Breakfast for the blues

It's coming up on a year since Stephanie ... died. Almost typed "passed away," but that euphemism seems fake to me. We never talked about that particular phrase, but Stephanie was big on direct speaking and common sense; I think she'd say, "Don't soft-pedal something awful. Deal with it." She'd say that she died, she didn't "pass away."

A year ago, she was feeling lousy and not eating well, and I was trying to coax her into seeing a doctor. Sometime soon — I don't know the exact date — it'll be a year since I came home from work and found her on the floor in the bedroom, barely lucid. That's not a pleasant day to remember, so I won't go into detail, but we rode to the hospital in an ambulance. Again. We'd ridden to the hospital in an ambulance twice before. Her health was sometimes precarious, over the last several years of her life.

But she also had long stretches of good health. She'd sometimes go the better part of a year seeing no doctors at all, except the kidney people. No escaping that — once you've been diagnosed with kidney disease, you'll have perpetual appointments with kidney doctors and kidney nurses for as long as you're alive. But other than the required kidney appointments, she sometimes went many months without needing medical attention. She was handling the dialysis well. We had good times, lots of good times. Unless we got smacked by a truck or something, we figured we had a lot of years remaining. A lot of years together.

Well, we figured wrong, and it still feels unreal. Those "lot of years" will never happen. Someone terrific is gone. An all-around excellent person, my favorite human out of all the billions of us, is absent. Someone with so much passion, commitment, knowledge, kindness, so much dang spark, simply over. Someone with so much heart, and it stopped beating. The only woman I've ever loved, and the only woman who's ever loved me. The person who rescued me from a life of nothingness. She was about 75% of the brains between us, and 80% of the human decency. She was the only other person on the planet who really and truly mattered to me. And she's dead.

It still rips me to shreds, that her half of all our memories are missing. That she's left, and she's never coming back. No more holding her hand. No more calling me on my crap. No more laughing with her. No more good home cooking.

I've grown accustomed to life without her, as much as I ever will, but it still bites. I write about our times together, but can't capture a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of what she knew and said and thought and what she was. I ain't tough, so even after 11½ months I cry at the littlest things. Still pull the car over to the side of the road when I'm suddenly too overwhelmed to drive. Still relive little moments of our time together, random flashes of memory beyond my control, but I welcome it.

Maybe I'm depressed? That word doesn't feel right to me. Depression is a real thing, nobody's doubting that, but there ought to be a different word for times when you ought to be depressed. If I wasn't depressed, seems to me, that would be a symptom of mental illness. For lack of a better word, then, let's call it the blues. Extended blues, for a year now.

Stephanie and I had a treatment for the blues — bacon and eggs. Breakfast is my favorite meal, and it was hers, too. Something fried, something eggy, something sweet, something savory, something pig-based, and always a cup of coffee. Breakfast at a diner is how we battled the blues, whenever Steph or I had a crappy day at work, or when some bozo Republican got elected, or whenever she endured another cruel medical event. There's no better way to beat back the blues than ham and eggs and caffeine.

We had a favorite place for breakfast in San Francisco — Squat & Gobble Café and Crepery. We had a favorite place for breakfast in Kansas City — The Woodsweather Café. Took us a long time to find a favorite place for breakfast in Madison, but when Ogden's North Street Diner opened, that became our place.

Well, these days I eat breakfast in a diner once or twice weekly. For forty-five minutes, or for an hour if I drink too much coffee, everything in the world isn't quite so sucky. That's worth ten bucks plus a tip. It would be better, of course, so much better if Stephanie was having breakfast with me, if we were trading bites off each other's plates, giggling at each other's jokes. But breakfast at a diner, even without her, is better than moping at home.

This morning I went to the Cottage Café, way out on Atlas Street. Ogden's is yummier, but we ate there dozens of times so Ogden's is overcrowded with memories of Steph, maybe more memories in a tightly concentrated space than I can handle. We only ate once at the Cottage Café, so this morning I knew that would be a better choice.

It's in a rather remote section of town. Had to check a map just now, to be sure that it's actually inside Madison, not in a suburb or some neighboring town. And still, even in that far-flung corner of the city, memories of Stephanie were everywhere. Right down the street from the café, there's the U-Haul place where we rented the truck to move to California, and where we returned another truck when we moved to Madison from Kansas City, and where we rented a truck a third time, to carry a sofa we'd bought from the Salvation Army to our apartment.

A mile or so down a Cottage Grove Road, there's the parking lot where we left that same sofa leaning on a dumpster, several years later, after it had broken in half (since it was in two pieces, we didn't need to rent a truck; we just crammed it into our car). In that same strip mall there's a keto restaurant, where we almost had lunch, but we were both put off by the seating — indoor picnic tables with permanent benches that couldn't be moved, leaving no discernible space for someone to sit in a wheelchair and eat at a table. Further down the street, we once went to a garage sale and bought a giant cooking pot that Steph never really used.

Breakfast was fine. Omelet and coffee, $8.95, and a fivespot for the waitress. Drove home afterwards, thinking of Stephanie. There's no corner of this county that doesn't hold our memories, and that's almost always a good thing. On the left, that's the Mexican place where we had dinner, just once, but we meant to go back. On the right, there used to be a library branch — it's relocated, and it wasn't the branch we usually went to, but we'd been there several times and saw a movie there once. Approaching our neighborhood, Olbrich Gardens, then Atwood, then Winnebago, and memories everywhere.

In a few weeks it'll be a year since we said goodbye. It's still flabbergasting. Absolutely no any idea how I've made it this long, or how I could possibly make it through another year, but I will, because Stephanie would want me to. And once or twice a week, a Denver omelet with potatoes and toast helps … just a little.

Keeping a big secret

Seeing Stephanie in my dreams is about the best thing in my life these days. I'm turning in earlier most nights than I ever have before, just because I'm looking forward to seeing her.

For months, we've chatted in my dreams, and it wasn't until waking up that I remembered she's gone. Which was always awful —first thing in the morning, restart the grieving process from step one.

Lately, though, in my dreams, I'm aware that Stephanie's not alive. Which makes waking up easier, but makes the dreams more difficult, because in my dreams, when we're talking, I'm keeping an enormous secret from her.

Last night, for example, I dreamed that we were going through boxes of stuff after we'd moved, and I found a supply of some of her medicines. She was unpacking another box in the same room, and I said, "Hey, I found a bunch of your pills, Steph," and I read the name of the pills off the packaging.

"They took me off that prescription," she said. "I don't have to take those pills any more."

I wanted to say, "You don't have to take any of your pills any more, Love." Not having to take pills on a neverending med-sched (as she called it) would be delightful news for Stephanie; she didn’t like popping pills all the time.

Some of her pills were supposed to be taken in the morning, some at mid-day, some in the evening, some at bedtime, but it was actually more complicated than that, because on dialysis days the morning and mid-day pills had to be delayed — the essence of dialysis is cleansing the blood to remove any toxins, but the process also removes whatever meds are in your bloodstream.

Some of Stephanie's pills were supposed to be taken with meals, and others on an empty stomach; some of her pills were so big they were difficult to swallow, and some were so tiny they sometimes slipped through her fingers and fell to the carpet, never to be seen again; some of her pills had unpleasant side effects, caused diarrhea or nausea, and some came with warnings not to drink alcohol, and one prescription came with a warning not to eat grapefruit, so Steph had to give up grapefruit juice, one of her favorites.

Some of her pills were so tightly regulated by the FDA or the EPA, or both, that she wasn't allowed to call for refills until she was almost out of them. This gets complicated, sorry, but if the directions said, "Take two pills three times daily," well, obviously, she'd need six of those pills every day, right? 42 pills weekly, for just that one prescription, so when a bottle of 100 felt only half full, she would phone for a refill, but the answer was often no — that's a "controlled substance," so you can't refill that prescription when you still have dozens of pills on hand. But if she waited a few days her supply of those pills would run too low, and she'd have none for however long it took the doctor's office to re-authorize the prescription — which could be several days.

All the pills, all the hassles. Steph disliked being a perpetual patient, and managing all those prescriptions was, she said, like having a part-time job that didn't pay. She wanted to read another chapter of Jane Austen, but needed to spend half an hour doublechecking her supply of pills. She wanted to do something fun, but first she needed to re-order refills, and re-stock her pill-cases.

So in the dream, I wanted to tell her, "You don't have to take any of your pills any more." Stephanie would've been happy as heck to hear it. Even in dreams, though, she's still smart. She would have wanted to know why she didn't have to take any pills, and the answer to that question would be, "Because you're no longer alive." How could I say that? Even in a dream, how could I tell the woman I love that she's dead?

Instead I asked if she'd like to go for a walk, a proposition sure to put a smile on her lovely face. She always fancied a pleasant walk on a warm summer's evening, and we must've walked a few thousand miles over the years. She checked the weather to be sure we wouldn't need our jackets, slipped into her comfy shoes, and we were out the door. And I awoke, perplexed.

Stephanie and I rarely kept secrets, beyond birthday presents and little well-planned surprises. In my dreams, though, I'm keeping a huge secret from her. It feels wrong to keep such a secret, but it would be wronger still if I told her, so — yeah, color me perplexed.

Picnic at Tenney Park

After Stephanie's death, there were suddenly a lot of places we often went to, that I never wanted to go to again. Thought there would be too many memories tied up in our favorite restaurants, our favorite parks, even our favorite movies.

Bit by little bit, though, I've been going back to some of the places and things Stephanie and I loved the most. For her birthday, I went back to our favorite diner for breakfast, and walked through Olbrich Gardens, where we had strolled and held hands so many times. And it was nice. The memories, as I'd feared, were all over the place, but in a good way. Guess I'd been afraid it might be awful, but instead it was simply sweet.

Today it's 79° and sunny, and if Stephanie was here she'd want to go for a drive, or have a picnic in the park. So you know what? I'm having a picnic in the park.

I'm not bringing the cat, though. Steph always liked bringing Minky on our picnics, which were usually at the shore of Lake Mendota in Tenney Park. The cat played in front of us, leashed to the picnic table, as we ate. And the cat loved it. We'd leave her enough leash length that she could be on the grass, or in the sand, or run from the grass to the sand and back again, and that's a real treat for Minky. Other than picnics and visits to the veterinarian, our cat has spent her entire life in our apartment. We absolutely never let her outside, unless she's on a leash.

Stephanie and I loved the picnics, and so did Minky, once we got there and had her leashed up. But the cat hated every other part of it the adventure — she hated wearing the collar, she hated having the leash on the collar, she hated being forced or tricked into her carrying case, she hated being carried to the car, and she absolutely hated riding in the car, ten minutes to the park and ten minutes back. Our cat loved being in the park, but I don't think she enjoys it enough to make up for getting there and getting back, so Minky isn't invited to today's picnic.

I wore the cat t-shirt, though. Originally it was a gift for Stephanie, because after we added Minky to our family Steph sometimes called herself a cat lady. The t-shirt, with an enormous cat face silkscreened across the chest, is adorable, or at least I thought so. Steph didn't agree. She wore it a few times to be polite, and then she confessed that she didn't much like it, so it became my t-shirt — my gift to Stephanie became a gift to myself.

Stopped at Milio's Sandwiches to have them pack my picnic: a turkey on wheat for me, and an Italian on white for Stephanie. An Italian sandwich, if you're wondering, is ham, salami, and some other kind of ham, with the expected veggies and provolone cheese. Whenever we went to Milio's, Stephanie always ordered an Italian on white, so to honor her and because I was extra hungry, today I ordered my usual and hers. "Great shirt," said the guy behind the counter. Are you listening, Steph?

And then, on to Tenney Park, where it felt odd pulling into the parking lot. Never have I ever been to Tenney Park without Stephanie. And was she with me this afternoon? Yeah, she was. She's with me everywhere, and she always will be.

Tenney Park is like two parks, divided by Sherman Avenue. On the west side of Sherman, it's a long beachfront stroll along the shore of Lake Mendota — swimming, volleyball, beaches, a long pier that's usually crowded with folks fishing, and the locks, where boats are lifted and lowered to and from Lake Mendota to the lower levels of the Yahara River and Lake Monona. The Yahara isn't really a river any more; its course has been changed so it's essentially a canal, and the water is so calm and still it's more like a long, narrow lake than a river.

On the east side of Sherman, there's a lagoon and an island, both of which are man-made, I think. And there are always folks fishing along the shores of both the fake river and the fake lagoon. Don't let the word 'fake' make you think less of it, though; it's really quite lovely. Steph went fishing in the lagoon several times, with reliable success. She never fished across the street in Lake Mendota; that side of the park was, for us, just for picnics.

After opening the car door and stepping out, my first thought was the same first thought Steph and I always had, every time we went to Tenney. Yikes, this place stinks. It's some combination of the water, the seaweed, and I don't know what else, maybe dead fish or seagull crap, but it stinks. The odor is worse in the parking lot than in the park, though. When you first step out of the car you want to barf, but walk into the park and five minutes later the stink has faded to a slight scent, perhaps even charming.

I walked toward what we had once considered "our bench," near the swimming area. That's where we sat for most of our first dozen picnics at Tenney Park, before they plopped a great big dumpster six feet from the bench. That's a whole 'nother stink, and one that never fades. That dumpster is still there, where it's been for at least ten years, so once again that bench remains empty. Not sure I've ever seen anyone sit in that bench since the dumpster arrived.

Long enough down the beach that I couldn't smell the dumpster any more, I took a bench where Stephanie and I had sat a few times. Watched the boats — some roaring fast, some sailing slow, some rowboats, some pontoon boats, and one guy in an innertube. Stephanie sat next to me the last time I sat at this bench, and Minky played in the grass. Today I sat alone, and watched some old man throw a stick in the water, and his dog swimming out to get it, time after time. My sandwich was good. Stephanie's sandwich was OK.

After eating, I walked past the volleyball pit. We never played, but we sometimes watched. I remember that we watched some schmuck walk his dog past the volleyball pit once, when no-one was playing. The dog pooped in the sand, and the schmuck laughed and didn't even clean it up.

"People are awful," Stephanie said.

"You're the only exception," I replied.

Walked along the dirt trail toward the locks, which it was a pleasant walk when Stephanie walked, but in her wheelchair it became a bumpy, unpleasant ride for her. At the locks, though, that trail becomes a sidewalk, solid and smooth cement stretching all the way out the pier into the lake. We always walked the pier after a picnic, so today, as always, I walked out on the pier.

Almost all the benches on the pier had fishermen, fisherwomen, and/or fisherchildren sitting in them, fishing, of course. Saw a teenager reel something in; I don't know squat about fish but it looked dinner-sized. All along the pier, there are thousands of rocks all bigger than breadboxes. In the water, boats and gulls and presumably lots of fish. Must've been a couple of dozen fishermen just on the pier, and they wouldn't be there if there weren't fish in the water.

We usually ended our visits to Tenney Park holding hands on the very last bench on the pier, as far out as you can go into the lake without getting wet. Today, though, someone was sitting there, so I took a different bench, one of only two empty benches in that whole half of the park. A sunny day brings everyone to the waterfront.

Sat on that bench for half an hour, remembering all the times Stephanie and I had sat on that bench and all the other benches on the pier. Have I mentioned today that I miss her? I miss her, today and every day.

I've lived in Madison for fifteen years now, long enough to feel very much at home, and to know the local landmarks. Looking north off the pier across the lake, that's the Maple Bluff peninsula. Twisting my head counterclockwise, there's Governor's Island, which isn't really an island. South of that is Governor Nelson State Park, another place we occasionally picnicked. Further south, you can see the snootier neighborhoods of Middleton on the lake's east shore. And southeast from Middleton, is that what I think it is? Yeah, I'm pretty sure that's University Hospital in the distance, where Stephanie died.

A long sigh, a few tears, a quiet walk back to the car. That was an unexpectedly sad moment there at the end, but I'd still rate the picnic delightful. Next time I'm at Tenney Park, next time I'm gazing across the lake, maybe I'll try not to look quite so far to the south.