Today, Thanksgiving Day 2018, I returned to her family's house on a twisty residential road in Racine, and had a very nice turkey dinner with Stephanie's parents. Steph loved her parents, loved visiting them, but she especially loved visiting them for Thanksgiving. It was, I think, her favorite holiday — a big fancy meal, and some quality time with people she loved, without the pressure of gift-giving or making anyone the center of attention. Her parents would always tell Steph she didn't have to bring anything, but she would always bring something — usually dessert or a bottle of wine, maybe some flowers.
Her parents had told me I didn't have to bring anything, and I didn't bring anything. But strangest of all was not bringing Stephanie. It's my first major holiday without her, and it hit me while I was scraping the snow off the car, that she wasn't coming. The passenger seat was empty. Well, of course she wasn't coming. She's been dead for almost three months. But still — she wasn't coming. My eyes were blurry about that, all the way to Racine, and most of the way back.
Dinner was great, and chatting with her folks was good for my mental health. At my workplace, nobody knew Stephanie, and nobody but my boss yet knows that she's gone. My family knows I'm grieving, but they're a long ways away, and besides, they didn't know Steph well enough to have much to say about her. We didn't have many or any friends in Madison. So her parents are the only people I can really talk with, about Stephanie.
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Coming home afterwards, I had to park further down the street than usual. Guess most of my neighbors are having company for their Thanksgiving dinners. On the sidewalk, I stopped and stood at the driveway in front of our apartment complex.
This is where Steph got into the car for the past few years. Curbs and grass were difficult in the wheelchair, so we needed a place where there was both a sidewalk for her and pavement for the car, but no curb or mud in between, so she could wheel her chair right up to the door of the car. The driveway was that place.
Hundreds of times I brought the portable ramp down from the apartment to the sidewalk, wheeled her down it, and then I'd take the ramp back into the apartment. While I was doing that Steph would wheel herself toward the car. It was a race, to see if she could get to the car before me, but usually she only made it about 2/3 of the way before I was back, and I'd push her wheelchair the last twenty or forty meters to the car.
Today I stood where the sidewalk meets that driveway, and stood and stood. No crying, but also no walking away. How many times did we come to this exact spot on the sidewalk? If we were leaving, and I hadn't already brought the car to the driveway, I'd leave her here while I brought the car. Or if the car was already in the driveway, this is where she'd scoot into the passenger seat, and I'd fold up the wheelchair and stash it in the trunk, and then we'd be off to wherever we were going. If we were coming home, right here is where I'd pull the wheelchair out of the trunk and unfold it, then hold it steady while she scooted from the car into the chair. A few feet away is where we sometimes stopped on a sunny day to chat with the neighbors, if they were on their porch. But today, Stephanie is not racing me in a chair, not chatting with the neighbors, and not waiting while I put away the ramp.
Like the rest of the world, that short stretch of sidewalk is a sadder place now. And a dumber place, less interesting, less amusing, less creative, and a heck of a lot less funny. I wonder frequently what Stephanie would say — about the news, about our neighbors, about my day at the office — that would make me laugh. In all our years together, Stephanie never stopped making me laugh. Well, until she died. Not much laughter lately.
And on serious subjects, whatever the topic, Steph would offer a valuable insight I hadn't considered. Generally, my reaction to news or events is a knee-jerk. Stephanie was more contemplative, and often broadened my perspective by adding some nuance to the news, bring up some aspect that hadn't occurred to me. So much insight, now unseen. I'm going to have to make an effort to keep from becoming a stereotypical "Get off my lawn" old man.
She's not anywhere at all except in my memories. She is gone. Absent. Never again will she laugh, or cry, or make her delicious shrimp-noodles, or make the cat purr, or make me stop and think. Never again will she anything, ever. Never.
As recently as last summer, when I came home from out in the world, a dang terrific woman was waiting for me, and she was absolutely, unquestionably happy to see me. She would kiss my face, tell me stories, make me dinner, make me happy, point me to news she knew I'd care about, and she would always, always, make my evenings so sweet I didn't particularly want to sleep. Even if one of us wasn't in a good mood, even if Steph wasn't feeling well, even if she was in a "give me space" mood, there were about three evenings total in all our years together when we didn't sit in the same room and have a nice time.
Now there's no-one. I'm still surprised sometimes, to find myself alone. Still flabbergasted, every day, at how dull and pointless it all seems without her.
Everything we did, everywhere we went, from that driveway to destinations all over Wisconsin, we were making memories. Everyone does. It never occurred to me, though, how every little thing in the universe would be the opposite of what it was, when she's gone. How utterly empty everything would feel once we were no longer "we," and those memories are all that remains. We had such a good time together, and stupidly, we thought we had years left, and then suddenly we had no time at all.
It's twenty-some degrees outside, as cold as it's been all winter, yet I stood at that driveway and that short stretch of sidewalk for ten minutes, not quite crying.