Tidying up, just in case

 It's been four years since Stephanie died. I don't write about her much any more, because most of it's already been said, several times.

I've recovered as much as I'm going to recover, which is about half. That's fitting. I'm about half the man I was when she was with me.

She was always better than I deserved, and our years together were the best times of my life. Steph said they were the best times of her life, too, but she said that less often after she was disabled.

She spent her last seven years in a wheelchair. Damn it, she got a raw deal from God or fate or whatever. 48 years old when she died — that's way, way too short a life.

We tried to live lots in our limited time, though. She always wanted an adventure, every weekend, even (or especially) after she was in the wheelchair. We went places, did things, had a blast for 21 years and some months together.

We still see each other often, in my dreams, and we even have new adventures. A month or so ago we went to the Grand Canyon, and she's promised me a trip to Washington DC. 

Does that sound insane? Do I care? Yes and no.

Sometimes when she's back she's in a wheelchair, sometimes she's walking, and she's only been 'away', not dead. Where she's been she never says, but we're both glad she's back.

Sometimes she brings luggage, and as she unpacks she tells me she's not going away any more. Which is exactly what I want to hear. And she laughs that wonderful laugh of hers, she holds my hand, and she's here. We talk and talk for what seems like hours, though the morning after I can never remember much of what we've talked about.

That's the ordinary dream, and sure it's crazy but I love it, and hope the dreams never stop. It always feels so right seeing her, and there's not much in this rotten world that feels right.

Thank you, love, for coming back to me when you can. There's still no better part of my life than seeing you.

I moved to Seattle a few months ago, but she knows how to find my new place. She's been here many times, in many dreams.

This apartment is a cluttered mess, though. There's old boxes and dirty clothes on the floor, empty bottles and yesterday's plates. I've always been a slob, and kept our apartment tidier than my standards (but still messy) mostly for her. Without her, I've become a complete slob again.

And then I remembered, sometimes when Stephanie's here she's in her wheelchair, so she'll need a path through the rubble. I gotta get this place tidied up in a hurry.

In the dream I then cleaned the room, took out the trash, vacuumed... and then she was here, in the wheelchair, and laughing, smiling, talking, and holding my hand. It was a dream come true, but only in the dream.

I woke up in a marvelous mood, as always after a dream of her, because Stephanie's back from… wherever. And then, over a few seconds, reality washed over me, and slowly I understood that she isn't back, and isn't coming back.

It breaks my heart every time, but — she will be coming back, in my dreams, tomorrow or the night after that. She comes back, at least once or twice every week. Always it's worth the hurt in the morning, for the joy of seeing her again.

When I got up, I cleaned this place some, just in case.

It never felt like taking care of her.

Sometimes people say that I took care of Stephanie during her last years, and I guess I did so I don't argue. Sure, I drove her to doctor appointments and to picnics and the movies, pushed her wheelchair, and helped her with little things when she needed help. Big things too, sometimes.

It never felt like taking care of her, though. Never felt like a chore or anything. I helped her when I could because I could, so of course I helped.

As always since she left, Steph is in my dreams a lot, and usually she's not dead. She's just "been gone" — on an extended trip or a vacation or something — but in the dream she's back, and it's always a joy to see her again. Then I wake up sad, realizing again that she's not coming back.

Since moving to Seattle, I wake up sad in a strange new place. I'm taking care of myself here, and not good at it. Many things are annoying and/or difficult, and I wish I had a teammate again, someone at my side and on my side. Not just anyone, though. It's gotta be Stephanie. I'd much rather be alone than spent much time with anyone who's not her.

Something I've noticed over the past few dozen dreams of Stephanie is that in the dreams, she's basically taking care of me. She comes back, and it's great seeing her, and then she starts making things better, solving problems, taking charge. That's what she always did, and always she did it well.

In last night's dream the lease was up, and she had some things she wanted to negotiate with the landlord before signing us up for another year. In real life, there is no lease, just an informal month-to-month deal, and nothing was ever up for negotiation. So last night she solved a problem I don't even have, because hey, it's a dream and dreams are usually nonsense.

The part where she's solving problems, though — that was real. That was Stephanie. Even in her wheelchair years, maybe I pushed the chair, but she was always taking care of me. It was never me taking care of her.

Ice

When she was thinking things over, Stephanie liked to chew ice cubes. She did a lot of thinking, and could easily go through a full tray of ice cubes in an afternoon. Guess you could call it a nervous habit, like whistling, or twiddling a spinner.

When I left for work in the morning, I always brought Steph  her lunch (a sandwich, soup in a thermos, milk in another thermos, and ice cubes in a third thermos). The sound of crunching ice cubes was background music in our lives.

The freezer is above the fridge and Steph was in a wheelchair, so after she was disabled, making ice cubes became my responsibility. There were always several small plastic tubs full of ice cubes, and on request I'd deliver ice.

It's one of a thousand silly things, but after Stephanie died, I couldn't bring myself to empty the last little plastic tub of ice cubes. It's been in the freezer for 3½ years now, and instead of being ice cubes it's clumped into one fist-sized chunk of ice, sort of crystalized and icky-looking.

I can't possibly dump this clump of ice into the sink and let it melt, though. No frickin' way. When I leave, the ice will still be in its little tub in the freezer.

♦ ♦ ♦

When walking got difficult for Stephanie, we bought her a wheelchair, and learned that the door to our tiny, cramped bathroom wasn't wide enough. It's an inch too narrow for Stephanie's wheelchair, so I took the door off its hinges, to get that inch back.

With the door gone, Steph could wheel herself to the toilet and shower. For a modicum of privacy, we hung a curtain where the door had been, and for the past eight years or so, our bathroom has had no door.

Most people, though, probably want a door on their bathroom, so as a favor to the next tenant, today I brought the bathroom door back down the hall, and with six screws, hung it in the doorjamb again.

The curtain, though — Steph picked it out. It's a dainty white thing with flowers embroidered in it, and it's coming to Seattle. With luck, it'll fit in a window, wherever I find an apartment. If not, I'll tack it up on the wall, as part of the new Stephanie Shrine.

Ashes

After the worst day in the world, Stephanie's body was cremated, and the funeral parlor handed me her ashes in a cheap but nice black cardboard box. The box itself was in a cheap but nice white paper bag.

I took the ashes because I was supposed to, but with no plans for them. They're only ashes, not my wife, you know? After a nice campfire, the ashes are not sticks and logs.

In 3½ years since then, Stephanie's ashes have stayed in the box. Her parents took a handful, and I stashed a very small helping inside a small, laminated wood memorial which, of course, is coming to Seattle with me.

What about the rest of the remains, though?

Steph had told me she wanted to be cremated, but she never said what to do with the ashes. Now that I'm leaving Madison, suddenly but with certainly I'm sure she'd want her ashes spread around this town.

Stephanie loved Madison. She went to college here, and she and the city adopted each other. We met and first lived in San Francisco, and she loved it there, too, but always she felt homesick for Madison, so eventually we came here, to the place she liked best. I was so happy to see her so happy, Wisconsin became home to me, too.

Clearly, some of Stephanie needs to stay here, so over the past few weeks, I've spent an hour at a time at several of Steph's favorite spots in Madison, taking memories away, and leaving ashes behind.

Now there's a whisper of Stephanie at Tenney Park, where we had a hundred picnics, and sometimes brought our cat Minky on a leash.

Some of Stephanie is at Olbrich Gardens, the sprawling mile of bushes and flowers and ponds we loved to stroll in springtime, summer, and autumn every year.

Some of her is at WORT, the non-commercial radio station where Steph volunteered, which was always the first button on our car radio.

Some of her is at the zoo, one of America's last without an admission charge. Being free made us regulars while we were poor, and donors after we weren't so poor.

I've scattered some essence of Steph in the front seat of our car. Why not? I want her beside me for the long drive to Seattle. When the car eventually won't go any further, I'll sprinkle some Stephanie inside the next car, too.

And I've scattered some of her ashes in this apartment. She's the one who decided we'd rent this place, instead of another apartment we'd looked at (which burned down a few years later). The rent's been cheap here, and most of the neighbors haven't been obnoxious, it's been our home, and it's been a happy home. 

Of course, the Steph-dust in the apartment will be vacuumed away by the maintenance crew that'll clean the place after we're gone. I've seen the maintenance crew's work, though, so a good percentage of the ash will still be in the carpet.

Two locations didn't quite make the cut:

First, the Highway 18 Drive-In theater, where we watched so many movies from folding chairs, or from inside the car, behind windshield wipers if it sprinkled or snowed. The drive-in is closed for the winter, though, and I'm not going to scatter my wife's ashes on the side of the highway.

And the Beloit Snappers ball park, where we enjoyed dozens of minor league baseball games. They're tearing it down to build a fancy new stadium, the kind of place where tickets will be too expensive for folks like Stephanie & I. They're even changing the name of the team. So screw 'em.

Most of Stephanie's ashes are still in the black cardboard box, in the white paper bag, packed for the move.

Steph never visited the northwest, has no connection to Seattle except me, but my intent is to die there. Not soon, I hope, but inevitably. When I do, cremate me please, and after that, one final request:

When my ashes come back from the crematorium, kindly unscrew the lid and pour the rest of Stephanie's remains inside with me. After that, I don't care what you do with the powder — keep us in an urn, scatter us to the wind, melt us into an objet d'art, or flush us down the toilet — it's no concern of mine, because I won't be in there and neither will Steph. We'll be together, though, and that's all I want.

The handtruck

When Stephanie & I lived in Kansas City circa 2001, we bought two air conditioners when we couldn't afford even one. We were new to the city, and it was 105° outside, maybe hotter inside.

Steph found money in the budget for one air conditioner, for the bedroom, so we could possibly sleep. She found it at a sale price, and since we didn't have a car, our plan was to bus to the store, buy the air conditioner, and then call a cab to get it home.

Steph being Steph, she had a better idea. In a different aisle of the same store, she found a handtruck we couldn't afford either, but we bought both the a/c and the handtruck.

We got the a/c home by rolling it down the sidewalk, onto a bus (she sweet-talked the driver, and he used the wheelchair lift to get the a/c onto and off the bus), down another half-mile of sidewalk, up the stairs, and into our apartment, hoping it wasn't broken from all the bumps and rattles on the way. 

We wired it into the window, turned it on, and… whoosh, it worked gloriously. We sat our sweaty selves in front of the cool blasting air, and in an hour or so the bedroom was livable.

In two hours we knew we had to do it again the next day, if we wanted to watch TV without melting. So we went into debt buying a second air conditioner for the apartment's living room.

We used those air conditioners all summer, every summer for our three years in KC. Brought them with us when we moved to Madison, but never used them again, since our apartment here has built-in a/c.

The handtruck, though, comes in handy all the time. We've used it at least once every month since buying it, and now I'm using it all day every day, packing. Yesterday that same handtruck bounced those same air conditioners up the stairs, and into the room I've set aside for stuff Goodwill will come and take away.

Maybe it doesn't seem like rocket science, but buying a handtruck was an idea that never occurred to me, and probably never would've. Like every smart thing we ever did (maybe including this move to Seattle) it was her idea.

Thanks for the handtruck, Steph, among a million other memories and moments and smiles and brilliant ideas, and everything else.

Her leg in the dumpster

Prepping for the move is a lot of work, and it's sad to be packing memories, or giving them to charity, or sometimes, unavoidably, tossing memories into the dumpster.

Here's an exception, though — a memory I'm delighted to put out with the rubbish. If Stephanie was here, she'd want to watch and applaud, and toast it with a glass of champagne. I've just carried Stephanie's prosthetic leg to the dumpster, and snapped a picture of it, because maybe, wherever she is, Steph has internet access.


It was 2015. Her left leg was infected, and the doctors had tried antibiotics, then stronger meds, but the infection had started eating the bone. The experts said that if she didn't have the leg chopped off, the infection would kill her, so she signed up for the surgery.

The doctors were very reassuring, though, telling Steph that she'd soon be happily walking around on a nifty new prosthetic leg.

After the surgery, she waited impatiently for months, because they can't start the process of measuring and fitting you for a fake leg until the swelling subsides in the stump that's left over — and yes, actually, 'stump' is the medically-approved term. 

Eventually, Stephanie was referred for measurement at Hanger Clinics, the nation's leading chain of prosthetics-makers. We were so optimistic.

Her appointment was first thing in the morning, and we didn't understand how stupid that was until Googling it, perhaps a year later:

Your legs tend to expand as the day goes on. Grab a tape measure and check: whatever the circumference of your leg first thing in the morning, it'll be a quarter-inch bigger by mid-day. That's because blood tends to pool in your lower extremities as you sit and walk, and guess what? It's more pronounced if you have kidney problems or you're overweight — and Steph had kidney problems and was overweight.

We didn't know anything about legs swelling up, of course, but you'd think people in the business of making prosthetics would know. Hanger Clinics didn't know, or didn't care.

When the prosthetic was delivered, Stephanie walked on it, in physical therapy sessions at Hanger, and in practice sessions at home. I accompanied her down the hall and back hundreds of times, and up and down the steps in front of our not-wheelchair-accessible apartment.

She couldn't practice-walk for long, though, because wearing the leg was painful at first, and extremely painful after half an hour or so. When she complained to Hanger, they took the fake leg into the back room, (said they'd) disassembled and tweaked something inside, and she tried it on again, but she couldn't feel the difference. Or she'd feel the difference, but it would only be uncomfortable in a slightly different way. 

She continued trying to walk on this misfit prosthetic, sometimes to the point that it made her stump bleed. She wanted to have Hanger re-measure and re-build it, but they refused. She wanted to raise holy hell about it, sue them if they wouldn't fix it, but she didn't want me raising hell on her behalf — she wanted to be the hellraiser herself.

She was having other health issues at the same time, though, and also she was in the midst a long-running feud with the administrators at her dialysis center (a story I haven't told yet, but for today suffice to say, they were bastards).

Eventually Stephanie settled into her wheelchair, and stopped trying to walk on a fake leg that didn't fit. The prosthetic gathered dust, and demanding repairs or replacement from Hanger Clinics was filed under "When everything else settles down." Of course, everything else never settled down, and she died, never having walked again.

Jeez, Hanger screwed her over on that leg. When she signed the receipt for it — insurance paid 100%, but still, you couldn't miss the bottom line — it cost over $15,000.

If you're reading this, Steph, here's an update: The bullshit involving your fake leg continues to this day. I don't want the damned thing, but guess what? It's illegal to sell or give away prosthetics to anyone who needs one. Why? My guess is, so no-one who needs a fake limb has a lower-priced option than spending $15K at Hanger Clinics.

Seriously — everything about the prosthetic is mass-produced. It's plastic or rubber over a metal frame, but none of it is sculpted by hand or anything. And it never directly touches the wearer's stump; there's padding and special socks between rubber and skin. Wipe the fake leg with alcohol, and it's sanitized. It could be a life-changer for anyone who's had a below-the-knee left-leg amputation — but that's forbidden by law.

There are several charities that claim to recycle used prosthetics — Hope to Walk, Limbs for Life Foundation, Standing with Hope... Their PR says they'll accept donated prosthetics, disassemble them to retrieve the complainants inside, and build artificial limbs for the injured in the third world. Near as I can ascertain, those charities are bullshit, too — I reached out to all the above, and got no response. Reached out a second time to all three, and got no response.

For a few minutes this morning, I fantasized about taking this leg back to the local Hanger office and chucking it through their plate glass window. That's not me, though... and anyway, there's probably a serial-number inside that would lead right back to Stephanie & me.

All the bullshit ends today, though. Stephanie's completely useless, $15,000, blood-gouging prosthetic leg is now in the dumpster of our apartment building. There's no champagne in the apartment, Steph, but I'm toasting the end of it with a Cherry Coke.

We'll be leaving together.

This is difficult. This is the most difficult thing since she died.

I'm healthy but old, and as the end inevitably approaches, I belong with my family. I've decided to move to Seattle, the city where I grew up, where my Mom and most of my family still live.

Stephanie & I loved it here in Madison, Wisconsin. It's a smallish big city, with all the advantages of a metropolis, but still with a home-town vibe. It's cozy.

Stephanie went to college here, and missed it while we lived in San Francisco and Kansas City, so we moved to Madison in 2004. It's my favorite of the places we lived. The thought of leaving rips me up inside, every time I realize it's forever.

Down every street in this city, there are memories of Stephanie, and that's wonderful. Sometimes I take a different route to the grocery store or to the diner, just to see what Steph-memories might await me, and there's always something. In the car, on the sidewalk, or here sitting in my recliner, it often feels like she's beside me, which is the best thing left in this rotten world. I will very much miss the random memories of her, popping out at me from all around town.

Stephanie was always full of common sense, though, and I think she'd agree with the idea of leaving. In a sense, it was her idea. 

•••

There I was in the kitchen, making a peanut butter sandwich, and Steph was lightly on my mind. She often is.

I was remembering our walks in Olbrich Gardens, the local botanical park we visited several times every summer, always following the same path in the same direction past all the shrubs and blooming flowers, across the same footbridge, to the same bench. We always stopped at that bench for a break, toward the end of our route. While she was walking we both sat at that bench, and after she was done walking she'd insist that I must be tired of pushing her wheelchair, so I'd sit on the bench, and she'd park her chair beside me. Walking or rolling, it was always a few minutes in the shade, holding hands, talking about whatever, and always it was beautiful.

That's what I was remembering as I spread Skippy on wheat bread — just the joy of being with her on the bench at Olbrich. Then I took a bite of my sandwich, and out of the nowhere, Steph brought something up that we'd never talked about.

Of course, ghosts don't exist and I don't believe, and neither did she, so I don't mean this literally, but — it was almost her voice that suggested it...

"You were at my side when I died, Doug. Thank you for that. Maybe you ought to be at your mother's side when her time comes, and your brothers' and sisters'. And maybe you'll want them at your side, when you're getting ready to come join me."

Until she sorta-said that, the thought of moving hadn't occurred to me at all. Not even for a moment. Let me tell ya, hearing it was a jolt. I ate the sandwich and went on with my ordinary routine, but what she'd almost-said stayed with me.

•••

While she was alive, Steph often told me what to do, and I appreciated it, because she was almost always right. She's been gone for years, but she still tells me what to do, and I always listen. This time I argued for a week, but as usual, she was right, so I've begun boxing things up, and we'll be leaving together. 

Life will be less in Seattle, because memories of Steph won't be waiting for me at the library, at the drug store, at Burger King, and everywhere else. She will still be with me, though. Always. Stephanie never came to Seattle, but her ashes will.

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.

Bagels

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.