Let's go to church

Stephanie and I weren't religious people. We had both been raised in Christian churches, and we'd both walked away intentionally. We were agnostic or atheist, depending on our mood, and we didn't have much to say to any god. But one sunny Sunday morning in Missouri, we went to church.

Why? Well, we'd been living in Kansas City for a couple of years, and we hadn't yet made any friends. Acquaintances, sure, but friends? Nope. Being introverted people, making friends was always difficult, and we thought maybe we'd find some potential friends at church.

This wasn't just any church, though. It was the Unitarian church. Perhaps you're unfamiliar with the Unitarians? We were unfamiliar, but we did our homework before strolling in the doors. We learned that Unitarians don't have strict doctrines, like other churches. Compared to Methodists or Catholics, the Unitarians are much more relaxed.

The biggest difference is Jesus. Ask any Christian of almost any denomination, and you'll be told that Jesus was (and is) God, and/or the son of God. Unitarians don't believe that; they say Jesus was a good guy, divinely inspired, but they stop short of proclaiming that he was God Himself.

They also don't believe God sends sinners to roast in Hell for eternity, which I found appealing, since I burn easily on hot summer days. They don't believe in the Trinity — that God exists concurrently as Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. They don't believe that every word and every story in the Bible is literally true, and neither did we.

What we found most appealing about the Unitarian Church was that, if you disagree with their doctrine on these or other points, it's not a big deal. You can believe Jesus was God, or not. You can believe in the Trinity, or not. You're still welcome, and nobody's going to scold you for your beliefs.

We weren't sure we'd be welcomed, since if anyone asked about our religious beliefs we'd have to say, "We don't have any." We weren't sure we'd feel comfortable in a congregation, but we thought it was worth a try. So we got dressed in our (relatively) fancy duds, and walked four blocks to the All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church.

We were welcomed. We were so darn welcomed it was a bit surreal. Half a dozen people wanted to shake our hands and meet us, wanted to engage us in conversation about where we were from, what we did for a living, how long we'd been married, etc. One otherwise very nice lady asked Steph whether we had children, and seemed only mildly nonplussed when Steph replied that we weren't going to have children at all.

Sadly, that's a bigger and more common issue than you might think. A lot of people believe marriage means bringing babies into the world, and on several occasions people simply freaked out when we said that wouldn't be us. And the worst freak-outs were in Kansas City, a rather Republican place. So when this stranger was only mildly nonplussed and quickly changed the topic, we took that as a good omen. Maybe the Unitarian thing could work for us.

And then we went into the sanctuary, took a seat, and endured the service. I've been to thousands of church services, and this was far from the worst. It was mostly encouragement to live a good life, do the right thing, and be kind to others. The preacher didn't have much of anything to say about God, which sounds like what we wanted, right?

Only problem is, it was very, very boring. "That sermon was a fine collection of platitudes," Steph said as we walked home afterwards.

"Yeah," I said. "I squirmed a lot. There was nothing to disagree with, but also nothing we didn't already know. No particular insight or inspiration."

"I've been more inspired by a good episode of South Park," Steph said. We laughed, and talked about maybe giving that church a second try some Sunday, but we never did.

Disclaimer: Please don't take any of this as a put-down of the Unitarians, or of any church for that matter. Quite the opposite, we admired the Unitarians' warmth and welcoming, and their easy-going doctrine. But the one thing that brought all those good people together every Sunday morning was their shared belief in a sympathetic god who created and oversees the universe, and that's something we couldn't share.

Ashes in the kitchen

Sometimes, parking the car and walking into our apartment just feels like coming home. More often, though, it's remembering all the times coming home with Stephanie, and all the times coming home to Stephanie.

It's no longer shocking, like it was at first, but it still seems insane, idiotic, incomprehensible that Stephanie is gone from the world. What is the purpose of anything at all, when I can't see her smile or hear her laugh? Why bother with anything, when she's not in the apartment, in the car, or in the seat next to mine at the movies?

Work, home, work, home, work, home, weekend at home, rinse, lather, repeat. Now and then there's a walk, always spent remembering Stephanie. There's a Shrine of Stephanie mementoes where I often stand, remembering specific moments. And there's a cat Stephanie loved and held, that jumps in my lap soon as I'm done eating dinner every night.

And in the corner are Steph's ashes, in the same plastic sack, inside a cardboard box, inside a white paper bag, all the same as when it was handed to me at the funeral home, minus a few ounces of ashes now in her parents' possession.

It's a strange concept — the ashes of the departed. I'm generally slow on the uptake, and for more than a year now I've felt next-to-nothing about the ashes that once were Stephanie.

Her toothbrush is still at the bathroom sink, her make-up is still in the car, and her recipe cards have been moved from the kitchen to the Shrine; these things remain, because these were things Stephanie wanted and used. Countless other of Stephanie's possessions are still in the apartment, or in storage in the basement, waiting for me to sort through them all. But the ashes? What use are the ashes?

That's been my mindset, but for reasons impossible to put into words, it's occurred to me today that the ashes are supposed to be spread, shaken out like salt and pepper, at some place that meant something to Stephanie.

In many ways we weren't "traditional," and maybe that's why the traditional spreading of the ashes hadn't occurred to me. But it suddenly seems like a worthwhile tradition. So where should Steph's ashes be scattered? At some of her favorite places ...

Olbrich Gardens, in Madison, where she was always happy to walk among the flowers. We went there every spring, several times every summer, any time she needed some sunshine and a reason to smile...

·  Pohlman Field in Beloit, where we enjoyed so many baseball games. Steph always had a beer and a hot dog, always liked the beer and always thought the hot dog was disappointing, but always wanted another hot dog the next time..

·  LaBahn Arena, where Steph delighted in watching the University of Wisconsin women's hockey team. Five bucks per ticket, sit anywhere, and watch an excellent team that usually wins. And mostly, she'd say, watch women being excellent at what they do...

·  Cinematheque, the local venue for old movies, artsy movies, and foreign movies. We attended many, many shows, usually enjoyed and appreciated the screenings, and almost always left a donation in the box, since admission is free...

·  And a few of her favorite restaurants in Madison — Ogden's North Street Diner, Maharani Indian Buffet, and Buraka Ethiopian Restaurant...

Ashes will be spread in all these places, though of course, like any dust or powder, the ashes won't stay where they're scattered. Outside, they're going to blow away with the wind, and inside, at the theater and in the restaurants, 99% of the ashes will be sucked into a vacuum cleaner that same night. But a few molecules will remain, and I'm telling myself that those molecules will be there for a long, long while. Instead of merely memories of breakfast with Steph at Ogden's, a few fragments of Stephanie will permanently be part of Ogden's, or for at least as long as the building stands.

And no, nobody's asking permission for any of this, because someone might say no and no is not an acceptable answer. There's no damage being done, by adding a few teaspoons of dust to the sixteen acres of greenery at Olbrich, or to some corner of the carpet at a restaurant or cinema. The funeral home gave me several pounds of ashes, and only a few ounces will be left in any of these places. Most of Steph's ashes will always be in the box, in the Shrine.

So, several places in and around Madison need Stephanie's ashes, and there might be a few more when I've thought longer about it. Today, though, only two other locations come to mind.

Locally, her ashes need to be spread around in our apartment. For all the time we lived in San Francisco and Kansas City, Steph was homesick for Madison. It took her several years to admit that to herself, but Wisconsin is where she wanted to be, needed to be, and we were both so glad that we moved to the dairy state.

When we arrived in Madison with a truck full of our stuff, and started looking for a place to live, this 50-year-old building was the first apartment we looked at. We started moving in the next day, and it's the only apartment we had in Madison — fourteen years in these same three rooms.

We had our complaints about the place, of course. It's not wheelchair-accessible, and those few steps at the front door became quite an obstacle when Steph was no longer walking. Among the lesser annoyances, our neighbor across the hall lets her grandkids play in the hallway, right outside our door, so we sometimes hear lots of screaming and stomping. Our bedroom is directly over the hot-water heaters in the basement, and thus gets uncomfortably warm once in a while.

We had assorted other grumblings, all the gripes and grievances you'd expect from years living in the same rather old, slightly dilapidated building. But the neighborhood was perfect for us — safe and quiet, with the more metropolitan Washington Avenue just a few blocks away. And the rent is reasonable.

We felt that we'd found the right neighborhood, and the right apartment for us. Steph was at home here from the moment we carried in the first box of our stuff, more than she'd ever been at home in California or Missouri. And that made it home for me, too.

Certainly, then, some of Stephanie's ashes will be spread around this apartment. Ashes in the oven, maybe in the fridge, because she loved cooking in our kitchen... Ashes in the bedroom, where she could let down all her defenses at the end of every day... Ashes in the living room, where we spent most of our leisure, loitering and lingering, watching old movies, surfing the internet, and talking about infinite everything...

There's only one other place that comes to mind, where Steph would want her ashes sprinkled. In San Francisco, at the western end of the N Judah streetcar line, across the pretentiously named Great Highway, lies Ocean Beach, a lovely, sandy stretch of shore.

We went there for picnics, for sunsets, for holding hands, and to lose ourselves in the view of the Pacific Ocean. As far as you could see, just water. I grew up near the ocean, in Seattle, and was maybe more accustomed to the vastness of the sea, but Stephanie was a Midwest kid. The Great Lakes are mighty big, but they're not oceans, and Steph was always awestruck at the ocean.

Long after we'd left San Francisco, we frequently reminisced about our time there, and talked about what we missed most. We often spoke of taking a vacation to San Francisco, and what we'd want to see and do if we were there for a week or two. We wanted to visit San Francisco like you'd visit an old friend, and while we never got around to planning such a trip, it was always on our long-term wish-list.

When we talked about such things, we could each come up with a dozen things we missed about San Francisco, and they might not be the same dozen things we'd thought of when the same question had come up a few months earlier. But always, at the top of Stephanie's list of things she'd loved and missed about San Francisco, and near the top of my list, was the streetcar ride to the ocean, and our picnics in the dunes.

Thus it occurs to me this morning, that I need to spend a week or two in Frisco. Maybe next summer, if I can afford it, but it needs to be soon. To see again the city where Stephanie and I fell in love, and where we spent the first years of our marriage. To see the apartment where we lived, the taqueria where we had our first meal together, the bake shop where Steph bought Mexican-style pastries, and to rekindle myriad other memories to be found nowhere else. And definitely, to ride the N Judah to the Pacific Ocean, and pour some of Stephanie's ashes into the sand.

My, she was yar

Katherine Hepburn looks at a hand-held model of a boat that she'd once owned with her ex-husband, Cary Grant, and she says wistfully, "My, she was yar."

It's a line from The Philadelphia Story, an old-style screwball comedy that Steph and I watched together half a dozen times. In the movie, someone asks Hepburn, "Yar? What does that mean?"

"It means … oh, what does it mean?" She thinks about it. "It means she was easy to handle, quick to the helm, fast, bright, everything a boat should be." She's talking about a sailboat, but in the movie's subtext she's also talking about true love.

It's a silly movie, with a cliched plot that draws to an outdated resolution which always annoyed Steph & I, but undeniably, The Philadelphia Story is fun. The movie, and that line, popped into my head today, as I was remembering Stephanie, as I often do. She was remarkable in so many ways.

Smart is the first word that comes to mind when anyone asks me to describe her, and I wish more people asked, more often. Steph was educated, sure — she went to three universities, earned two degrees and all that, so she knew stuff. But a lot of people go to college and earn degrees, and Stephanie was smarter than those people, smarter than that kind of smart, by which I mean … oh, what do I mean?

She was abstract-smart — is that a thing? When an unpredictable predicament came along, Stephanie was able to look at it, and innately but almost immediately understand what was needed. No hemming and hawing; just give her enough time to think it through and she'd have a sound decision; the right decision.

For example, the first big problem Stephanie faced after we met was that we were quickly and absolutely in love, but we lived a thousand miles apart. What were we going to do about that?

Together we decided that she'd move to San Francisco, but before the decision, I remember seeing the gears turning behind Stephanie's eyes as she connected all the interlocking pieces of the puzzle. It was a quick decision, yet very thoroughly she'd thought it through. And that's the kind of smart I mean, by the word "smart."

A few more words, in no particular order, to briefly describe my marvelous Stephanie:

Good. There's a treacly cliché you sometimes hear on the political left, often (albeit incorrectly) attributed to Gandhi: "Be the change you want to see in the world." And that's what Steph was. She wanted the world to be a better place, and that mission began, she thought, by treating people fair and square, helping our neighbors, and metaphorically, metaphysically, flushing our own toilet instead of dumping our crap onto other people's lawns.

Never heard her say any of that, though. Stephanie offered no highfalutin words about doing the right thing, and she usually didn't complain when I did the wrong thing, which was often. She was a genuine, honest, and decent person, and she simply did the right thing, just about always.

Courageous. Sure, she faced her disability with courage; that goes without saying. But she also lived her life with courage, long before any awful diagnosis, as well as during and after the diagnoses. She was always making plans, setting goals for herself, and bringing her plans to fruition and reaching her goals. If Steph was here today, I wouldn't be sitting and typing; she'd have made plans for our weekend, and we'd be doing something adventurous, maybe something we'd never done before.

Sweet. She was thoughtful, caring, kind, supportive — all the adjectives that describe a wonderful wife and partner. When I needed a hug, she knew it before I knew it. When I needed advice, she had already thought things through, and she always had good suggestions — but she wouldn't tell me what to do unless I asked. Reckon she knew, me being a man, that I wouldn't take advice until I'd asked for it.

Fun and funny. Every dang day we were together, that woman put a smile on my face and made me laugh. You'd think after all our years together, I'd know her sense of humor inside out and backwards, but really, no. Sometimes I thought I knew what she was going to say, but usually she surprised me. She was always saying something unexpected, taking our conversations and our lives in directions I hadn't anticipated. She often made me stop and think, and more often made me stop and laugh.

I could go on and on about Stephanie Webb … for thirteen months now, I have, and I intend to continue going on and on about her, for as long as I'm able. For today, though, let's say this: Steph was never easy to handle, but she was quick to the helm, fast, bright, and everything a boat should be. My, she was yar.