It's important, I think, to remember all aspects of Stephanie, even the painful things, and this will be painful. She was a complicated lady, and spectacular, in my opinion — but in her own opinion, not so much. She second-guessed herself, as we all do but perhaps more so, and once in a while she told me that she saw herself as a failure.
Most of us have insecurities, of course — aspects of ourselves we're not quite satisfied with, or shortcomings that we're working on. Anyone who doesn't see their own failures, well, that's someone who's likely to be cocky, full of themselves, and insufferable to be around.
Stephanie had insecurities, far more than she ever earned. She could be awfully hard on herself. She could spend ten minutes listing all the ways she'd screwed up her life, when in reality, almost nothing on her list was really her fault. Stephanie's biggest shortcoming, by far, was only that she thought she had so many shortcomings.
I never figured out why Stephanie judged herself so harshly, but my suspicion is that it had to do with being such a prodigy as a kid. Remember, she taught herself to read before kindergarten. She made straight-A's in school, and was sent to special classes for gifted students. In college, she made Phi Beta Kappa. We talked about it a few times, about having been the girl genius as a kid, and Steph sometimes said that she thought everyone must have been disappointed when she ended up with just an ordinary lower-middle class existence.
Realistically, though, almost all of us live ordinary lives, doing ordinary jobs. We're all failures by that measure, unless you're Elon Musk or Marie Curie. If you ask me, Stephanie's life was a series of victories, big and small. When she tried to do something, she almost always did it and did it well.
Here's a woman who held stable jobs all her adult life, lived on her own before meeting and marrying me, traveled to Russia and to England, and earned two college degrees. She faced a fatal diagnosis at the age of 40, but kept fighting and enjoying life for another eight years. And I daresay, she had a happy marriage, something a lot of married people can't claim. In just about every way to define success, I'd say Stephanie was successful. And yet, she sometimes said that she was a failure. I couldn't convince her otherwise.
The closest she came to failure, actual failure not imagined failure, was in graduate school. This topic was painful for her, so she rarely talked about it, but she'd been booted from grad school at the University of Wisconsin, a few years before we met. For the first time in her life, her grades had slipped from always A's to C's and D's. She'd largely stopped attending classes, stopped turning in assignments, and she'd been warned by her teachers and finally by the dean. So she wasn't particularly surprised when she was called into the dean's office and officially expelled.
She never told me the underlying reason why all of this had happened — why she'd stopped attending classes. I asked, and she shrugged. "Maybe I'll tell you some time, but not now. Later." It was a 'later' that never came, but when Stephanie was in a funk and listing all the ways she was a failure, "I flunked out of grad school" was usually near the top of the list.
On a few occasions when we she mentioned her grad school days, I told her, I'm a quitter. Always have been. I consider it a strength, not a weakness. If I'm not seeing the value in something — a book I'm reading, or a pointless job, or a frustrating friendship, almost anything — I'll simply stop. So I always figured, Steph must have had a good reason to quit grad school, even if she couldn't put it into words. On some level, consciously or unconsciously, she concluded that pursuing a Master's Degree wasn't worthwhile, so she stopped showing up. And I wouldn't call that a failure.
It's better and wiser to quit, once you've decided in your heart that something isn’t worthwhile. Following through and sticking with it, we're told, is more gallant, more respectable, but that's hogwash. Doing something you don't want to do, just because people expect it? That path leads to a wretched life. Sadly, a lot of people do what's expected and lead wretched lives, have wretched marriages or work at wretched careers they abhor. A lot of people lack Steph's good sense and willingness to walk away, like she walked away from grad school.
When I trotted out that argument, Steph seemed to understand the point I was trying to make. She kissed me, and her spirits rebounded … but she still circled back, months later, to saying again that she was a failure because she'd flunked out of grad school.
Another of her occasional self-described failures was the piano. When she was a girl she'd been a whiz kid at the piano, but as an adult she hadn't made music in years, and she sometimes kicked herself for not playing. We didn't own a piano, but a few times I suggested that we could buy an electronic keyboard — not quite a piano but it would be music, and we could have easily afforded it.
Stephanie said no to a keyboard, and I never heard her play the piano. I rather wish I had, as I'll bet she played beautifully, but I wouldn't say it was a failure, not tickling the ivory. Would you? She never mentioned the piano unless her mood was way, way down, so it seems more honest to conclude that she didn't particularly want to play the piano again. And that's a perfectly valid choice, of course. But when she was feeling especially blue, she felt like the piano was another failure.
In her last few years, the medical worries wore her down, and she sometimes included poor health on her list of failures — as if the kidney disease was somehow her fault. Of course, it wasn't; she ate healthy and lived healthy, and her kidney failure was just godawful bad luck.
Her health issues grew almost unfathomably difficult, yet she worked so very hard at recapturing her health. She rarely missed a medical appointment, she followed doctor's orders even when the pills were making her puke and poop, and you've never seen anyone put as much effort into anything as Steph put into her physical therapy after any of her surgeries. Yet she sometimes listed these as failures, which was just plain bonkers.
Once, while she was having so much difficulty walking, we went to a baseball game with Steph in a wheelchair, and she very much wanted to stand during the national anthem. She struggled to her feet, and stayed up for the length of the song, which was very, very difficult for her. As usual for Stephanie, failure was not an option.
After the amputation of her leg, standing for the anthem was no longer possible, of course. But once, she wore her poorly-fitted prosthetic leg to the ball game, and that night she stood for the anthem, even as that ghastly leg was painfully digging into her skin. Later, the aching and itching became so bad, we left in the fifth inning. On the way home, she said, "I'm such a failure I couldn't even make it through a baseball game." As if the misfit prosthetic was a character flaw? That was ridiculous, and of course I said so, but Stephanie could be so mean to herself.
She was sometimes embarrassed just to be in the wheelchair, or worried that I must have been mortified to be seen with her. She couldn't have been more wrong. I was always proud to be with Steph, whether she was on two legs or one or rolling in her chair.
Her medical issues cycled from better to worse and back to better, a merry-go-round of highs and lows over several years, and when her health was in a low phase she stopped returning her parents' calls. She still wanted to talk to her Mom and Dad, but she wanted the conversation to be good news. If she had only bad news about her health, she would put off calling until there was some good news. Which meant that, during times when her health was the worst and she most could've used a conversation with her parents, I was talking with her parents more than Stephanie was.
Her most commonly self-cited shortcoming was that she felt she wasn't attractive. She had horrible stories, of reverse catcalls she'd heard on the sidewalk from strangers in passing cars, or teenaged classmates taunting her with shouted comments like, "You're so ugly!" or "Woman, you're fat!" Such memories must have been awful for Stephanie.
In western civilization, so much of a woman's perceived worth is tied up in whether she's attractive. Many men and even some women have an unacknowledged, unspoken, perhaps even unaware assumption that a woman who's pretty or young or sexy is worthwhile, and woman who isn't, isn't. It's infuriating, dehumanizing. It's wrong.
Stephanie asked me to cut her hair, every few months for many years. It wasn't a complicated cut, just snip a straight line at her shoulders. "Ladies' haircuts are expensive," she said, "but having your husband do it is free." Once, I goofed and cut her hair an inch shorter than she wanted it, and she was distraught and a little angry, but most of my cuts were fine, she said.
We could have afforded a visit to a beauty salon, a hair stylist, wherever women go for hair care, but each time I suggested it she said no. "You don't know how it is if you're a woman but not pretty," she said. "The stylist will cut my hair, but she won't give it any real effort, and when she's done it'll be obvious — to me, at least — that she didn't care. And then, for weeks after that, every time I look in the mirror I won't just see myself, a woman who's not pretty, with a haircut that I don't like. I'll see a woman that some stylist couldn't even be paid to give a damn about."
We had that conversation three times, once for each of the three times I suggested that she should go to a stylist for a better haircut than I could give her. All three times, and in fact every time she mentioned that she thought she was unattractive, I gently but emphatically argued. Stephanie was a good-looking woman, who never saw herself as good-looking.
Maybe she wasn't up to whatever's the current unattainable standard of absolute facial and body perfection — because nobody is; it's impossible — but I'll say again what I said to Stephanie: From the moment we met till the moment she died, I always found her attractive. And the more time I spent with her, the more attractive she became. And most importantly, she was much, much more than merely an attractive woman. There are millions and millions of attractive women, but Stephanie was one of a kind.
She was smart, funny, had a kind heart, and she could accomplish almost anything she set her mind to. She was absolutely awesome. I called her Wonder Woman, and it wasn't an exaggeration. If anything, it was an understatement — in the comic books, Wonder Woman wasn't even born, she was sculpted from clay. She's the daughter of Zeus, the Greek god of thunder. She has genetic advantages over normal women, and wears bracelets that somehow deflect bullets and energy blasts, and protect her from injury should she fall from a great height.
It's easy to be a superhero when you have superpowers, but Stephanie was human, which makes her the real Wonder Woman. She was the most successful person I've ever known, by far. And yet, she had a shortage of self-confidence. She might talk about her frustrations at work, or complain about the hassles of dealing with barely-competent medical providers, and then she would grow quiet until I asked what was wrong, and she would blurt out, "I'm a failure."
"What do you mean?" I asked, the first few times this conversation played out.
She would reply with a litany of the reasons she considered herself a failure. "I flunked out of grad school. I have a nothing job. I haven't played the piano in years. I'm a burden on you, because of my health issues. Hemodialysis leaves me barely alive." Sometimes the list would be longer, sometimes shorter, and sometimes it would include temporary setbacks — "I spent an hour and a half making dinner but dinner sucked." Or, "My boss hates me." Or, "We're never going to save enough money to move to Kansas City." Or, "I'm not very good as a wife."
I would respond to the items she mentioned, as best I could. "You're a terrific wife, Stephanie, the best wife any man ever had and the best friend I've ever known." Or words to that effect. "You're not a failure. You're marvelous and I love you," or words to that effect. I always tried to say the right things, but I was never sure that I had. "And you did the right thing quitting grad school when you lost interest, and your job is miles better than mine and pays more too, and you're the opposite of a burden, and dinner was pretty good and I'll eat all the leftovers."
But she wasn't fishing for compliments. And sometimes she really thought she'd failed me as a wife, though I can't begin to imagine how. I argued, but I don't know whether she was ever really convinced, and then she wouldn't want to talk about it any more. That was the template for all of our conversations about her perceived shortcomings, insecurities, and failures. She would list them, I would refute them, and then she'd lose interest in the topic. Until the next time she announced she was a failure.
The "I'm a failure" conversation played out perhaps fifty times during our marriage, and scraping the bottom of the emotional barrel fifty times over 20+ years isn't a lot. I don't want to leave the impression that Steph was frequently depressed. She was occasionally depressed, and everyone has that right. I am certainly depressed occasionally. Who isn't?
"Hold me," she asked whenever she was troubled. I would hold her, and talk with her, for as long as it took for her to feel better. She held me through my troubled times, too, and I wish she was holding me tonight.
And lastly, what kind of crazy talk was "not very good as a wife"? Stephanie was the best. She made me a happy man for years and years — far happier than I'd ever been before; far happier than I'll ever be again. My goal was always to make her happy, too, and many times she told me that she was, but I wish I could've made her happier, for longer. And I wish somehow I could've convinced her that she was never a failure at anything, always wildly successful, because that's the truth.