Late for the wake

She’s gone, and the world is a substantially worse place than it was.
I miss Stephanie, yeah. But much more to the point, she’s not here. She’s not anywhere. There’s nothing left of her but photos and ashes and recipe cards, old clothes and odd mementos. Every molecule that fired the neurons of her brain is elsewhere now, doing other things.
Everything she cared about, she doesn’t care anymore. All the jokes she would’ve cracked will remain uncracked forever. All the insight she offered every day, will never again be offered. The kooky slang we had between is us a language no-one will ever speak again. When I glance into the bedroom as I walk down the hall, it’s only the bed, and she’s not in it.
Everything she was, everything that made her such a delight to me — the shape of her smile, the speck in her eye, the crack in her voice when she cried, the sound of her laughter, the scent of the crook of her elbow, all the easy conversations, all of her laughter, all of her dreams, all of her memories and passions, all of her accomplishments and failures, all of her fears, all her insecurities, all of her worries, all of her joy, all of her plans, all that she was or ever could have been — all of it is gone.
Once, when we were living in California, she flew back to Wisconsin to attend a friend’s wedding, so for three days and two nights we weren’t together. With only that exception, for more than two decades we were together every day and every night of our lives. And it was marvelous. And it’s over.
The woman who gave me all those years of her life, willingly and wonderfully, is irrevocably gone. That is sadder, hollower and achier and more awful than anything I’ve ever experienced or imagined.
Just — gone. She’ll never know how the Game of Thrones books end. She’ll never again pet the cat. She won’t whip up her renowned shrimp-noodles, or anything else. She won’t poke fun at me for being hard-of-hearing, or for un-ironically using ancient words like “knickerbockers.” She’ll never finish her latest needlepoint project. She won’t ask me to dance, or challenge me on the lightning round of Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me. She won’t play any of her video games, all of which she generalized by calling them “Run, Girlie Run.” She won’t reminisce about college, or her trip to Russia, or living in San Francisco. She won’t re-watch All About Eve or The Women for the hundredth time. She won’t read about the latest insanity from Donald Trump and mutter under her breath. She won’t stroll or roll with me at Olbrich Gardens. She won’t leave a shopping list for me in the morning. No more pontoon rides on the lake. No more nothing. Stephanie is a memory. A very, very wonderful memory, but entirely in the past.
So, yeah, the world is worse than it was. Exponentially worse.
And please don't tell me she's in a better place. She's not. She’s no place at all. Stephanie and I were basically agreed that there’s no Heaven, no Hell, no Limbo where we’ll meet again. No purgatory, no paradise, no Nirvana, no reincarnation – there's no evidence for any of it, and we don’t believe in fairy tales. There’s only here, and not here. And Stephanie is not here.
It’s time to take another walk, have another cry. After that, it's time to drive to Racine, and see Stephanie's parents. We've only spoken on the phone since she died, so I expect there'll be lots of tears today.
* * * * * * * * * *
For our first fifteen years of marriage, Stephanie did virtually all the driving. She was a better driver than I am, certainly, and when she moved out west to join me in San Francisco, she drove the loaded U-Haul from Wisconsin to California. I might have driven a hundred miles on that trip; the rest was Stephanie, and with this she earned a permanent nickname as “Truck Girl.”
In the era before GPS, I was mostly relegated to “Navigator Boy” duties, studying the maps and telling her where to turn. She was also, however, a better navigator than me, and occasionally she took the map out of my hand when I’d gotten us lost. So in reality, even at the start of our marriage, she was both driver and navigator. Or as we said in our silly slang, she was both Truck Girl and Navigator Girl.
When we lived in San Francisco, we didn’t have or need a car. Public transit is easier, and anyway we were poor, and parking would have been impossibly expensive. But when we moved, first to Kansas City and later to Madison, Stephanie rented the car and drove and plotted the paths, and when we eventually bought a car she was again in charge of driving and navigation.
Then, for the last six or seven years of our time together, when health issues meant she could no longer drive, she became exclusively Navigator Girl. And she was mighty good at it. We never bought a GPS; instead we owned thick map-books of Wisconsin and Illinois, and Stephanie guided us to our destinations, almost always with no missed turns.
Oh, the places we’ve been! Rustic Roads all over Wisconsin. Door County, the tourist trap along Wisconsin’s lakefront coastline. Up the Mississippi River shore. Across Lake Wisconsin on the Merrimac Ferry, and across the Mississippi River on a different ferry. To Beloit and back so many times, for minor-league baseball. We played bingo in the Dells, and at the casino in Milwaukee. Scenic drives across half of Wisconsin, especially in the autumn, as the leaves were turning — Stephanie loved that drive, and we did it annually. Pick a state or county park; if it’s within 200 miles we’ve been there, probably multiple times, and Stephanie always found the most efficient or scenic route.
Everywhere we lived — San Francisco, Kansas City, and Madison — we frequently went to movies at the drive-ins, which are always a long, winding trip out of the city. She always laid the course to the drive-in and, more of a challenge, back home again late at night, when all the backwoods highways are blanketed in darkness.
She was an excellent Navigator Girl, as we often said to each other. It was a silly joke, but it was also true, and she would’ve found it hilarious that I got thoroughly lost, several times, on my first road trip without her.
* * * * * * * * * *
Stephanie and I didn’t have an extensive collection of friends in Madison. Our few friends are in San Francisco, and in Pennsylvania, and elsewhere, and my own family is a thousand miles away, so the only people we had in the area were her parents. They live in Racine, a mid-sized town a hundred miles from Madison. That’s where we had an informal wake, just her parents and I, at the house where Stephanie was raised.
I hate almost everything about the traditional American-style funeral, so this intentionally wasn’t anything like that. Nothing was organized, no scriptures or speeches were spoken, nobody sang “Amazing Grace.” There was a lot of crying, but mostly by me. Her parents are “Midwest stoic,” devastated by their daughter’s death but they’re not going to cry about it in front of me. Still, it was a surprisingly effective wake or going-away party, or whatever-it-was.
Her father grilled some pork tenderloin for lunch, and for several hours we talked about Stephanie’s childhood, and things that happened long before I knew her. I already knew many of the things they told me, but some of it Stephanie had never mentioned.
I knew, for example, that she had taught herself to read when she was a toddler, years before kindergarten. Hey, I told you she was smart. But I hadn’t known that her nursery teacher hadn’t believed that 3-year-old Stephanie could read. When Steph’s mother said Stephanie could read, the teacher guffawed and said perhaps Steph had memorized the stories in her books, but she couldn't possibly read. Steph's Mom said, "Grab a book, any book," and the teacher skeptically handed itty-bitty Steph a book she’d never seen before. Stephanie read the title aloud, and then started reading the book – and not faltering, sounding out words; she read it easily.
Just for comparison, I wasn’t allowed to have my sixth birthday until I could tie my shoes. No party, no presents, no cake, no celebration. I wasn’t even allowed to say I was six years old. I had to continue telling people I was five for another several months, until I finally mastered tying my shoes. So, Steph was reading at three, and I was tying my shoes at 6½.
She had told me that she could play the piano, but we’d never had one. The few times we'd been in the same room with a piano Steph had always declined to play, so I never heard her play the piano. What she didn’t tell me was that she had been a piano prodigy, playing classical pieces by sight and sound well before adolescence. How could we be married for all those years and I’d never known?
She told me she'd earned an academic scholarship at Michigan State, but she didn’t tell me that she aced her Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) with a perfect score. I never went or wanted to go to college, so I had to Google it when I got home, but yeah, a perfect SAT is incredibly rare. My assumption, then, is that she didn’t tell me about her it because she thought it might’ve made me uncomfortable at the difference in intelligence between us. But c’mon, Steph. I knew you better than I’ve ever known anyone, and believe me, I always knew that you were way, way smarter than me.
It’s surprising how little I know about Stephanie’s childhood, college years, and early adulthood – everything in her life before meeting me. I met several of her old friends, but they never became my friends, and we were so far away that Steph rarely saw them.
We flipped through photo albums and keepsakes, and went through a lot of Stephanie's stuff from childhood. Here's the announcement of her birth, clipped from the Milwaukee Sentinel – Racine, WI, July 8, 1970 – Born to Mr and Mrs Jack L Webb, a daughter, Stephanie Lynn. She was six pounds, 10½ ounces.

They let me take two boxes of mementos to keep, and one box they made me promise to return. In grade-school pictures, she's just a cute kid who bears some resemblance to my Steph, but in the pictures by the time she's a teenager, it's remarkable how much she's Stephanie. There are a few pictures of Steph from high school where I'm certain what was on her mind at the moment the camera clicked; I can see it in the expression on her face. 

So, thanks, Mom and Dad Webb, for an afternoon spent remembering Stephanie. I cried a lot, and it felt good to share the grief. There’s been no-one I could talk to in person about Stephanie’s death, until today. Her parents have always accepted me into the family, and today that meant a lot to me.

* * * * * * * * * *
I thought that crying would be the most difficult part of the day, but it felt good to let the tears flow. Indeed, the hardest thing for me was simply driving to and from Racine. It's a hundred-mile drive, and I’ve made that trip and back many times, because we visited her folks frequently. Today, though, I couldn’t bear the thought of driving our normal route via Interstate-94, where every landmark along the freeway would be a reminder of the person who wasn’t in the car. We had lunch at that restaurant, and We filled the tank at that gas station, etc.
So instead I mapped out a longer trip, far from the interstate, along state and county highways we’d traveled much less frequently. And predictably, driving without my Navigator Girl left me confused, scratching my head, and completely flummoxed finding her family’s house. I arrived half an hour late for the wake. Then, on the return trip to Madison, I made two wrong turns and went 75 miles out of my way.
So, two observations: First, it’s not just a cliché that I am lost without Stephanie. I am utterly, absolutely, and literally lost without her, and I’ll be lost for the rest of my life.
And second, I need to buy a GPS device for the car.