girl!"

Stephanie and I spoke our own silly language, like annoying couples sometimes do. There were a dozen phrases we'd say to each other that might have mystified anyone else, and one was simply, “Happy girl!” or “Happy boy!” Either of us might shout it out whenever we were having a good time, and the other would reply in kind.

We said it almost anywhere, perhaps several times during the same day if we were having a fun field trip somewhere. Sure, it was a recurring moment of nuttiness, but announcing “Happy girl!” and “Happy boy!” made us an even happier girl and boy.

I vividly remember some places and moments when Steph was an especially "Happy girl!" — 

• after driving across the country, finally paying the toll and crossing the Bay Bridge to San Francisco, where we'd begin our marriage...

• the night we moved into the apartment she'd found for us there...

• and when we left San Francisco, chased away by rents that never stopped rising, and it felt like we were escaping to affordable freedom...

• when she checked out of a hospital in Kansas City after gall bladder surgery, tuckered out but knowing she'd be better...

• as we drove back to Kansas City, after a marvelous day in Lawrence, Kansas, of all places...

• when we left Kansas City, where we'd never quite felt at home...

• "Welcome to Madison," said the sign, and we were in a moving van, entering Steph's former home town that would be our home together, for the rest of her life...

• after any afternoon spent with her parents, the Mom and Dad she loved so dearly...  

• during any of our picnics at Golden Gate Park or Ocean Beach in San Francisco, or Loose Park in Kansas City, or Tenney Park here in Madison...

• perhaps surprisingly, the first time she rode in a wheelchair — she felt liberated, because she could finally get herself from one side of a room to the other without wincing in pain, as she had more and more when she'd walked...

• and myriad moments when we were happy for no particular reason except that we were together...

Stephanie has been gone for three years and a month and a few days now, and for me there are smiles occasionally, sure. Life isn't hellish, but I am no longer a happy boy like I was with Stephanie, and I never will be.

On my drive home from breakfast at the diner on Friday, though, I was in good spirits, waiting at a stop light, and I heard myself say it. "Happy boy!" I had to pull the car to the shoulder for several minutes, to cry.

For the first time in years, just for a moment, I was a happy boy. It was a very, very strange experience, and I was kinda angry at myself — what the hell am I doing, being happy? But I had to laugh, too. Stephanie would want me to be happy now and again, and she'd be so damned proud of me. I could almost hear her shouting back, "Happy girl!"

Union Corners

It’s been three years, today, since Steph died. Sometimes, a few hours pass without me remembering her, but never much longer than that.

I still stand at the shrine in the living room several times every week, looking at one of my few pictures of her (she hated being photographed) and going through her things on the shelves, and all the memories that accompany the things.

The living room is a mess, though. I’m a slob, and without Steph needing a clear path for her wheelchair, the apartment has gotten cluttered and sloppy. I don’t think she’d disapprove, though. “You kept it neat for me, and I appreciate it, but now you don’t have to vacuum or clean up so often.” Thank you, love.

It’s becoming a tradition, I guess, that on Stephanie’s birthday, and today, Stephanie’s deathday, I go to Olbrich Gardens, the local botanical park. I’ve always liked Olbrich, and she loved it. It might have been her favorite few acres on earth. It’s free admission, which we appreciated so much when we were poor, that we became donors when we weren’t so poor. And it was the first place we ever went, or heard of, that let us borrow a wheelchair. Steph was still walking but it was getting difficult for her, and that afternoon was a joyous treat.

At Olbrich, we always walked the grounds in the same order, along the same paths among so many paths. I still walk that path, every time. When the weather is right and the flowers are in bloom, being on that path, in that park, is almost like being with her.

Life without her has gotten … less painful, or it’s a pain I’m accustomed to. It’s an ache that never heals. Day-to-day crap keeps my mind occupied, but always Stephanie comes around a corner at any moment, surprising me with a happy memory, or sometimes a sad one — or just some strange ones, like today at the doctor’s office.

Steph, being in not so good health, always had doctor’s appointments on her calendar, and I was always with her for them. It can’t be true, but it feels like we saw every doctor in the county.

Since she’s been gone, I haven't seen a doctor at all. It's not fair, how damned healthy I am. Yesterday, though, the doctor’s office called and asked me to get some routine lab tests, so I went to the Union Corners Clinic this morning.

Of course, I’d been to that clinic many times with Stephanie.

Today I walked past the patient drop-off at the front door, where I’d helped her into her wheelchair so many times, and then she’d rolled into the building while I parked the car.

Stepped inside and passed the pharmacy, where I’d picked up her prescriptions.

Passed the check-in desk, where she’d once gotten understandably angry after waiting an hour, only to discover they’d somehow ‘forgotten’ her appointment. 

Passed the ladies’ room, where I’d once helped her force a malfunctioning door open.

And then I stepped into the same waiting room where we’d first discovered The New Yorker, which we later subscribed to, and still do. There were no magazines today, though — I guess the clinic has canceled all their subscriptions, because of COVID.

A large sign on the wall said, “Seating closed to maintain social distancing,” but 11 people were sitting in 15 chairs. Stephanie would've laughed at that. Go through years of dealing with doctors, and you learn to laugh at the stupidity of some of the “medical rules,” like that sign on the wall, universally ignored. Instead of sitting, though, I leaned on the wall.

Another sign, this one electronic, said, “Urgent Care wait times,” and estimated that the wait for ‘urgent care’ would be three hours. And I laughed, because we’d waited in that room for urgent care, for Stephanie, some years back. We'd waited longer than three hours, and eventually Steph sighed and said, “’Urgent.’ You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” (It’s a line from The Princess Bride, a movie Steph used to like a lot.)

I wasn’t there for anything urgent today, so I only had to wait about twenty minutes. When they called my name, I followed the phlebotomist toward the room for drawing blood. After some chit-chat, while she was prepping the vials, I said, “I’ve been in this room before, with my wife. She’s gone now.”

The lady said, “I’m sorry to hear that.” Just a nice platitude, and she went on with her work, tying a knot around my arm and stabbing me with a needle. After she’d drained half a gallon, though, she looked at me and said, “Was she in a wheelchair, your wife?”

“Yeah,” I said, a bit startled. “How can you possibly know that?”

“I’m good with faces,” she said. “I remember you, and you were with a nice lady in a wheelchair. And she was a difficult stick.”

I laughed. Hadn’t heard that complaint in years, but yeah, Stephanie had tiny veins, and many of her blood-draws were frustrating pokes and re-pokes and re-re-pokes.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” she added. Again with the platitude, but it’s appreciated.

“Thanks,” I said, and she changed the subject and I’m glad she did, because my eyes were watery.

Steph told me a few times, “We must be quite the sight — a big bearded guy pushing a one-legged woman in a wheelchair.” She was right again, as usual. Quite the sight, and they remember us at the clinic, even when it’s just me.

On my way out of that place, I thought of when we’d first moved to Madison, and settled in this neighborhood, called Union Corners. There'd been a diner here, where the clinic is now. Steph and I had eaten there, when we were new in town and still looking for a favorite restaurant, but it wasn’t very good. Then the diner was torn down, making way for a big development project, which never happened. Ten years later, they built a clinic here, and we became regular customers.

Behind the clinic are railroad tracks. Before all the troubles, when Steph was healthy, we’d walked those tracks, after eating at that diner. A long walk, past some weary houses, through what used to be a clearing, and then beside homes along quiet streets, to Olbrich Gardens. It was a couple of miles, each way, and Steph and I were lazy, so usually we drove. But we could and did walk to Olbrich from here, a few times.

I sat in the car, looking at the railroad tracks, remembering those walks, and the lady I’d been walking with. “Love you, sweetie,” I said. Then I took a picture, started the car, and drove home not quite without her.

The Vientiane Palace

Stephanie and I didn’t have many ‘bad dates’. Even when the food was lousy or the movie sucked or the bus was late, we almost always had a good time just being with each other.

One of our worst dates, though, was perhaps twenty years ago. We were visiting Madison (we hadn't yet moved here), and walking up and down State Street. We were having a marvelous time, until we decided to lunch at the Vientiane Palace.

Maybe it’s pertinent, so I’ll mention that despite the ‘Palace’ in its name, this was not a highbrow place. From the outside, it was nondescript, and inside it was nothing fancy. It smelled good, though.

When we walked in, the restaurant was empty — no employees, no customers, and nobody greeted us. We looked around, and after a bit, Stephanie said, just loud enough that her voice would reach the back room, "Is anyone here?" There was no answer.

We waited, then doublechecked the hours on the door, which said they'd opened hours earlier. Steph and I had been walking all afternoon, so after waiting a few minutes, we seated ourselves at a table.

We weren’t in any particular hurry, and we weren't grumpy or huffy. We had a long, quiet, un-interrupted conversation, before Steph politely called out again, "Hello? Is anyone here?"

It was at least ten minutes before a waitress appeared. She may or may not have sighed and said, “Oh, jeez,” when she saw us, but if she didn’t say it, it was implied. She did not smile, did not say hello, and complained that we’d sat at a table instead of waiting to be seated.

We didn’t say anything, but — was sitting down unreasonable? How long would you stand and wait in an empty restaurant?

She didn't bring menus, but the waitress asked if we wanted anything to drink. We said, “Water, please,” and she disappeared behind a door. We never saw her again. Twenty minutes later we left.

My charitable assessment is that the waitress saw us, and forgot us. Steph suspected it was more intentional: the waitress didn’t want us there, because we were fat and poor (asking for water = poor).

Well, we were fat and poor but also hungry. When we found someplace else to eat, Stephanie told me about other times she felt she’d been treated rudely for her appearance. I thought she was an attractive woman (I was always attracted to her) but Steph thought — and she’d been told, by rude bastards — that she was too short, too plump, too plain-looking. It hurt her.

Perhaps she was over-sensitive to such slights, I thought, because I don’t give a damn what anyone thinks of me, and if you think I’m a piece of crap I might not even notice. Several times through our years together, though, Stephanie pointed it out to me, when people who came in after us were served before us, or when other customers got big smiles, and we were seated in the back, by the kitchen.

Eventually, I decided that she was right. It didn't happen often, but it happened. We weren’t the kind of people certain businesses want as customers.

The Vientiane Palace was on a busy street, and we often drove past it. Sometimes, Steph would say, “Remember when they wouldn’t serve us lunch?”, and she'd flip off the place as we went by.

There were usually cars in the parking lot, people going in and coming out, so presumably some customers were served, enjoyed their meals, and maybe even came back. We never did.

It's silly and stupid for me to hold a grudge all these years later, but I do. We were having a nice afternoon, we wanted a nice lunch, and instead, that restaurant made my wife cry a little.

I drove past the 'Palace' again a week ago, and it’s out of business. It’s silly for me to have smiled when I saw that, but smile I did, as I tapped Steph’s empty seat in the car. “Hey, honey,” I said, “Remember when they wouldn’t serve us lunch?”

Her smiles, her laughter, even her tears

I’m now vaccinated against the Coronavirus, and both jabs were at a facility I’d visited a few times, with Stephanie. She was sick a lot, and there aren’t many medical facilities around town that we didn’t visit at least once or twice.

I didn't know the building from the address, but I knew it when I was a few blocks away. I remember which specialist she saw in that building, and what the problem was that brought her. It’s not particularly sad walking in  without her — she never wanted to be in that building, or in any of the medical buildings she spend so much time in.

After we'd walked into that building together, a few years later we returned. I took her wheelchair out of the trunk, and she slid onto it, and that time I walked and she rolled into the building — the same building where I got my two jabs. I drove the same car, and her wheelchair is still in the trunk.

♦ ♦ ♦

Now that I’m protected against COVID, I’ve resumed shopping in person, instead of having groceries delivered. It’s the first time in more than a year that I’ve been inside Woodman's. Again, walking every aisle, I know exactly which products, which brands Stephanie would want. I know which chips she’d like as a treat, what soda she’d want, which cheese she’d need for which recipes, which noodles, and what soup.

Near the front of the store is the flower section, where I’d surprise Stephanie with whatever purple flowers didn’t have much odor, since a stronger scent messed with her allergies. I wish I could bring home some purple flowers again, and see her smile when she saw them.

♦ ♦ ♦

Something as simple as doing the laundry is a Steph memory, too. She did the wash, everywhere we lived, because she knew how to sort clothes by color, and knew what shouldn’t go into the dryer, and all that. I never much knew or cared about such things.

When she could no longer get to the building’s basement, laundry became one of my chores. Steph taught me about sorting by colors, and that delicate things — sweaters and such — don’t go into the dryer, and especially how to hang up her nice clothes, so they don’t get all wrinkled.

Now she’s gone, so I no longer sort by colors. I don’t own any delicate clothes, so everything goes into the dryer. I don’t hang anything up, because I’m wrinkled so my clothes should be wrinkled. But I wish I could hang Steph's sweaters on the clothesline, and bring her fresh clean pajamas …

♦ ♦ ♦

When she was here, we had adventures every weekend — we went places, did things, and my life was filled with her. I miss her smiles, her laughter, even her tears, and her energy, her voice, her karma, and her adventures.

If anyone at work asks on Monday, I'll say that I had a quiet weekend at home with the Mrs, and it'll be true. She’s closest when I’m remembering, writing dull entries like this, a bunch of words that couldn’t possibly interest anyone but me. Oh, but I gotta write the words.

To me every memory is beautiful, even the most banal bits. It’s a tear down my cheek. Remembering her is the best thing in what’s left of my life. Stephanie has been gone for so long, and still, always, she’s a smile on my face.

Without her

I’m quitting my job, almost certainly — but I’m not quite certain. I need to talk it over with Stephanie first, which is not an option, damn it.

If she was here, she’d cut through my blather and confusion, she’d see the pros and cons more clearly than me, she’d bring up consequences I haven’t considered, whittle away all my piffle and nonsense, leave only the essential facts, and then she’d back off and let me come to a sensible determination. And whatever I decided, she’d be on my side, and she’d show me how to do it more eloquently.

Without her, I’m the king of bad decisions. Every major choice in my life has been either arguably foolish or utterly dumbshit. The only exception was marrying Steph. She was exceptional.

Without Stephanie to talk with, I try to hear what she’s not here to say. In any little conversation, her voice comes through clearly. In the mid-sized conversations, I can guess the gist. But in all our years together, whenever we talked about serious things I never knew what she was going to say. All I knew was, it was gonna be smart so I always listened.

Without her, I can’t write her half of the dialogue. So … all I can do is what I’ve done with every sticky situation since she’s been gone. Pinch my nose, shut my eyes, and jump into the water. Here goes.

♦ ♦ ♦

Addendum, a few days later:  Steph was always full of common sense, so it's no surprise that she talked me out of it. Thanks, love.

Ballet in the park

After we moved to Kansas City, money was tight, and entertainment mostly meant walking in the neighborhood.

It wasn’t a bad neighborhood, though. There was a small but free art museum a few blocks away, and a huge museum a few blocks further, that had free-days once a month, when poor folks like Steph and me were allowed to look upon the art.

We occasionally went to discount matinee movies, sneaking snacks in our pockets to save money. Mostly, though, we stayed at home. Home was within our budget.

So it was a definite yes, when we learned that the Kansas City Ballet was giving a free performance at Loose Park. And is that a great name for a park, or what? Stephanie called it Loose Meat Park. It was named after Jacob Loose, co-founder of Sunshine Biscuit Company. (Cheez-Its, anyone?)

I'm not sure but I think free ballet in the park was an annual thing in Kansas City, every summer. From googling around, I guess they don’t do that any more, maybe because of what happened that night.

Stephanie dressed up fancy, and I dressed semi-fancy, and we packed a picnic dinner and came early enough to stroll the grounds and still get a good seat. We ate under a great big cannon, left over from a Civil War battle that took place in that park.

She was in great spirits, and before the dancing started we had a pleasant conversation with a married couple, senior citizens, both wearing very fancy duds for the ballet. “I hope we’ll be that cute after we've grown old together,” Stephanie said when they'd walked away. She never got old, but she never stopped being cute.

Stephanie also enjoyed the Rose Gardens in Loose Park, which was in full bloom and very impressive. There were lots of roses and they were pretty, and I said I'd steal one for Steph, and she said “Don’t you dare,” with a smile. It was a pretnear perfect evening.

No reservations, sit anywhere for the ballet, and since we were early arrivals we picked great seats. I don’t know diddly about ballet, so all I can say is that the dancers danced real nice. They flew up, and came down, and our seats so close to the stage that even over the loudly-amped classical music we could hear the tender clomps and scuffling as dancers feet landed on the stage. Steph and I both heard the pop, too, and then a shout of pain as a dancer went down with a broken leg.

The crowd was hushed and everything stopped, and we all waited while the injured dancer was carried off in a stretcher and then an ambulance. It put a damper on the evening’s mood, of course, but as they say, “The show must go on,” and the dancing resumed shortly thereafter.

More vividly than the pop of the broken leg, I remember waiting for the bus home. We were the only people at the bus stop, and when the bus came we were its best-dressed passengers. Steph noticed that the cars parked at Loose Park had mostly been new and expensive, Lincolns and Cadillacs and BMWs. “The ballet is basically a rich people’s thing,” she said. “We’re the only people going home on the bus, but I’m glad they let us come.”

“That’s better than leaving in an ambulance,” I said, and she gently punched me in the arm. It’s weird, the little moments I remember all these years later. She smiled as she play-punched me.

On the ride home and in our apartment, Steph said what a wonderful evening we’d had, but what a disaster the night had been for that dancer. “A broken leg means he’ll be unable to dance for six or eight weeks. He’ll miss most of the ballet’s season, and I’m not sure there’s sick leave in the Kansas City Ballet. Maybe the Bolshoi, but maybe not here.”

She gave it some serious thought, too. It was a temporary stage, set up on grass in the park, and the stage surface seemed flat to the audience, but perhaps there were slight ups and downs on its floor. She wondered whether the dancers were even being paid for a free performance, and whether the dancer had adequate health insurance.

She mentioned it again at bedtime. Steph was worried about the dancer, and I guess that’s all there is to my story. Maybe it came to mind because it's a warm, late-spring evening here, like that night there. It’s another random happy memory of Steph, and those are my most prized possessions.

I've googled, trying to find out who that dancer was, 19 or 20 years ago, and whether his career rebounded from the accident, but I came up blank. Now I’m sitting here staring at Stephanie's picture, the lady who worried about a dancer whose name we didn't even know.

I wish Steph & I could’ve grown old together, like she said that day. Kinda sucks growing old without her.