The last thing Stephanie and I said most nights was, "I love you" or "Good night," which meant the same thing. "Good night, Doug. I love you." "I love you too, Steph. Sweet dreams." It seems totally trite to type it, but spoken aloud between us, it was a warm, reassuring way to end the day. It meant a lot to us. It meant more than I understood while she was alive.
For the first month or so after Stephanie's death, I never said good night. There was only the cat to say it to, and anyway, I was barely and rarely sleeping. I'm sleeping better lately, sometimes even without pills. There's still no-one to say good night to, and there never will be, and yet I've started saying it again. "Good night, Stephanie. I love you." It's sad and silly but soothing, saying such words as I click off the lights and pull up the blanket.
* * * * * * * * * *
Not always or even frequently, but sometimes I still dream that Stephanie is alive and well and at home.
In my dream last night, we were talking about what to have for dinner, and I volunteered to cook, and she volunteered for me to not cook. I'm a lousy cook, and she wanted something good to eat. But she settled for cereal.
I was surprised that there was cereal on the shelf — I never eat it, never buy it — but I wasn't surprised that Steph was in the kitchen, walking around and hungry, and that she wanted some Rice Chex for dinner. She often ate cereal, and sometimes had Rice Chex for dinner. It's mild, which could be perfect when her belly wasn't going to be happy with anything beefy or fishy or chickeny.
When I'm awake, I'm months past expecting Steph to be at home with me, but in dreams like this she's so very, very much still my wife, still Steph, still happy and stubborn and walking, and wanting to do something fun this weekend. The dreams are never complicated; it's just Steph being Steph, and she or we are doing things we routinely did — a picnic at the park, a drive to nowhere in particular, or in my best and very favorite dreams, we're having a conversation. Any of these dreams are delightful. It's waking up afterwards that sucks.
It never hits me like a sudden storm; no, it takes time before I understand. First, I reach out to her but she's not there, and I wonder where she is. For so many years she's always been there, always, whenever I wake up. So — huh? It just doesn't make sense; there's nowhere she could be.
Did she work late? No, she sometimes worked overtime, but never so late that I'd fallen asleep.
Did she take a trip without me? That happened exactly once, and it only lasted a few days, so — no.
Did we have a fight and she'd stormed home to her mother? That happened never, only in sit-coms on TV, so — no.
Then, as reality begins dripping in, I wonder if Steph might be sick in the hospital, but even that doesn't make sense, because if she was hospitalized, I'd be sleeping in a chair next to her hospital bed — so again, like always, when one of us woke up the other would be there. But I just woke up, and she's not here. It's a mystery, and I don't like it, and I'm not sure where she could be. Why isn't she here?
It takes several minutes for my feeble mind to work its way through these questions. Every time.
* * * * * * * * * *
Sometimes I ask the same question — Why isn't she here? — when I'm wide awake. Did Stephanie, at least on some level, die on purpose? The first time I asked that question, my immediate response was NO! All caps, italics, with exclamation point. She loved the heck out of me, and there's no way she would've left if she'd had a choice.
But there is more to it than that. With all of Stephanie's health issues, we had discussed whether life was worth living, and worst-case scenarios, and all that horrid stuff, in depth. Many times we talked about death, and sometimes about suicide. That's how bad the hemodialysis was.
How can I convey the horror of it? Hemodialysis required Steph to be at the kidney clinic early in the morning, every Monday, every Wednesday, and every Friday. While she was there she was often treated coldly, sometimes treated rudely, and always treated as a patient — and she hated being a patient. She usually felt physically ill, beginning the moment she was hooked up to the dialysis machine. The procedure regularly made her dizzy and nauseous. She hated every minute of it, and it took four hours, and after every treatment she was exhausted and had to sleep — so her day was over, even though she'd only been awake for a few hours and those hours had been awful. In a very real sense, then, dialysis swallowed three entire days, every week.
So yeah, several times she said, "I'm not sure life is worth living," and on especially bad days — in pain, or in the hospital — she occasionally said in so many words, "I wish I was dead."
Let me clarify this: Steph didn't bring up suicide often. She mentioned it exactly three times during the year and a half she was on hemodialysis. "I wish I was dead" was a line she used only at her bleakest, most miserable points — perhaps half a dozen times over the course of several years. She certainly never attempted suicide; she was just blowing off steam. And I tried to talk her away from even saying such things, tried my best to make something worthwhile out of the four days a week of life she was allowed.
I responded with optimistic words, but I very much understood her frustrations. She wasn't just miserable and barely present those three days a week; dialysis left her so exhausted that she needed to sleep late the following day, leaving her with short days even on days without dialysis. You'd have to be an especially empty-headed Mary Poppins to live that life and not think at least once in a while about ending it.
After almost a year of asking to be switched to home dialysis, when the change was finally approved it was like manna from Heaven, and we were both very happy. Home dialysis was awful too, and it left her exhausted, and she described it as "a new and improved form of Hell," but it was an improvement. She felt like she had seven days a week instead of four. And one afternoon, shortly after she had started home dialysis, we were driving along West Washington Avenue, and we had a brief conversation that I'll never forget.
"Remember," she said, "when I said I was thinking about giving up?"
"Well, I want you to know, just in case the home dialysis doesn't work out, that I've decided to stay. Even if staying means going back on hemo and going to that awful clinic and having my life reduced to four days a week, I'd want to stay. Because of you, I'd want to stay."
I had to pull the car over to the side of the road, because my eyes were too watery to see. "Steph," I said, "that's terrific to hear, and it's a big relief." Then a long pause, while I gathered the words I wanted to say. "It's also the sweetest thing anyone's ever said to me."
She kissed me in the car, illegally stopped in a bus zone beside Brittingham Park, where we then waited a few minutes for my vision to clear, before continuing home. In all the time we lived in Madison, we only went to that park once or twice. That afternoon, we didn't even get out of the car. Still, it's a memory and a conversation that replays in my mind every time I drive that stretch of West Wash, and often when I'm nowhere near that part of town.
So did Stephanie exit the world on purpose? Nope. Absolutely not. But she was so weary of the doctors and doctoring, she was willing to gamble a bit with her health, if it meant she wouldn't have to have yet another medical appointment. That's what she did on purpose, by choice. That's why she didn't make an appointment, when she was feeling poorly and not eating well last summer — a few weeks before she died.
There are days when I can't shake my regret, my unending regret, that I didn't demand that she see a doctor. I suggested it, several times, but as always, we agreed that it was her decision, and she wanted to wait and see if she'd feel better. She waited too long, and she didn't see a doctor about it, until I found her crumpled beside the bed and called an ambulance, when I came home from work one afternoon.
I'm always going to regret not demanding that she see a doctor, but I can also hear what Stephanie said so many times. "It's my body, my health, my choice. If you nag me too much to make a doctor's appointment, I'll dig in my heels and never make an appointment."
If I could go back in time and warn her when she started feeling poorly, "This time it will literally kill you," I'm certain she would've made an appointment pronto. But without the fantasy of time travel, all I said was, "You ought to see a doctor," and "I wish you'd see a doctor," and "It would be a good idea to see a doctor." I suppose the most powerful way I could've phrased it was, "It might kill you," but I know what she would've said to that. "If it kills me it kills me. I'll take that chance, because if it's not my choice then I might as well be dead anyway."
In not seeing a doctor, she was taking a chance, and she knew it. We were both too stupid to understand that the stakes were life and death, not just sickness and hospitalization, but Stephanie knew she was taking a chance. And I knew that she knew. So there's no-one to blame but me and her.
But I also know that she wasn't choosing to die. She was only choosing not to see a doctor, not yet. And that's not just a rationalization, to make me feel better. Know how I know it's not? Because it doesn't make me feel better. Not even a fraction of an iota.