Precious Doe

Let's preface this by saying it'll be difficult to write this in a way that doesn't make Stephanie and I seem bad, mean, uncouth, insensitive, and cold. That said, my mission here is to write about Stephanie and I, and this is one of our stories, so it's gotta be told.

For three years, Stephanie and I lived in Kansas City. We arrived in July of 2001, and as we found an apartment and looked for jobs, coverage of a young child's murder was all over the local news.

This gets gruesome: She was an unidentified black girl, judged to be three or four years old, who'd been beaten to death. Her naked, decapitated body was found near a city park, and her head was found in a trash bin several days later. Yet no-one had reported a missing child matching the girl's description, so the cops and reporters didn't know who she was. Rather than calling her Unidentified Victim, she was dubbed Precious Doe.

For many, many weeks, the murder and mystery of Precious Doe was all over the local newspaper and newscasts, and was the topic of coffee shop chit-chat everywhere we went. To quote the Kansas City Star's ubiquitous questions: "Who was she? Who killed her? Had anyone reported her missing? Did anyone care?"

Then came 9/11/2001, which of course dominated all news on all channels for a long while, but even after 9/11, Precious Doe was frequently in the news. Not that there was much of any "news" about her case; the news was mostly that there were still no leads, or it was coverage about concerned, sympathetic Kansas Citizens who'd left flowers and toys at the place where her body had been found.

After months of relentless coverage of this awful news, it might have been Steph but I think it was me who said, "This poor, dead girl who's been labelled 'Precious' must not have actually been precious to anyone, or someone would've reported her missing. Someone would know who she was." 

And let me stress again, it's absolutely horrific what happened to that kid. But after months and months of coverage with nothing new to report, it became tiresome.

"There are lots of families in the KC metro, black and white, who live in poverty, live with domestic violence, same as anywhere else in America, but the newspapers don't call any of these people 'precious' until their head gets chopped off." Not sure whether that was Stephanie talking or me, but we were agreed.

And after that, we came up with a song. No, I don't remember who concocted the lyrics, and yeah, it's a mocking song, but we were mocking the situation, certainly not mocking the victim. I don't know how to do music notation so I can't provide the tune, but these are the lyrics we sang, whenever yet another news item mentioned this poor, dead child:

          Precious Doe!
          Precious Doe!
          Why did her head
          Have to go?

Of course, it's awful. It's gallows humor, and it's not even funny gallows humor … but we laughed at it. It was our way to ward off the futility of what seemed to be endless coverage detailing every aspect of the crime except who the heck this kid really was, and who killed her, and why.

In 2004, we left Kansas City and moved to Wisconsin, where if Precious Doe made headlines at all, they were much, much smaller headlines and we never saw them. But we still occasionally sang the song, in response to extremely bad news that nobody could do anything about. Three days of coverage of a deadly plane crash? We'd sing the song. Some missing skier's corpse is found frozen solid? We'd sing the song. It became our anthem for responding to senselessness.

* * * * * * * * * *

Ten years later, Stephanie had to face some senselessness, and her own mortality. She was 42 years old, living a fairly ordinary life but she loved it, and she loved me. We thought we might have a lot of good years remaining together, and then … blam, out of the blue, an emergency hospitalization and a diagnosis of kidney failure.

Stephanie was discharged from the hospital a few days later, and as I drove us home and we talked in the car, I was impressed with how well she was handling the worst news she'd ever heard. We both knew she had a shorter life ahead of her than we'd expected even a few weeks earlier, and yet, she remained generally sanguine.

As we waited at a stop light, she said, "Everything about this situation sucks and sooner or later it's going to kill me. Sure hope it's later."

"I hope so too, Steph. Lots and lots later."

"So we'll follow doctor's orders, I'll take whatever medicines they tell me to take, I'll go on dialysis, and I'll have a lot less of a life than I've had — both in quality and in quantity — but we'll make it work.  We  will  make  it  work."

"Dang right," I said. "I love you, and we'll make it work."

"And you know what else?" she said, and then she said nothing for a block or so, until she took a deep breath and sang the song, our ode to senselessness:

          Precious Doe!
          Precious Doe!
          Why did her head
          Have to go?

I joined in for the last two lines, and we laughed and laughed the rest of the way home. We sang that song again, not often but occasionally, when the odds against us seemed insurmountable. It's bonkers, sure, but that stupid song about that terrible murder of that unidentified headless girl helped us to face plenty of senselessness during the last years of Stephanie's life.

* * * * * * * * * *

Until today, I didn't know that the mystery of Precious Doe had been solved in 2005. Here's what I've learned, from some internet searches while writing today's entry:

The little girl called Precious Doe was actually Erica Michelle Marie Green. She was born in 1997, in an Oklahoma prison where her mother was serving time for prostitution. Apparently, state officials made little or no effort to keep tabs on the baby, and she was halfheartedly cared for by a cousin of her imprisoned mother's husband. When the child's mother was released from prison, she and her lowlife husband took custody of Erica, and everyone in the family seems to have known that she was being beaten by her stepfather on a regular basis, but nobody called the cops or said anything to anyone. One night, under the influence of alcohol and PCP, Erica's stepfather bludgeoned her to death with an ashtray, and a few days later he used hedge clippers to cut off her head, thinking that would make the murder impossible to solve.

Erica Michelle Marie Green was unwanted and unloved in life, and "precious" only to strangers and only after she was dead. It's an utterly ghastly story, and the closest it comes to a happy ending is that Erica's stepfather, Harrell Johnson, was convicted of first-degree murder and imprisoned for life.

You'll be brave and tough

In our early years together, when Steph was healthy, we talked about death now and then — always very briefly, as something we knew would eventually happen, but with the safety of knowing it was probably a long ways off.

Sometimes it was me who took the conversation there, and sometimes it was Steph. One of us would say, "Life is a lot better with you in it, than it was without you. Thank you for everything," or completely different words, but to that effect. The other would respond with a similar romantic sentence or two, and usually that's where we'd switch the topic to something else, but sometimes one or the other of us would bring up death.

"When you're gone," one of us would say, "I don't know how I could go on without you."

"You'll be brave and tough and you'll go on," the other would reply. I'd reach for her hand, or she'd reach for mine, squeeze it, smile and nod. The actual words varied, of course, but the sentiment never did.

We had, of course, similar but darker and more extended versions of that conversation after Stephanie started to accumulate fatal diagnoses, but in my dream last night she was still walking, so the conversation was quicker, more romantic and less painful.

We were in the kitchen of our Kansas City apartment, where Steph was preparing a meatloaf and I was washing dishes. In reality our kitchen was too tiny for both of us to be busy there at the same time, but in my dream there was ample space for both of us.

"For so long, I always came home and cooked dinner for one," she said while chopping celery. "Now I cook for the man I love, share everything with him, tell him my troubles and he really hears me, and — he's you."

"You know I feel the same way. Sharing everything with you is what makes life worth living."

She'd finished cutting vegetables, and now she was pouring flour into a measuring cup, and for ten or twenty seconds she didn't say anything. Then, suddenly and strangely as dreams tend to be, we were in Winstead's, the best fast-food burger joint in Kansas City, and the reason Steph wasn't saying anything is that she was chewing a bite of her hamburger. She swallowed and wiped her face with a napkin, and said, "You know, I hate even thinking it, but someday one of us will be dead."

"I'd be ruined," I said. "I'd never settle for being with anyone else, and I'd never want to go back to being alone.

"Well, maybe you'll die first," she said, "and I'll be the one who's ruined."

"Let's hope we go out together," I said, lifting my waxed paper cup of diet root beer as a toast. "Here's to both of us getting run over by the same bus."

She lifted her cherry cola, nudged it against my cup, and said, "Here's to both of us slipping on the ice, double concussions, quick, painless, fatal, and together."

"Steph, I love you," I said, and put my hand on top of hers on the table.

"I love you too," she answered, "always have, always will." Then she squeezed my hand, and the cat jumped onto my chest and woke me up, and I started typing the dream before it could fade away.

Stephanie seems to visit when I need her the most. It's wonderful to see her again, hear her voice, hold her hand, and it's always awful — but oddly optimistic — when I awaken and realize it was only a dream. I'm crying, sure, but we spent a little time together last night, and that's the best thing that ever was, or ever could be.

Just like a big girl

In San Francisco, public transit goes just about everywhere, quickly, cheaply, reliably, so it's not necessary to have a car. If you miss the bus or train, there's another one coming in five or ten minutes. It ain't a swanky limousine, but Muni will get you where you need to be, and after Steph moved to Frisco with me, she quickly learned the city's buses, streetcars, cable cars, and subways.

We rode public transit to work, for shopping trips, to Golden Gate Park, to the movies, to the library, and sometimes just took scenic rides for the view. Picnic at the beach? We took the N Judah. Date night in Berkeley? We took the streetcar to downtown, then BARTed under the Bay. Steph attended graduate school in San Jose on Saturdays, a long bus ride coming and going. In California, we never needed a car, and rarely wanted one.

Kansas City, by comparison, had only buses, with spotty, underfunded service. Most routes, even on the busiest streets, ran only twice an hour, so if you missed the bus you'd be shivering in the cold for a long while. Also, a lot of Kansas City neighborhoods don't have sidewalks, so you might be waiting for a bus on someone's lawn, or sitting on the curb, with your legs in the street. It was yet another way that Kansas City was certainly not San Francisco, so while we lived there we took the bus when we could, but we had to own a car.

In Madison, our third and final home together, Stephanie and I always had a car, but still, we frequently took the bus. Madison's bus system is pretty good. Most routes run every half an hour, same as Kansas City, but Madison is much more densely-populated than Kansas City — it's about half the population of KC, but a fraction of the geographic size, so Madison feels more like a city. Even if you're stuck waiting for a bus, at least you're not stuck in the middle of nowhere, and it's a twenty-minute ride home, not an hour … and I know of no streets without sidewalks.

Here in Madison, we both took buses to work most days, just because it's easier, and because parking is expensive downtown, where we both worked. And we usually took the bus to Cinematheque, our favorite venue for old movies, or to the Film Festival, because parking looked like such a hassle.

* * * * * * * * * *

I'm thinking about the bus, because today I drove past a bus stop that has Steph memories. It's where we waited for a #5 bus after attending a Film Festival screening downtown.

The theater is about three miles from our home, and this was long before any of Stephanie's health problems, so she suggested that we walk home. We took the bus to the movie, and planned to walk home afterwards. The movie was the documentary King Corn, and we found it profound. The venue was the Bartell Theater, where I stood in line for the screening, while Steph sat on a bench.

Walking home after the movie was delightful, until it started raining, so we huddled under my umbrella and waited for the bus. We talked about the movie, cursed the rain, and laughed a lot. It's one of those wistful moments that never fade, a memory that'll be magic to me for as long as I'm alive.

That bus stop, right there. And today, driving past that bus stop, these memories flashed through my mind as they always do. And then I saw a woman waiting there; a woman with roughly Steph's body shape — somewhat short, somewhat stout, and she was wearing a green jacket the same shade as a coat Steph used to wear. For a fraction of a second I thought it was Stephanie. Then my brain unscrambled, and of course it couldn't be her.

As I drove past, I noticed that the woman at the bus stop had grey hair and was probably older than me, and I'm a senior citizen. So next came the outrage that still rises in me now and then, at the fact that Steph never got to be an old lady. Dead at 48, and I pounded my fist on the dashboard.

My next thoughts were about the green jacket that old woman had worn, which reminded me of Steph's green jacket. Steph's jacket is embroidered with the words Wisconsin Cheese, from the time she'd spent working at the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, before I'd known her.

She always liked that jacket, and frequently wore it even as it started to get a bit ragged, so after her death when I gave most of Stephanie's clothes to Goodwill, I kept that jacket. After my weight loss, I paid $48 to have it re-tailored to fit me, and I was actually wearing it this afternoon, as I drove past that old woman and insanely thought she might be Steph.

* * * * * * * * * *

Next stop, an unforgettable bus ride. After  Steph's leg surgery (her first major health problem), she wanted to get back on the buses, but she was nervous about being the person who has trouble getting from the sidewalk onto the bus. Nobody says anything out loud, but sometimes there's palpable frustration from the other passengers if someone frail takes an extra half-minute getting up those stairs. It means the bus won't make the light, and everyone on the bus will be delayed by another couple of minutes.

Madison's buses can hydraulically kneel, to make it easier for folks to get on board, but it's still three steep steps up (or it was then; now they have buses that are only one step up from the curb). The driver pushes a button when he/she sees that someone has mobility issues, and the front of the bus tilts, so the first step is only a few inches off the ground. Steph refused to use a cane, though, which means the driver wouldn't have known she needed the bus to kneel — and anyway, Steph didn't want the bus to kneel. When it kneels it beeps, loudly for safety, but the beeping is also an announcement to everyone on the bus that someone's about to struggle getting on. All of this — the kneeling, the beeping, and everyone watching — was exactly the spectacle Steph didn't want.

So Steph being Steph, she analyzed the problem and came up with a solution. A few days before her first post-surgery bus ride, we rehearsed getting on the bus, on the steps to the second floor of our apartment building. I stood three steps above her, reached for Steph with my hand, and she took my hand, and let's guesstimate that her legs did 75% of the work of climbing up those steps, and my arm did the other 25%. And then we did it in reverse, practicing getting off the bus; I'd go first, and hold up my hand for her to lean on as she came down. Up and down, up and down, until it seemed fairly smooth.

Our date was to Cinematheque to see a movie (I think it was Singing in the Dark starring Lawrence Tierney), so we walked to the bus stop, and waited on the bench. Steph had timed it so we'd have a long wait on the bench, because she knew the walk to the bus stop would leave her a little winded.

When the bus eventually pulled over and the door opened, I quickly bounded up the steps, then reached back for Stephanie. She took three difficult but quick steps up, and with a slow but steady yank by me, we were both on board. It worked, just the way she'd planned it, and it had taken no longer than anyone else getting onto the bus. And while I paid our fares, Steph said to the driver, "I'm a little lame from leg surgery; please don't pull away until I'm sitting." Madison's bus drivers are notoriously nice, so he watched us in the rear view mirror, and didn't accelerate until Steph was seated.

Once the bus was underway, Steph was almost giddy. "I'm taking the bus," she said, "like a big girl." That was one of our 'love clich├ęs', the code words and inside jokes we shared — she often described herself as a "big girl" when she felt proud of herself. And Steph felt proud of herself that afternoon, with justification.

She had wanted to ride the bus like anyone else, without the hydraulic kneeling, without the beeping, without anyone staring at the woman huffing and puffing to get onto the bus. So she'd planned a strategy for doing exactly that, and we'd practiced it, and we'd executed her strategy flawlessly. Success! And best of all, Steph said, nobody knew what she had just accomplished, or how difficult it had been, except me and her.

This time, of course, we had no intention of walking home after the movie. Instead we walked a block to another bus stop, where Stephanie sat on the bench and mustered her energy. When the #4 bus came, we repeated our choreography, Steph climbing the steps and me gently pulling her up. Again she was giddy when she got to her seat. "Just like a big girl," she said.

Steph fully recovered from the leg infection and surgery, and within a few weeks she was walking like a big girl everywhere she went. A few years later, though, new medical issues made walking more and more difficult again, and we used her pulling strategy to climb the three steps in front of our building, daily, for months. And then came the wheelchair, and the amputation, and all that followed.

That's another story, though, and like the story I've just told it probably doesn't sound like a happy story, but honestly, with Steph, almost all stories were happy stories on some level.

Sounds kooky to say this, like some godawful Hallmark movie, but she was undefeatable. Steph's health dealt her a rotten hand, yet she always found a way to still be Stephanie — active, optimistic, always making me laugh, and always doing things and going places and having little adventures with me. Considering the medical crap she had to endure, every day she smiled was a victory, and she smiled and made me smile every dang day. So, yeah, Steph was undefeatable.