Our old fridge

After Stephanie died, my old pal Joe came from Pennsylvania for a week to console me, and it was helpful. Last thing I said to him before he drove away was something along the lines of, "Thanks, and you're always welcome here." So a year later the bastard took me up on that; his marriage was amicably ending, and he asked if he could crash here. He's moved in to what used to be the room where Steph and I slept.

He's been here for a month and a half now, and it's nice having a human to talk to once in a while, so I don't mind sharing the apartment. Sharing the refrigerator, though, has been a tight fit and a minor annoyance, so I bought a second fridge. The kitchen now has two full-size refrigerators side-by-side; Joe gets the old one, and I'm moving my food into the new one. And unexpectedly, it's warmed up some refrigerator-related memories of Stephanie.

Steph, as I've mentioned a few thousand times, liked to cook. When she was here, our refrigerator was full of plans — "We're going to have that steak tonight, the pork chops tomorrow, and the shrimp on Sunday." And it wasn't just cooking that Steph enjoyed; she also took great pleasure from planning for cooking. After every trip to the grocery store Steph would stand at the refrigerator, making notes on index cards, and chattering happily about "all our pretty little meats and vegetables." The index cards were magnetted to the fridge door, reminding her that there was bok choy behind the milk.

Ah, the fridge door. Stephanie and I both liked refrigerator magnets, and every time we went anyplace memorable, we'd buy a fridge magnet as a souvenir, if the magnet was reasonably priced. We have magnets remembering the cities of San Francisco, Kansas City, and Madison, but I've long-since relocated those magnets to my office at work. Most of the other magnets moved today, from the old fridge to the new fridge, including…

     • Graceland and London, places Steph had visited before I knew her.

     • A baseball — just a round magnet with a picture of a baseball on it, 'cuz Steph and I liked baseball.

     a Beloit Snappers schedule for 2018, on a magnet. More baseball! 

     Cave of the Mounds, a delightful underground hike that, sadly, we couldn't repeat after Steph was in her wheelchair.

     Door County, a famous Wisconsin tourist trap we visited, once, and mostly regretted.

     Henry Vilas Zoo, here in Madison, where we must've gone twenty times and always had a great afternoon.

     Horicon Marsh, a wildlife refuge an hour or so north of Madison.

     International Crane Foundation, a wildlife center north of Madison, dedicated exclusively to cranes. We had one excellent visit there, borrowing one of their electric wheelchairs — the only time Steph was ever in a wheelchair that wasn't powered by Stephanie herself. She loved the birds, loved the electric wheelchair, and we bought an annual membership and planned to visit often, but never did again.

     "Introverts Unite (separately, in your own homes)" — just a joke that Steph and I, being reclusive homebodies, found amusing.

     a Kandinsky painting, shrunken to fit on a magnet, and there's a brief story to tell about it: Wassily Kandinsky was one of Stephanie's favorite artists, and we had attended a Kandinsky exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in the late 1990s or very early 00s, but we'd had to wait for a "free day" at the museum, because we were poor. And we were too poor to "waste the money" on a Kandinsky magnet, so we didn't buy one. But ten years later, we were only kinda poor not dirt poor any more, and we'd spent the day at the Milwaukee Art Museum. In the gift shop afterwards, we were looking for a souvenir magnet, and I found the same Kandinsky magnet we hadn't been able to buy in San Francisco. It was six bucks, and Steph was delighted when I bought it for her. I think that might be my favorite magnet of all the magnets…

     the Ludington lighthouse, from our steamship voyage to Michigan.

     Milwaukee Art Museum, which we visited several times, including one of Stephanie's first rides in a wheelchair — a story I thought I'd told already, but can't find on the website, so I'll write it up soon.

     Mitchell Park Domes, the indoor botanical gardens in Milwaukee, under three half-sphere roofs.

     Monroe, Wisconsin, home of the Green County Cheese Days, an annual weekend of fromage. We both liked cheese, and Steph was sort of a cheese expert, but Cheese Days brings big crowds to that small town, and the crowds were too much for us. We only attended the festival once, but we visited the town several times over the years — always avoiding Cheese Days. (Fun fact: the only American maker of Limburger cheese is in Monroe. It's the stinkiest of all the stinky cheeses.)

     "My dog is smarter than the President," a paw-shaped magnet we bought to dishonor Donald Trump. Of course, we never had a dog, but they didn't have a "cat" sticker.

     NASA — no, we never went into space, but we liked the idea.

     Necedah National Wildlife Refuge, which I remember us going to, but in my mind I can't distinguish it from Horicon Marsh (see above). Both places had lots of birds and we brought binoculars and we had a great time, but … which place was which?

     the Railroad Museum, a few acres of old-time locomotives and tracks Steph took me to once, as she liked trains but she knew I was nuts about 'em.

     Shedd Aquarium, from our one trip to Chicago.

     Stoughton, Wisconsin, home of the annual Syttende Mai Folk Festival (pronounced SEH-ten-dah MY). Lots of Norwegian-Americans live in Stoughton, and Syttende Mai celebrates Norwegian Constitution Day. It's a big local thing, so Stephanie and I went, twice. As with Monroe, we found the crowds overwhelming and aggravating, so we stopped going. Also, Steph would want me to mention, the second time we went, a corner hot dog stand sold her a bratwurst that was utterly inedible, and had apparently been warmed up from the day before, or the day before that. "Worst wurst ever," Steph said.

     and a lone magnet we found somewhere that says simply "Mink," which, of course, we put on the fridge because of our cat Minky.

Also found magnetted to the old fridge: two of Stephanie's recipe cards — sweet potatoes, and pumpkin cheesecake — two of the last dishes she cooked. I especially remember the sweet potatoes, because she thought they hadn't been utterly perfect, so she made sweet potatoes again a week later (and yeah, they were better the second time). When Steph made dinner, her recipe cards usually took a few weeks to wander back to the recipe file. These two took a little longer.

Here's an index card in my handwriting, listing several cool Wisconsin things Steph and I had read about, and planned to visit, but never did …

     a truck in a tree in Clinton, Wisconsin

     a Prairie Moon Sculpture Garden in Cochrane

     an underground railroad station (slave escape, not subway) in Milton.

     something called the Wisconsin Concrete Park in the town of Phillips

It's a list of the things we'll never do together, and I'll almost certainly never do without her. Both halves of that sentence seem sad, and Steph would tell me to go do all these things — and more — even without her, but without her I've become a hermit who emerges from this cave only to go to work or go shopping.

And here's another story to be told, though it's probably only interesting to me: Once, several years back, our landlord screwed up on the rent. Steph paid it early, like she always did, and the landlord deposited the rent check, but failed to note in their accounting that the payment had come from us in Apartment 5. So there was drama a week later, when the building super knocked on our door and asked why the rent was late, and Steph had to prove that she'd paid already, and on time. Ever since, we always kept the rent receipts magnetted to the fridge door. So yeah, there were a lot of rent receipts on the old fridge door, dating back four years. I tossed them all, except for this month's receipt, which I've magnetted to the door of the new fridge, like Stephanie would've wanted.

Something I'd never noticed was that Steph kept the refrigerator clean, or at least "cleanish." Me, I haven't wiped down any of the interior shelves since she went away, so as I cleared my food out of the old fridge, a lot of icky gunk underneath was revealed. Sorry, Joe — clean it if you care, or if you dare.

Toward the back of the fridge's bottom shelf, I found an old can of Dr Pepper, which would've been Stephanie's. My sodas are always diet soda, but after Stephanie's diabetes disappeared, she developed a taste for full-sugar Dr Pepper. The can was opened — Steph usually drank just half a can of soda, and saved the second half — and by now, the second half is too late for saving, so it went in the recycling instead of the Shrine.

In the freezer, I found a plastic container full of ice — very old ice. See, Stephanie liked to chew ice-cubes, both as a habit and because it helped soothe things when her belly was upset. We never had a fancy-fridge that makes its own ice-cubes, so we were always pouring water into ice-cube trays, and I sometimes kept extras in a plastic leftovers-box in the freezer. These extras have been in the freezer since a few weeks before Stephanie died, but unlike the Dr Pepper I knew the ice-cubes were there. For a year and a half, sentiment has kept me from dumping that ice down the drain. And today, I simply moved Stephanie's ice-cubes from the old fridge's freezer to the new fridge's freezer, where they'll stay until I die or until there's a power outage.

Wish you were here, Steph. Always, I wish you were here.

Kidney chronicles, part 1

Going through life in America, you become accustomed to being treated as a customer — expecting a certain baseline, small amount of respect and politeness. Not the white glove treatment or the Ritz-Carlton, nothing fancy like that, just such low-level niceties as "please" and "may I help you?" and a general vibe that says, "thank you, please come again."

"Call it the McDonald's standard," Steph once said. "Interactions with doctors, nurses, and medical technicians should be at least as respectful as the kid selling me a hamburger for lunch." And usually they were — but often they weren't, especially at the kidney clinic.

The UW Health Kidney Clinic is in a strip mall in Fitchburg, a suburb just south of Madison. If you're on dialysis and on Stephanie's health plan, that's where you go for treatment, blood tests, and all your kidney-related appointments. It looks like any other medical clinic, except that all the patients have been diagnosed with an incurable disease. Nobody gets good news at the kidney clinic. You try to stay chipper and upbeat, but it's unavoidably a somber place.

There's no sugar-coating the awfulness of dialysis, so it was always remarkable to me that Steph maintained such a positive attitude. I don't think she ever entered the kidney clinic in a bad mood, but many times she was cranky by the time she left the building. Many disgusting and disturbing things happened at the kidney clinic. So many, it's not feasible to list them all in a single entry, so this will be part one of a multi-part series.

Today, we'll talk about appointments that were forgotten — not forgotten by Stephanie, but forgotten by the kidney clinic.

Steph was a well-organized woman, and when she got sick she (of course) developed a reliable, workable system to track her many medications and medical appointments. She was required to be at the kidney clinic at least three times per month while she was on home dialysis, and later three times per week while she was on hemodialysis, and she was never a no-show. In five years of dealing with the kidney clinic, she called to cancel appointments twice, I think, maybe three times, and only when she was feeling so poorly that she if she'd kept the appointment she undoubtedly would've barfed or been incontinent.

But during her first few years as an outpatient at the kidney clinic, there were at least half a dozen occasions when Stephanie went to an appointment at the kidney clinic, checked in at the front desk, and she was told that her name wasn't on the schedule.

The first time it happened, Steph blamed herself. "Guess I wrote the date down wrong," she said, bewildered and apologetic. But Stephanie always had a very scrupulous attention to detail, and her appointments were important to her, so the idea that she'd gotten the date wrong seemed weird to both of us.

And then, a few weeks later, it happened again. Steph had taken the afternoon off from work, collected her notes on the questions she wanted to ask, and we'd driven to the clinic in Fitchburg, but again we were told that Stephanie wasn't scheduled for an appointment that day.

This was circa 2014, well into the computer era, and the schedule was computerized at every other medical office we visited, but not at the kidney clinic. Although it's part of the sprawling and otherwise high-tech and fully-computerized University of Wisconsin medical system, appointments at the kidney clinic were still booked on paper, in a ledger-sized book at the front desk. There were no automated reminders, and there was no logging into MyChart from home, to doublecheck scheduled appointments.

So after the second screwed-up appointment, Steph always asked for a card, listing the date and time of our next appointment. We started repeating the dates and times for every scheduled appointment, out loud, as the appointments were made. "Thursday the third, at 10:30 A.M." And it was repeated back to us, "Yes, Thursday the third, at 10:30." But when we arrived at 10:30 on Thursday the third, the receptionist might frown, flip through her schedule, and say again, "I'm sorry, but you're not scheduled for an appointment this morning. I don't see any appointments for you until next week."

Usually, there was no issue — we checked in at the front desk, and waited in the lobby until Steph's name was called, same as any medical appointment you've had anywhere. But once in a while, we'd walk in and they simply weren't expecting Stephanie at all. Steph would pull the appointment card out of her wallet, and the card said we were supposed to be there, but Steph's name wasn't on the schedule.

We began phoning in advance of every appointment, to doublecheck that the appointment existed — and if we include the times we straightened things out over the phone, the tally of forgotten appointments goes up from six to about ten.

Have you ever had an appointment forgotten by the staff, even once, at any doctor's office anywhere? Neither had we, but at the kidney clinic it happened so often we joked about it while driving to the clinic. "Hope we'll have an appointment waiting for us." When it happens once, you shrug it off. When it happens twice, and then again and again, you start to question the clinic's general competence.

Of course, every time an appointment was forgotten, everyone at the clinic was very apologetic, and Steph and I never tried to make it into a big deal. Usually they were able to squeeze her into the schedule, between other appointments, after she'd waited a long time in the lobby. They continued occasionally forgetting Stephanie's appointments, right up until about 2016, when the kidney clinic was finally connected to the computerized scheduling system every other facility used.

Maybe all of this doesn't sound like much in the scale of modern-day frustrations, and you know what? I think Steph would agree — having ten phantom appointments was by far the least of her complaints about the kidney clinic.

Usually visiting that place was just tedious, but sometimes the kidney clinic was awful, sometimes infuriating, and sometimes downright dangerous. I've hesitated to write about it, not sure I could fully convey the fear and frustration Stephanie felt. If I describe every awful thing that happened there, accurately and honestly, some of it will sound frankly unbelievable, Kafkaesque, or like dialogue from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. But I owe it to Steph to tell the truth, so I will swear, every word of it is true. Brace yourself.

Coming soon: Kidney chronicles, part two.