Without her

I’m quitting my job, almost certainly — but I’m not quite certain. I need to talk it over with Stephanie first, which is not an option, damn it.

If she was here, she’d cut through my blather and confusion, she’d see the pros and cons more clearly than me, she’d bring up consequences I haven’t considered, whittle away all my piffle and nonsense, leave only the essential facts, and then she’d back off and let me come to a sensible determination. And whatever I decided, she’d be on my side, and she’d show me how to do it more eloquently.

Without her, I’m the king of bad decisions. Every major choice in my life has been either arguably foolish or utterly dumbshit. The only exception was marrying Steph. She was exceptional.

Without Stephanie to talk with, I try to hear what she’s not here to say. In any little conversation, her voice comes through clearly. In the mid-sized conversations, I can guess the gist. But in all our years together, whenever we talked about serious things I never knew what she was going to say. All I knew was, it was gonna be smart so I always listened.

Without her, I can’t write her half of the dialogue. So … all I can do is what I’ve done with every sticky situation since she’s been gone. Pinch my nose, shut my eyes, and jump into the water. Here goes.

Ballet in the park

After we moved to Kansas City, money was tight, and entertainment mostly meant walking in the neighborhood.

It wasn’t a bad neighborhood, though. There was a small but free art museum a few blocks away, and a huge museum a few blocks further, that had free-days once a month, when poor folks like Steph and me were allowed to look upon the art.

We occasionally went to discount matinee movies, sneaking snacks in our pockets to save money. Mostly, though, we stayed at home. Home was within our budget.

So it was a definite yes, when we learned that the Kansas City Ballet was giving a free performance at Loose Park. And is that a great name for a park, or what? Stephanie called it Loose Meat Park. It was named after Jacob Loose, co-founder of Sunshine Biscuit Company. (Cheez-Its, anyone?)

I'm not sure but I think free ballet in the park was an annual thing in Kansas City, every summer. From googling around, I guess they don’t do that any more, maybe because of what happened that night.

Stephanie dressed up fancy, and I dressed semi-fancy, and we packed a picnic dinner and came early enough to stroll the grounds and still get a good seat. We ate under a great big cannon, left over from a Civil War battle that took place in that park.

She was in great spirits, and before the dancing started we had a pleasant conversation with a married couple, senior citizens, both wearing very fancy duds for the ballet. “I hope we’ll be that cute when we’re old,” Stephanie said after they'd walked away. She never got old, but she never stopped being cute.

Stephanie also enjoyed the Rose Gardens in Loose Park, which was in full bloom and very impressive. There were lots of roses and they were pretty, and I said I'd steal one for Steph, and she said “Don’t you dare,” with a smile. It was a pretnear perfect evening.

No reservations, sit anywhere for the ballet, and since we were early arrivals we picked great seats. I don’t know diddly about ballet, so all I can say is that the dancers danced real nice. They flew up, and came down, and our seats so close to the stage that even over the loudly-amped classical music we could hear the tender clomps and scuffling as dancers feet landed on the stage. Steph and I both heard the pop, too, and then a shout of pain as a dancer went down with a broken leg.

The crowd was hushed and everything stopped, and we all waited while the injured dancer was carried off in a stretcher and then an ambulance. It put a damper on the evening’s mood, of course, but as they say, “The show must go on,” and the dancing resumed shortly thereafter.

More vividly than the pop of the broken leg, I remember waiting for the bus home. We were the only people at the bus stop, and when the bus came we were its best-dressed passengers. Steph noticed that the cars parked at Loose Park had mostly been new and expensive, Lincolns and Cadillacs and BMWs. “The ballet is basically a rich people’s thing,” she said. “We’re the only people going home on the bus, but I’m glad they let us come.”

“That’s better than leaving in an ambulance,” I said, and she gently punched me in the arm. It’s weird, the little moments I remember all these years later. She smiled as she play-punched me.

On the ride home and in our apartment, Steph said what a wonderful evening we’d had, but what a disaster the night had been for that dancer. “A broken leg means he’ll be unable to dance for six or eight weeks. He’ll miss most of the ballet’s season, and I’m not sure there’s sick leave in the Kansas City Ballet. Maybe the Bolshoi, but maybe not here.”

She gave it some serious thought, too. It was a temporary stage, set up on grass in the park, and the stage surface seemed flat to the audience, but perhaps there were slight ups and downs on its floor. She wondered whether the dancers were even being paid for a free performance, and whether the dancer had adequate health insurance.

She mentioned it again at bedtime. Steph was worried about the dancer, and I guess that’s all there is to my story. Maybe it came to mind because it's a warm, late-spring evening here, like that night there. It’s another random happy memory of Steph, and those are my most prized possessions.

I've googled, trying to find out who that dancer was, 19 or 20 years ago, and whether his career rebounded from the accident, but I came up blank. Now I’m sitting here staring at Stephanie's picture, the lady who worried about a dancer whose name we didn't even know. I wish Steph & I could’ve grown old together. Kinda sucks growing old without her.

Dancing at the buffet

No disrespect to Kansas City, but we moved there from San Francisco. The comparisons were brutal.

SF is the land of 10,000 restaurants, some of which we could afford. Many of those were Chinese, Japanese, and Korean restaurants, and they were excellent. I don’t think we ever had an Asian meal in SF that wasn’t at least pretty good.

Then we moved to Kansas City, where there may have been great restaurants, but we couldn’t afford them. When we ate at any restaurant we could afford, we were often disappointed. I’ll eat almost anything, but Stephanie thought a meal should taste good if you're paying for it.

We found just one reasonably good Chinese restaurant in Kansas City, and it wasn’t in Kansas City proper. It was in Mall Land. That's what we called the indistinguishable suburbs on the Kansas side of the border, where there were chain stores at every intersection, strip malls between the intersections, and major shopping centers every mile or so.

In the parking lot of one of those malls, but in its own building, was a Chinese buffet that was affordable, casual, and generally tasty. We ate there several times, which made it our favorite KC restaurant, by default.

The food was good, but maybe we liked that restaurant more for the music. They played Asian pop over the muzak speakers in the dining area, and it was always catchy. Dick Clark on American Bandstand would say, “It's got a good beat and you can dance to it,” and we did, just once, when we were there for lunch and the place wasn’t too crowded. We didn’t dance for long, and afterward Steph told me, “You’re a terrible dancer,” and we laughed, and went back for another plateful of food.

We’d been married for five or seven years by then, but still every day with that lady was something new and something fun. It never stopped being something new and something fun. Well, except for the occasional hospitalizations.

We could’ve gone fifty years, I think, if she hadn’t up and died on me. That’s just a wisecrack, of course — Stephanie would chuckle if I said that, and in my mind’s ear I can hear her laughing. And on my mind’s feet we’re dancing again, by the back booth at that Chinese buffet in Mall Land.

Coming home

Of all the myriad marvelous things I miss about having Stephanie beside me, maybe what I miss most is the simple anticipation of coming home to her at the end of the day. It was wondrous, driving the car or riding the bus with not just a geographic destination, but a destination in my heart and head and gut: I can't want to be home with her.

There's nothing like that now. I come home, but I don't look forward to it. I drive the same streets, park the same car, unlock the same door at the same address, sit on the same chair, and look out the same window, but everything's different and all of it sucks.

It's just me and the memories now. They're damned good memories, but nothing in life is worth a fraction of what it was.

I think I said generally the same thing in an entry here a few years ago, so my apologies, maybe this is a rerun ... like every day of my life, without her.

Blueberries from Bannister Mall

Until Stephanie came into my life, I'd never experienced winter, really. Seattle has snowfall, an inch one week and two inches a few weeks later, but it rarely gets below freezing. And in San Francisco, winter just means you'll want to wear a windbreaker over your t-shirt.

When I visited Wisconsin with Stephanie, I saw some serious winter, but only as a tourist. Later we moved to Kansas City in the summertime, but in early autumn, Steph sat me down and gave me a talking-to about the approaching winter.

"When it's seriously cold out, wear lots of layers," she said. "Wear gloves, because frostbite is a real thing and it can bite your fingers off." And she said, "You do have a winter jacket, right?"

"Nope," I said. All I had was a hoodie and a lightly-lined windbreaker.

"You'll need a coat, Doug. A real coat." She showed me *her* winter jacket, which I hadn't seen since she'd left Wisconsin. She'd never worn it in California, because it would've been ridiculous there — this was a *heavy* coat, five pounds of fabric and stuffing and zipper, plus buttons and a flap that folded *over* the zipper to help keep out the cold. "Below freezing happens," she deadpanned, "so you'll need a winter jacket."

She Googled, and decided that Burlington Coat Factory had the best balance of low prices and good reputation. She found exactly the winter coat I needed, and she took detailed notes on an index card, because back then you couldn't carry the internet with you in your purse or pocket.

Burlington had a store at Kansas City's Bannister Mall, and Stephanie called and verified that they had my coat in stock. We weren't sure how many Xs I needed, though — I was a fat guy so definitely a few Xs, but was I 3Xs or maybe 4? Or maybe, Steph said, thinking out loud, I'd be 5X or 6X, because in winter I'd be wearing a sweatshirt or a sweater *under* the coat, so some extra inches should be allowed. Steph was always good at planning ahead.

She mapped out a Saturday bus trip for us, taking city transit from our apartment to Bannister Mall, far, far away. It looked like it might be a fun field trip, to be honest, because Google kept telling us that Bannister Mall was a behemoth — much larger than your typical shopping mall.

Come Saturday, though, Stephanie had to work, so she sent me off to the mall without anyone's hand to hold. Scary! Like a big boy, though, I found the right bus, got off at the right stop, walked into the big Burlington store, and found exactly the jacket I needed, thanks to Stephanie's index card. I bought the 4X because it was loose, and Steph said loose would be best. Come December and January, with more layers underneath, it would fit just right, she said.

And she was right. That was a great jacket, and it's gotten me through every winter since then. It's still in the closet, here at our apartment in Madison, and I still wear it any time I'm going out into the winter for more than a few minutes.

Stephanie and I still wanted our field trip to Bannister Mall, though, so we went together a few weeks later. I knew she'd love it, and she did. The Burlington store was across the street, so I hadn't set foot in the mall when I'd come alone, but even from across the vast parking lot I could see that the mall was amazing in its awfulness, and we were not disappointed.

Steph and I were not mall people. We shared a belief in capitalism as a concept, but not the excessive way it's practiced in America. A shopping mall, with all the glittery baubles you can imagine wrapped in plastic and stacked in one big building, or maybe several big buildings, with all the stores connected by endless walkways with more stores all along the way — it sounded horrific, and we came to gawk 'n mock, not to shop.

There were fountains and food courts, and stores, stores, and more stores, and all of it was run-down and tacky as hell, exactly as we'd hoped. Bannister Mall was huge, decadent, ghastly, and fading toward bankruptcy. It was beautiful.

There were a dozen empty storefronts, and the parking lot had the look of old asphalt, cracked and tired and littered. "I give this place five years," Stephanie said, and she was almost exactly right. The mall closed six years later, after we'd left Kansas City.

There was nothing nearby — no neighborhood, no housing, and no city or town to speak of. It just seemed to be miles of box stores, and in the heart of all the box stores, more box stores that called themselves Bannister Mall. At one corner of the almost-empty parking lot, there was an abandoned multiplex movie theater, and behind it was *another* abandoned multiplex movie theater.

The mall had three, maybe four major department stores, and each of them was huge, but with few customers. Steph was never much into girly things like makeup and perfume, and as we walked through acres of cosmetics in one of the department stores, she shook her head and said, "I'll bet there's a hundred thousand lipsticks for sale in this mall. Something you don't really need, in every color you can imagine."

We enjoyed wandering through that enormous mall, but one visit was enough, until a few years later, when one of the department stores was closing, and having an "everything must go" sale. Steph wanted a new blender at 80% off, and we thought it would be great fun to see the rotting entrails of a defeated corporation.

On our second visit, the decay was everywhere. We walked past empty jewelry display stands, and almost empty clothing racks, and many, many shuttered storefronts. All the customers seemed to be poor folks like Steph and me — not the kind of people who'd ever been welcome at the mall, until the going out of business sale.

The blenders were all gone, but Steph found a set of four dishes with pretty pictures of fruit baked into the melamine. They were marked down from $2 per plate to 20¢, so we bought a set of four dishes for 80¢ plus sales tax. It was the last set of plates they had, the last *anything* in that section of the store. When we took the plates toward a cash register, all the shelves were empty.

We wanted to explore the store's second floor, to see what little might remain, so we stepped onto the escalator and it took us up. As we went higher we saw the store stretch further and further, wider and wider from our perspective — so many disused cash registers, whole areas roped off, carts and boxes and clutter clogging some of the aisles, shoppers climbing over and through all this mess, under flickering fluorescent bulbs rendering the view even bleaker than it was.

And that's the moment I'm remembering this morning — holding Stephanie's hand as we rode the escalator up, over the ruins of a department store sprawled out under us, almost all the merchandise gone, but still crowded with people.

That's what life is like now, for me. Far as the eye can see, there are things that used to be beautiful, but now they're just remnants. Everything must go. Most of it's already gone, and what's left is a mess. This city. This apartment. This room, where I just ate a sandwich off one of the plates we bought that afternoon at Bannister Mall.

Two of the plates had strawberries baked into the melamine, and two had blueberries. Over the years, one of the plates shattered and another melted when I stupidly put it on a hot burner, so now there's only one strawberry plate, and one blueberry plate. My sandwich was on a blueberry plate. We bought it for 20¢, twenty years ago in Kansas City.

I'd forgotten all of this, everything from the first sentence to this one, until I looked at that plate after eating my sandwich. Then it all came flooding back, and now Stephanie and I are riding that escalator again, thirty seconds frozen in time forever. It's a strange moment to be reliving, but it's nice — strangely nice.

Stephanie was with me on that escalator, and in this life, and then she wasn't. But she still is, kind of. Nothing is what it was, and it never will be again — except this plate, I guess. And my winter jacket. And if I go deep enough into the memories, there must be a thousand things in this apartment with Stephanie stories behind them — that chair, her space heater, that shopping bag, the crack in the crisper at the bottom of the refrigerator.

This apartment is jam-packed with Stephanie stories, and so's my head. There are so many stories, I won't have enough years left to tell them all, but I remember, cherish them all and always will, until that escalator reaches the second floor for me, too.

Walks with Stephanie

Once daily, I take a walk around the neighborhood. Just a few blocks, no great distance or excess exercise, and I always bring my wife.

We walked the neighborhood many, many times when she was walking, and after she wasn't walking I pushed her wheelchair down these same sidewalks, past the same houses and shops. It was always nice, and it still is. Usually it's the best part of my day. There are so many memories of walks with Steph down all these streets, so many conversations — some with worries, but all with laughter over the good and the bad.

If you saw me this morning, or any morning, you'd think I'm just a fat guy walking alone, but you'd be wrong. She's always, always walking with me.

Christmas, 2017

Well, it's Christmas, 2020 — our third Christmas without each other, so the math says our last Christmas together was 2017. I don't remember anything specific about that day three years ago, but Stephanie was with me and she wasn't in a hospital, so it must've been a terrific Christmas.

She made ham roll-ups, same as she did every Christmas, and I ate most of them.

We had twinkly lights on a tiny tree.

We went for a walk to look at the megawatt lights on that house on Upham Street, or we went for a drive to see the lights at Olin Park, or both. 

We watched an old movie together. 

She made something really quite good for dinner, and she (mistakenly) thought it wasn't quite as good as it should've been. 

We talked about everything in the universe, and we laughed a lot.

That was our last Christmas, 2017 — just another delightful Christmas with a delightful lady.

This year's Christmas won't be delightful, but the memories always will be. Merry Christmas, Stephanie, and thank you again.

Wow.

It still surprises me, when I sometimes stop and think of it. Amazes me, to think that a lady who was truly someone special, loved me. Stephanie Webb knew me better than anyone ever has, and yet she loved me.

Of the very few things I've accomplished in life, that's what I'm proudest of, by far.

Free cannoli and cheesecake

We were eating in Café bel Italia, Stephanie's favorite Italian restaurant in Madison. We had a window table, best seat in the house, and Steph was seated facing outside, so other than my face, her view must've been picture-perfect.

My view was terrific, too — the sunshine was hitting Steph's face, and she was beautiful. As in my life with her, I loved looking in her eyes and loved seeing her smile. I loved seeing her love.

The pasta was dreamy, which was appropriate, this being a dream and all. We were talking, probably with our mouths full, enjoying our dinner and each other and the dream.

She reminisced about our trip on the ship sailing across Lake Michigan and what a great time she'd had, and about places we'd been to in San Francisco and things we did in Kansas City, and about how lucky we'd been to find the perfect apartment here in Madison, and of course, how lucky we'd been to have found each other in the first place.

We could always talk about happy memories together, because we had so many, so it must've been a long conversation, and a long dream. We had a long marriage, too, just not long enough.

The waiter came over to ask if our meals were satisfactory, and he was Bill Murray. Yeah, the movie star, who's also famous for his chipper and quirky off-screen interactions with strangers. He was wearing the restaurant's silly red silk uniform, and Steph said, "Are you Bill Murray?" but it was obvious that he was, and he said, "Last time I checked."

Of course, he was witty and sarcastic, and instantly we were all old friends. He sat down at our table and suddenly he had a plate of pasta, and all three of us were chatting comfortably.

When we'd almost finished the last few bites of our pasta, he stood up and resumed his role as the waiter, asked if we'd like dessert, and he smiled and said, "I'm paying." Steph ordered cannoli and I had cheesecake, and I don't think Bill Murray had anything because he was gone and the waiter became a waitress who simply dropped off our desserts and the tab, then said thanks and walked away.

Stephanie was sparkly all through dinner. That was her default mode, but in the dream she seemed especially sparkly even for Steph. She was in her wheelchair so this was latter-Steph, but she was healthy, happy, and with me — everything I ever wanted.

We paid and tipped and walked home, and it was a long walk and it was cold, but we were happy and talking and laughing and we said, "I love you" to each other, like we always did.

She asked me to tell her parents that she loved them, too, and I guess that's when I knew it was a dream, because if this was real she'd call them herself. She mentioned that she was cold, and she shivered, and I woke up.

I'd fallen asleep in my chair, next to the un-insulated window, so our shivers had been real.

I sat there, awake but dazed, and replayed the dream in my mind. I remembered it more clearly than most, so I started writing it down, and when I'd finished I noticed I was smiling. I'd been smiling for twenty minutes, I think, and I'll bet if you'd seen me asleep in this chair half an hour ago, you'd have seen me smiling in my sleep.

Without her, here in the woke-up world, there are fewer smiles. Before Stephanie saved my life I had very few friends, lived alone, and spent alone almost all my time alone. That's what life looks like now, again, and it sucks. I can make it alone, though, so long as I remember her every day — and boy, do I.

She pops into my mind often, and sometimes stays a long while. I still like to stand at the Shrine I've made of all her things, and look at the picture of her face on the urn. And I'm with her in my dreams maybe four nights out of seven, and like tonight, they're always good dreams. 

Now I should call the in-laws and relay Steph's message that she loved them. I'm not good at talking to anyone on the phone, though, and they know that, from talking to me on the phone. So I sent them an email instead: "Had dinner with Steph in a dream, and she asked me to tell you that she loved you."

We had our problems, sure, but our 20+ years together were a dream come true. Thank you for that, Steph. Thanks for all the ways you made the world wonderful while you were with me, and especially, thank you for coming back to see me so often in my dreams. Also, thank you, Bill Murray, for treating us to dessert.

It's still our apartment

I need a break from the long-running horror of Stephanie's 2013 hospitalizations — a break she needed, too, but never got until it was over. That story will resume, but today is a more pleasant rumination.

When Stephanie died, I briefly flirted with the idea of moving out of this apartment that we'd shared for fourteen years. The memories were too overpowering. I even thought about leaving Madison, her home town that she had missed so much we moved here in 2004. Stephanie quickly made Madison feel like my home town too, and this apartment had become our home.

Steph died two years ago, and I miss her like it was yesterday, but now I can't imagine moving — because this is still our home. She's still here with me. I don't want to live alone, and when I'm in the apartment, even though I'm alone I don't feel alone.

Stephanie is with me in the kitchen when I'm warming up a platter of soup, because she made the kitchen her territory. It's messier now, because I don't have Steph's high standards, and I've moved most of her cookware and cookbooks to the Shrine, because I don't cook much and it's a small kitchen. So I've changed it a lot, but it's still Stephanie's kitchen, and there's something 'Steph' about being in that room. And there are things I've haven't changed. Her potholders are above the stove. Her favorite soups are still on the shelf. I never use those potholders and I don't care for that style of soup, but they'll be there as long as I am.

She's with me when I check the mail, because her name is still on the box, and because our mailbox is at knee-height. The low mailbox meant that checking the mail was one of the few chores Steph could do from her wheelchair with no real difficulty, so long as we didn't get any packages.

She's with me when I take out the trash, because I walk down a hallway where she did her prosthetic-walking exercises so many afternoons. She tried so hard to walk on that prosthetic, and I walked with her as a spotter in case she went down — which she did only once, when I wasn't there. That's why I always wanted to be there, after that, and that's why she didn't mind.

At the end of the hall, I step out the door to our back-alley. We always went that way out of the building when we were breakfasting at Ogden's, or if we were just walking the neighborhood. We walked the neighborhood so often, so many times, that these days, wherever I am when I walk the neighborhood, there's a Stephanie memory at every corner.

She's with me here as I'm typing this, in the room we used to call the office. For several years both Steph and I had our desktop computers in this room, and now it's where I sleep, beside the desk where she used to surf the internet. I'm using that same desk today, and I've intentionally left a few of Steph's knickknacks on it.

The bedroom — sorry love, I had to change the bedroom a lot, or I would've lost my mind. I emptied the closet, giving most of Steph's wardrobe to charity, and moving a few cherished items to the front room, in the Shrine. The bed is gone; replaced with a single bed since I'll never need a double. I don't sleep in that room any more, but the new cat does. Mostly I avoid that room. It's a little too much.

Stephanie is with me in the bathroom, where her toothbrush still leans against mine beside the sink. Her shampoo is still in the shower. Her disabled-riser seat is still on the toilet. She thanked me for putting in a better shower head, and for adding no-slip stickers to the tub, and maybe it's nuts but I remember that every time I'm in the shower. Under the sink there's a drawer full of Steph's hair stuff and some pills and ointments and girly things, and I'll never clean out that drawer. I kinda like opening it and looking through the effluvia sometimes.

She's with me at the end of the hallway, where our old bedroom is on one side and the bathroom is on the other. There's still a dark horizontal smudge about twelve inches up the wall, where the wheels of Steph's wheelchair bumped against the paint, as she turned her chair around in the cramped quarters of that hallway. Just a bump here and a bump there, but after thousands and thousands of bumps it became a thin layer of rubber from her wheels, now a stripe along the wall. Am I ever going to wipe that smudge away? Never ever.

And I'm never moving out of this apartment, not until I die, because Stephanie is still here with me, and I love that.