When I drive past Stephanie's workplace, my memories aren't of her several years healthy there; instead they're of helping her in and out when she could hardly walk and couldn't open the door without help. Hundreds of times we strolled around our neighborhood, but what comes to mind now is pushing her wheelchair gently over the cracks in the sidewalk. When I'm in our kitchen, thinking how she loved to cook, I remember helping her open the oven door, because guess what? It's nearly impossible to open an oven and put in or take out a pot full of food when you're in a wheelchair.
Her disability has taken over my memories of Stephanie, and that's not fair to her.
She was tough, and fearless. You can't get much more fearless than flying across the country to meet a potential boyfriend – me – and then flying back, only to start planning and packing everything, and then moving across the country to live with that guy she'd just met. That's our story, some of which I've already told on this site, and most of which is yet to be written (spoilers).
And of course, when we moved — every time we moved — Stephanie did her share of packing and loading the moving vans, and more than her share of the planning, driving, and navigating.
In San Francisco, we walked across the Golden Gate Bridge and back, and we weren't particularly tired afterwards. We walked from downtown to our apartment – three miles or so – with no worries. We climbed the city's hills and explored the ruins of the Sutro Baths. We walked miles along the Pacific Ocean shores and out in the Avenues.
In Kansas City, we walked up and down the hill to movies at the Country Club Plaza, a mile or so each way. We often walked to the museums, sometimes to visit the museums, but sometimes just to walk. When we discovered that an apartment without air conditioning was unlivable in the summer, Stephanie found a sale on portable air conditioners and brought two of them home – 25 pounds each, alone on the city bus, since I was at work and we didn't have a car.
In Madison, we walked every path in every park, and picnicked, and took pontoon boat rides, and went fishing. Stephanie often went shopping or ran errands without me. We might walk a dozen blocks from our apartment to a restaurant or a park, with no hesitation. We once walked across Monona Bay on the railroad tracks and would've had to jump into the water if a train came.
We went camping, and she didn't think twice about the long walk to the toilet pits. We bought baseball tickets in row 22 and made our way up the bleachers without any particular stress or strain. We would occasionally go on hikes and climb mini-mountains and lookout towers in state parks.
But wait, there's more. Stephanie was emphatically an independent and self-reliant woman, in control of her life and career – she was what used to be called liberated. She wasn't always on about it, and she wasn't looking for an argument, but she was very much a feminist. She understood from experience that some men, subconsciously or consciously, view women as inferior. She sometimes wasn't taken seriously herself, at work, at school, and in life, because of her gender.
That's just plain stupid, of course. Dismissing a good idea without a good reason is counterproductive to running a profitable business, or building a better society, or whatever your mission might be. Like any form of bigotry, misogyny ought to be challenged and never tolerated. Steph would challenge it, always. When someone tried to shush her or ignore her or dismiss her, she would insist upon being heard.
She was a strong, smart, vibrant, take-no-guff woman. She was college-educated, well-read, had thoroughly-thought-out opinions, and she had a natural attitude of being in charge in almost any situation — because in almost any situation, you'd want her to be in charge. And she certainly didn't change when we fell in love; I wouldn't have wanted her to change, and anyway, she wouldn't have.
She was never subservient to anyone unless she respected that person's expertise. She was never subservient to me, and I never wanted her to be. Adjectives like "dainty" or "demure" would not apply. She was a tough broad, in the best sense of that term.
We split the chores evenly, but there was nothing Stephanie couldn't do on a whim. When we decided we wanted to go somewhere or do something, she was ready to go quickly, usually before me. We went to movies, plays, parks, restaurants, shops, museums, libraries, casinos, garage sales, political rallies, sporting events, and everywhere else she wanted to go except France. Nothing held her back, except that she had a rather dull, not-too-bright husband.
When the garbage disposal clogged, she grabbed a wrench and took it apart and got it working again. When we filed bankruptcy, she handled all the paperwork, and the court clerk told her they were the tidiest forms he'd ever seen. When we needed to argue with anyone over poor service or billing errors, she knew exactly how to plead her case winningly and politely, while my style would have just been to holler ineffectively. There wasn't much Stephanie couldn't do, nor much she couldn't do better than me.
In all these ways and many more, Stephanie Webb kicked ass, perpetually. From the day we were married I was always proud to be her husband, and I grew more and more proud of her as the years went by, and prouder still as she battled her medical problems. In my eyes, she was astounding before her any of the diagnoses, and astounding after all of them.
I don't want to forget any of it, the bad or the good, but it seems unfair and unkind and below-the belt, that my strongest memories are of Stephanie at her weakest – like the time her legs gave out and she crumpled in a parking lot, when the doctors hadn't yet figured out why walking had become so difficult for her. Or the years when I did most of the household chores and almost anything that required physical strength. I drove her to the many medical appointments, picked up her prescriptions, helped her into the shower, pushed her wheelchair, etc.
I remember her fevers and chills, her vomiting and diarrhea, her leg amputation, her stay in a nursing home, and so much more – and her triumphs over all of it. Yeah, triumphs. What else do you call it, when she kept coming back from every diagnosis, every hospitalization? That was a winning streak, and I was and remain incredibly impressed by her.
But it's pissing me off that my memories of Stephanie when she was healthy are obscured in the back corners of my head. Toward the front, more clearly visible through my mental windows and curtains, are all the recent and less pleasant memories. That's the way memory works, but it's a thunderous disservice to the sensational woman she already was, before all the doctors descended on her.
I have never known a better person – wiser, stronger, or more autonomous – than Stephanie Webb. How traumatic and terrifying it was for her, to go from being a strong, stand-alone chick to being someone who literally couldn't stand alone. I did everything I could to help her, but what she wanted most was to not need any help.