Even as our years together accumulated, thoughts of Stephanie still made my heart flutter. I often told her how much I treasured her, and in extremely mushy words, and she often said much the same to me, and I am so glad that we said it out loud, and frequently.
If there's someone you love, say it out loud.
The last time I told Stephanie, at length and in detail, how much I loved her, she smiled hugely and said incredibly romantic, loving things to me. It was a mushy conversation that lasted perhaps five minutes, and the memory, from a week or so before she entered the hospital, is etched into my head.
Sometimes I wonder, when was the last time she was able to relax and read a book, without a care in the world? When was the last time we looked into each other's eyes without both of us being full of worry? Those are questions I can't quite answer, but to be sure, there weren't many happy memories in the last few weeks of her life.
There are smaller questions, though. When was the last time we walked down that street, past that school? When was the last night we called out for pizza? When was her last of everything?
Stephanie loved a "State Street date," where we did something on State Street's several blocks of "no cars allowed" pedestrian mall. There are lots of restaurants, lots of charming little shops, and not too many chain franchises, at least not yet. In the years when she walked, we did State Street dates two or three times every summer, but once she was in the wheelchair, we visited State Street less often. She still loved it, though, so I scold myself that we didn't visit State Street even once this year, or last year. To my recollection, our last State Street date was in the winter of 2016-17, when we ate at a sandwich shop on State Street, before attending a Badgers women's hockey game. I'm a big dumb boy, and I should've taken her to State Street more often.
Our last scenic drive was 2017's autumn cruise. Every fall, when the leaves were in full orange and red colors, we followed pretty much the same route across several counties and up an impressive hill in the middle of some state park. Stephanie did the navigating, though, so I have next to no idea where or what that park was, and I can't take that drive without her this autumn.
We liked going to Madison's zoo, and went at least once every summer. Our last visit was in July. The seals wouldn't come out and see us, but we listened to a long talk by a staffer about one of the animals, which is the oldest living one of its species in captivity. The talk was interesting, but I can't remember what the animal was; I think it was some kind of a biggish bird. I doubt I'll ever return to the zoo – we had so many happy memories there, and they're all much, much sadder memories, now. So that was our last visit to the zoo. Her last, and my last.
Our last trip to the library was toward the end of July. Steph checked out a dozen books; I checked out one. Library books are due back in four weeks, and while Steph was in the hospital, a few days before she died, I gathered the books we'd checked out, mostly unread, and return them to the library.
Our last time playing bingo was April 23rd, at Potawatomi in Milwaukee. We didn't win, didn't come close, and it didn't matter. Stephanie was always happy playing bingo, and it was contagious, so we were both happy.
We went to three Beloit Snappers games in 2018, but I don't know when the last one was. It's not on my bank statement, so I must've paid with cash instead of plastic. I also don't remember whether the Snappers won or lost. We had a good time, though. We always had a good time at Beloit baseball games.
Our last movie at a theater was A Wrinkle in Time. Stephanie had loved the book as a kid, and I had liked it, but we both thought the movie was a big blob of nothing much. Our last movie at home was Hairspray, the John Waters original, which we'd seen before but it's always fun. Our last movie at the Wisconsin Film Festival was Notorious R.B.G., the documentary about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg; Steph was a tough dame, and you couldn't ask for much tougher than Ginsburg, so we loved it. And our last movie at Madison's Cinematheque was Columbus, with John Cho, which was excellent, and had nothing at all to do with Christopher Columbus. Like most of our favorite movies, we probably would've wanted to see Columbus again eventually, but there will be no eventually.
We loved going to movies at the drive-in, too. Usually we went to the Highway 18 Drive-In outside the town of Jefferson, or sometimes we went to the drive-ins in Monroe or the Dells. But this year our summer was shortened by two hospitalizations, and a long stretch where Stephanie wasn't feeling well, so we didn't get to the drive-ins at all.
The last play we saw was Our Town, by Thornton Wilder. It was a student production at Madison College in April, with the protagonist re-imagined as a young woman instead of the usual older man. It was very well done, we had a terrific time, and Stephanie wore her favorite super-fancy dress.
Our last dance was in 2008, when we went to see a Dean Martin impersonator, Joe Scalissi, at Monona Terrace in downtown Madison. He put on a great show, really captured the essence of Dino. Steph was a good dancer and I was not, but we Fred & Gingered the night away.
Our last leisurely afternoon at the neighborhood coffee and tea shop, Jade Mountain, was on Sunday, August 12th. It's easy to remember the date, because my family was coming to visit the next day. Stephanie talked about that for a while at the coffee shop, before she started feeling ill and wanted to go home.
Our last restaurant meal was take-out from Hong Kong Cafe, on Friday, July 27th. She had the moo-shoo pork, as she usually did. I don't remember what I had.
The last of her leftovers was a beef stew she'd made many months ago, probably last year. It was too freezer-burned to eat, but a few days ago I let it thaw, then popped the lid off and inhaled, and oh, it smelled of Stephanie's always-excellent stew. I miss her for a thousand things more than anything she ever cooked, but that wondrous, delicious smell brought on yet another wave of memories and tears.
The last treat I brought home for her was a mango smoothie from Culver's, on Monday, August 20. She loved their smoothies, and I loved bringing her little treats. She finished the smoothie in one sitting. It was maybe the most she'd eaten in weeks, and I thought that was a good sign, but what the hell did I know?
Our last meal at home was the next night, Tuesday, August 21. It was nothing special. She had a bowl of tomato soup from a can, and a chunk of French bread warmed up in the toaster over. She only nibbled at both, and wasn't feeling well. The next day I took her to the emergency room. She spent eleven days in the hospital, and never came home.
The last time she laughed was on Saturday, August 25, in the hospital. I don't remember what she laughed at, but Steph could find humor in almost any situation. She was awake and lucid most of that day, chatting and frightened to be in the hospital, but she was Stephanie, so of course she found things to laugh at. She made me laugh, too, as she always did. The situation was scary, but neither of us thought she'd be dead in a week. I'll never understand that; one day she was getting better, and the next day, she was almost gone.
Our last kiss was in the hospital, but that was a kiss of fear. Our last real kiss was the night before she went to the emergency room, when I came home from work. I don't even remember it, but we always said "I love you" when either of us came home, and we always kissed.
Our last conversation was in the hospital, too, an awful place and an awful conversation. We'd had similar conversations in the past, dialogue we replayed with slight variation almost every time she was hospitalized. There wasn't much that she abhorred more than hospitals – needles and nurses, being tethered to tubes, no privacy, no sleep, no autonomy, and an endless parade of people all asking the same questions and poking at the same body parts. It was Saturday afternoon, and she'd been in the hospital for several days, passing in and out of lucidity. At that moment, though, she was lucid enough to understand where she was, and she hated it.
"I can't do this," she said.
And I said, "Yes, you can. I know it's awful, but you've done it before, and I'll be here to help. You'll pull through, you'll recuperate, you'll be back, and we'll have good times like we always have."
She asked, "Really?," and I could see the doubt and panic in her eyes. She was scared, and she needed reassurance, and I thought I was telling her the truth.
"Really," I said. "Don't worry. Everything's going to be OK."
But nothing turned out OK, nothing at all. Stephanie died a week after that last conversation.