Steph's Ramp

By late 2015, Stephanie had been in her wheelchair for several months, her amputation was coming soon, and we knew she'd be disabled for the rest of her life. It was, of course, awful in almost every way, but she became accustomed to using ramps instead of steps, and everything else about being disabled.

There are lots of things about getting around in a wheelchair that most people never think about, until they're getting around in a wheelchair. Obstacles couldn't just be "sidestepped" any more. She could roll into most restaurants and businesses with no problem, but there were some buildings where she needed to use a special entrance, and there were a few buildings we wouldn't be able to enter at all. I say "we" because if Steph couldn't get in someplace, I sure as heck wasn't going in without her.

Why were there places she couldn't enter? The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) opened many buildings and doors for the disabled, leading to curb cutaways for wheelchairs, and public toilet stalls big enough to fit a wheelchair, and so much more. Thank heavens for the ADA, but most buildings that predate the legislation (1991) weren’t required to retrofit and become wheelchair-accessible until and unless the owners did a major remodeling of the facility. That's a heck of a loophole, when you're outside someplace and you can't get in.

As Stephanie and I were learning about life with a disability, I noticed something else I'd never noticed: My own workplace was inaccessible.

Built in the 1960s, it's a short skyscraper in downtown Madison, and it's been occasionally painted and recarpeted but never remodeled — so it's exempt from ADA requirements.

There's a parking garage underground, but there was no disabled parking. And if someone in a wheelchair did park in the garage, they'd need help getting inside — the building had no automatic doors.

Could a disabled visitor or employee park on the street? Well, yes and no. This is Wisconsin, where it snows a lot. If someone in a wheelchair parks on the street and it snows, how's he/she going to scrape four inches of frozen icy snow off their windshield? Maybe we should let them park in the underground garage?

Plus it's downtown, so parking on the street is metered and difficult to find. And the building is on a hill so steep, the sidewalk actually has steps — so the building wasn't just inaccessible, it was almost anti-accessible.
I wrote an email to the lady who runs our company (the CEO's secretary) laying all this out. Wasn't sure what to expect, but I work for a pretty good company. She responded in ten minutes, with just a couple of sentences, saying in effect, "Holy crap, I never thought of this at all, because we've never had any employees in a wheelchair, but I will bring this up with the CEO when I see him tomorrow."

Two weeks later they eliminated one parking space to add a disabled space in the underground garage. A week after that, a truck and two workers arrived, and started building a ramp inside the garage, leading to the building's lower-level entrance. They also installed a device that hydraulically opens the door when a button is pushed, allowing access to the elevators inside.

I asked the CEO's secretary how much money they'd spent making the building accessible, but she didn't want to tell me. Googling around, my guess is at least $15,000. That's not a lot for my employer, but it meant a lot to me. They weren't required by law to do it, but they did it, and now if someone in a wheelchair needs to get into the building, there are no obstacles.

I wasn't sure about telling all of this, because it's maybe more about me than about Stephanie, but what the heck.

* * * * * * * * * *

With a single email I was able to get a wheelchair ramp at my workplace, but at home our landlord had said no. We couldn't afford to install a ramp ourselves, and moving seemed impossible, so Stephanie used a wheelchair but lived someplace that wasn't wheelchair accessible.

We bought a bulky portable ramp, which I was happy to set up and break down every time Steph needed to get up and down the stairs, but she never had the simple independence of being able to come and go from her own home, in her own wheelchair, without help from me.

She never complained about it, because patience was one of her superpowers, but it infuriated me, and still does.

* * * * * * * * * *

Steph never visited me at work, but the first time she came to pick me up there — we were going to a movie that night — she laughed and said that she'd temped in that building, just for a few days, years before we met. What are the odds on that?, we wondered.

For the past few months, I've rarely been in the building myself. I'm working at home because of the pandemic, and only going into the office once every couple of weeks, to pick up and drop off paperwork. It's always after hours, usually on the weekend, and I'm the only person in the building.

This morning at around midnight, I parked in the underground garage. Three heavy boxes coming and going is more than I wanted to lift and carry, so I loaded and pushed one of the company's office-carts up and down that wheelchair ramp. Pushed the button to open the door, instead of struggling to manage both the door and the cart.

It occurs to me, I've still never seen anyone in a wheelchair use that ramp or the door-opener at work, but I don't care. It's there and that's as it should be.

Almost all of the company's employees used the ramp when the coronavirus crisis came in March, as we were all loading equipment and files into our cars to start working from home. And I've been using it a couple of times every month.

Is it nuts that I think of it as Stephanie's Ramp? Probably. And this might be nuts too, but last night, after loading stuff into our car, thinking about all this as I pushed the empty cart back into the building, I kissed the ramp's metal railing and said, "I love you, Steph."

Yeah, OK, that is a little nuts.

Door County

We only made one trip to Door County, Wisconsin's second-most famous tourist trap. It's on the other side of the state, a couple of hours from Madison, and like all of our adventures, going there was Stephanie's idea. She'd been to Door County before we'd met, with her family when she was a kid, and with friends when she was in college, and she'd enjoyed it and wanted to return.

This was circa 2013, when Stephanie had been having leg weakness and difficulty walking, but the doctors didn't yet know why. She had a sit-down job, so she was able to continue working, but the two-minute walk from the parking lot to her desk was taking five painful minutes, and she was wobbly on her feet. I wasn't sure whether a touristy weekend trip wouldn't be a good idea.

We barely even talked about that, though, because it wasn't necessary. Planning was one of Stephanie's strong points, so in addition to organizing our itinerary for the trip, I knew she'd also calculated how she'd get around on her limited-access legs.

"I want to see this and that," she said, or words to that effect, "and eat here and there." The details aren't important now; what matters is that she then said, "I'll need to be careful about how far I walk and how long I stand, but you don't need to worry. My legs hurt all the time when I'm standing or walking, so I'm not going to stand too long or walk too far. If there's a long line at a restaurant, I'll wait in the car until you raise an arm to signal me." Point of all this is, I knew she'd thought everything through. Didn't stop me from worrying, though.

Stephanie had told me to expect a lot of crowded shops selling overpriced geegaws, because tourist money keeps the Door County economy cooking. And yup, there was plenty of that. But she promised pretty scenery, and lovely parks, and some actually interesting shops, and other things we could do together. And indeed, we had a very nice time.

We stopped at Seaquist Orchards Farm Market, a big place full of somewhat overpriced produce and their own branded jellies and jams and such. We bought two jars of pumpkin-butter and a couple of fancy jellies that we both loved, and yeah, Stephanie stood and walked in the shop for longer than she'd intended, and her legs were hurting by the time we left.

We stopped at a brewery, the name I've forgotten. Stephanie didn't quite trust me to buy the right beer, but her legs were still hurting so she told me what she wanted, and we crossed our fingers — and I found a palatable brew, surprising both of us. We drank most of it that night, at the Super-8 Motel.

The Super-8 kinda sucked, though. Our room was across the hall from the pool, and the air was heavy with heated and chlorinated moisture. We had a non-smoking room, of course, but still it smelled a little of cigarettes. They offered to switch us to a different room, but we were exhausted and Stephanie said no, thanks. With the combination of tobacco and chlorine, she didn't sleep well, but she only mentioned it in passing.

The next day we had a picnic at Peninsula State Park, eating pumpkin-butter and jelly sandwiches, and drinking what little beer remained from the previous day. A cop car came inching past, and we wondered if they were eyeballing us. Is it illegal to drink beer in the park?

We stopped at an antique store, a long uphill walk from the parking lot, and then up several steps from the walkway. It was obviously difficult for Stephanie, and she held my arm as we went up the steps. We spent too much time (and money) inside the shop, with Steph fascinated by much of the merchandise, and me increasingly worried about her steadiness. We bought a few things, but the only item certain in my memory is a ghastly crocodile head (small, but genuine) that's still on the shelf in our front room. We walked back to the car, Steph holding my arm all the way, but she hadn't complained even once, until she sat down in the car and said, "Oh, God."

We stopped at another trinket shop, but only stayed for a few minutes before Stephanie motioned that she was ready to leave. "Are your legs too painful?" I asked. "Should we call it a day and head home?"

"My legs hurt like the dickens," she said, "but that's not why I wanted to leave. Couldn't you see almost instantly, everything they had was plastic or made in China. We can buy fake stuff like that anywhere, probably cheaper. We didn't come to Door County to buy what they're selling at that place."

Then we called it a weekend, and came home. We'd had a nice visit to Door County, but not so nice that we were eager to go back. Indeed, we never did return, but we ordered some more pumpkin-butter from Seaquist Orchards, by mail.

There are thousands of memories of Stephanie, but there are a few moments that, for no reason at all, remain etched in my head like a snapshot. Just a moment frozen in time, and always they're happy moments. One of those is the crystal-clear memory of Stephanie and I, driving through some small town, on a sunny afternoon, on our way home from Door County. We're sitting at a traffic light, me looking at her, her looking at me, both of us as happy as could be. Just one of the best moments ever.

Did you think this story was building up to Stephanie falling over? Nope, that's not her. Despite walking on malfunctioning legs for a long while before her eventual amputation, she only toppled once, and this wasn't that once. My girl was tough, dang it. She always pushed her limits, but she also knew her limits.

Objectively pretty

There's a great song from West Side Story, called "I Feel Pretty." You know the tune, and the lyrics begin,

I feel pretty,
Oh, so pretty,
I feel pretty and witty and bright!
And I pity
Any girl who isn't me tonight.

Stephanie and I saw the movie together, when it played in revival at the Regency in San Francisco, circa 2000. We enjoyed the film, but she never sang that song.

She thought she wasn't pretty. She didn't bring it up often, but often enough that I knew she believed it. And she knew that I disagreed, but like most of our arguments, I never convinced her I was right.

We were together for more than twenty years, sixteen hours five days a week and 24/7 on weekends and holidays, and there's just about nothing we didn't talk about in that time, so we talked about this. When we did, it was painful for both of us, but more painful for Stephanie, of course.

Today I'm reconstructing those recurring conversations on that delicate subject, sewing together some of the sentences we said, and making it all into one conversation. It's twice as long as any of our discussions about this really were, but it has the key elements from all those conversations intertwined, and I think Steph would agree that it's a fair summary.

"… So that's what happened, that's what he said," she said. "He just didn't take me seriously. He would've listened more closely and given my words more consideration if I wasn't a woman, or if I was pretty."

"Well, I'm not disagreeing that he dismissed what you said because you're a woman," I said. "I've seen it before, and I know that happens. And I'm not disagreeing that he didn't care because maybe in his eyes you're not drop-dead gorgeous. He's a dumbass, absolutely. But you couldn't be wronger when you say 'if I was pretty.' Flush that thought, lady. You are pretty."

She looked at me, a skeptical smirk on her pretty face, said nothing for a moment, and then said, "It's sweet of you to say always that, but c'mon."

"C'mon nothing. Pretend this isn’t your husband talking, but just a straight man who likes looking at pretty women. You're a pretty woman."

"There's a mirror in the bathroom, Doug. I look at myself every morning. I've been looking at myself for years and years, and never yet have I seen a pretty woman looking back."

"Yeah, well, that's just, like, your opinion, man." A line from one of our favorite movies, The Big Lebowski. We often tossed movie dialogue at each other.

"I love you," she said, "and you love me, and you think I'm pretty. I love that about you, but I'm not."

"Eye of the beholder, love. When I behold you, I see a pretty woman."

"You said 'love,' and that's the problem," she said. "You love me, and that makes your opinion unreliable. Completely subjective."

"It's subjective, maybe, but not completely subjective. Me saying you're pretty is an unbiased, objective assessment of my subjective opinion." Yeah, we actually spoke like this sometimes, using half-assed academic jargon that Stephanie understood and I probably didn't quite.

"If I say you're thin and muscular, are you going to believe me?" She smiled and chuckled as she said it, reassurance that she wasn't trying to hurt my feelings. And I sure as heck didn't want to hurt her feelings, either. It was a difficult conversation, every time.

"No, we both know I'm fat and flabby. That's just the truth."

"But you tell me I'm pretty," she said, "and I'm supposed to believe that's the truth?"

"Yup," I said. "I love you, but I wouldn't lie to you, not even about this."

"OK, debate me," Stephanie said. "Resolved: I'm an objectively un-attractive woman. Evidence: The number of men who've told me I'm pretty is three, and the number of men who've said that when they weren't trying to get into my pants is one — just you. Three-billion men in the world, and the only one who thinks I'm pretty is my husband? That's serious evidence that I'm not pretty. Now, dispute the evidence if you can, but leave your emotions out of it."

See, this is why I hated arguing with Stephanie. She was smarter than me, and even when she was wrong she could always out-think me and out-reason me.

I sighed, put my hands together, probably looked up at the ceiling to gather my thoughts and words. "Just facts, no emotions: It is nuts what our society does to women. From TV and movies, from advertising, and in just about everything from bikinis to billboards to Barbie dolls, the subliminal message is that a woman who's young and pretty is valuable, and a woman who's not so young or not so pretty is worthless, or at least 'worth less' — and that's rubbish."

"It's rubbish, yes," she said, "but that's the perception, and perception is reality."

"The reality is that you're pretty, subjectively and objectively, but all the wonderful intangibles that you add to the world aren't about being pretty. They're about what you think, what you say, and especially what you do. You make the world better, Steph, objectively better. And subjectively you make my world one hell of a lot better." I probably shrugged.

"Well, thanks," she said, sincerely but halfheartedly.

"And also, you're pretty."

"Nope," she said, "but you go right on thinking that, and saying that."

And I did. I always thought that, always said that, and I still do and always will.