Don't worry about packing

I'm back in Madison, after a train trip to Seattle to see my family. I carry a journal with me everywhere, and I'm constantly jotting down flashes of Stephanie as they strike me. That journal went with me to Seattle, of course, and I've filled dozens of pages with poor penmanship and sappy thoughts. It's good to be home, and now, let's turn these handwritten notes into a web post.

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Despite having months to prep for the trip, despite spending hours creating a spreadsheet for packing, it was still hectic as heck getting out the door to catch the bus for the 100-mile ride to the Milwaukee train station. The bus was coming in four hours, and I was still cramming stuff into my baggage. The bus was coming in two hours, and I couldn't find my cell phone. The bus was coming in 45 minutes, and I was almost done packing, but I'd forgotten my glasses — I had checked them off the spreadsheet, inexplicably, but there they are, on the table. How could I do Seattle, or do much of anything, without my glasses?

With only about fifteen minutes until the bus was due, one last doublecheck and I lifted my two duffel-bags for the ten-minute walk to the bus stop. Panic attack averted, I was feeling like a semi-competent adult, a rather rare feeling. It was a pleasant, sunny summer day, temperatures in the low 70s, and then it began sprinkling. Raining. And I was only in shirt sleeves. I'd neither packed my jacket nor wore it, and there wasn't enough time to return home and grab it.

Getting a little wet doesn't much matter, but Seattle is famous for its heavy rainfall, and trains can be quite chilly overnight. It's a two-day ride to the West Coast, and sleeping in a t-shirt on the train could easily mean not sleeping much at all. So I bought a blanket at the Milwaukee train station ($16) and bought a jacket at a thrift store in Seattle ($4), meaning my mistake only cost twenty bucks, but still I felt like an imbecile.

Stephanie, of course, wouldn't have forgotten anything. She did the packing for all our trips, and never forgot anything important. "Don't worry about packing," she always said, and she would've reminded me to wear or pack my jacket. I'm such a failure without her.

In addition to remembering crucial items, she was also an efficient packer. When Steph arranged everything inside our suitcases (or our moving van), the stuff we might need along the way was easily accessible. She was methodical about things like that.

Me, not so much. It took several embarrassing minutes to figure out which side pocket of which duffel-bag had my train ticket stashed in it, and later, to find where I'd hidden my nightly meds. Steph would've said, "Your pills are in the long narrow pocket in your purple duffel-bag," and that's where they would've been, but I had them packed at the bottom of everything, under my undies and books and sandwiches and the genuine Wisconsin cheese I'd packed as a gift, and brought back to Wisconsin. I forgot to give it to anyone in Seattle.

* * * * * * * * * *

Two weeks later at the end of my journey, walking in the door of our apartment, there was something else I'd forgotten. Before we left for an extended trip, Steph always took out the trash, or asked me to do it. Didn't occur to me to do that, because the trash wasn't even half full, and it didn't stink or anything — when I left. When I came back, of course, the apartment reeked and about a dozen flies were swarming in the living room.

See, I'm not big on common sense. Not even sure why it's called "common," but all the sense in our marriage came from Stephanie.

* * * * * * * * * *

Amtrak's Empire Builder meanders for about 2,200 miles, making its way from Chicago to Milwaukee, and from Milwaukee to Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, and finally Washington. The view out the window is marvelous, mostly small towns and farmland, mountains and wide open spaces. It's exactly the kind of journey and view that Stephanie would've loved, and a lot of the visuals brought back memories of her.

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Six or eight time on the trip to Seattle, and ten or twelve times on the return ride, our Amtrak train pulled onto a siding and idled for ten or fifteen minutes, making way for a freight train to whiz past. The freight trains are more profitable, so the freight takes priority. That's something that hasn't changed since the one time Stephanie and I took a train trip together, from Oakland to Reno and back almost twenty years ago. The difference was that from California to Nevada, most of the sidings where that train parked were in grim, ugly spots — run-down or abandoned industrial sectors with no visible life or beauty. The sidings where the Empire Builder parked were much greener, prettier.

* * * * * * * * * *

The train rolled past several small parks in tiny towns, proud blotches of green with ponds and piers and kids on the swings. I remembered all the afternoons Steph and I spent at similar parks, in similar proud but small towns. We only took that one train trip, but we must've taken hundreds of "road trips" in the car, mostly or specifically to see scenery quite akin to what the trains rolled through.

* * * * * * * * * *

In Montana for a while, the train rumbled and rattled beside a river, and I remembered the boat ride we took on some winding river in some tiny Wisconsin town. Stephanie was walking with a cane by then, and I worried about her footing and balance on the rickety pier and on the bouncing boat. The captain/tour guide was worried too, and wanted to give Steph more help than she thought she needed, boarding the boat. She politely rebuffed his outstretched hand (and mine), and made her own wobbling way to the seat she wanted. A tough dame she was.

* * * * * * * * * *

The train passed over dozens of old-style trestle bridges, which reminded me of the day Steph and I took a drive on one of Wisconsin's "Rustic Roads," very rural and usually unpaved streets leading to remote farms or to nowhere at all. On that particular drive we came across a creaky trestle train bridge, and walked across it, once we were pretty sure that no trains we coming from either direction. After that we sat in the car and ate the yummy lunch Steph had packed, and then we drove away.

And then, an hour later, we drove back again, because Steph couldn't find her wallet and we thought maybe she'd dropped it when we'd gotten out of the car to walk that railroad bridge. And sure enough, there it was, untouched where it had fallen from her britches, in the grass between the side of the road and the beginning of the bridge.

* * * * * * * * * *

Out the window of the train, five or six horses were standing in the sunshine, seemingly sociable, just horsing around (sorry). A quarter-mile away but in the same fenced meadow, one horse grazed alone. There was nothing but grass between the coffee klatch animals and the singular horse, but the several preferred spending their afternoon together, while the one preferred solitude.

The one by herself, of course, well, she's Stephanie. She had no objection to the crowd, and maybe she'd spend time with them later, but at that moment she was more comfortable by herself, doing her own thing, gnawing on her own patch of grass.

That's Stephanie, and to a lesser extent me. But mostly her.

* * * * * * * * * *

Steph in her 20s and 30s would've loved the train ride to Seattle, and she would've been keen to see my family, too. She was with me all the way on the train, metaphorically. When there was cattle, I could almost hear Steph holler, "Cows!" Passing through all the whistlestop hamlets, it was easy to imagine Stephanie wanting to eat at the diner with dozens of cars parked out front, especially if the license plates were local — a sure sign that the food was good, Steph always said and she was always right about that. The views were beautiful everywhere (well, almost everywhere) along the route, and Steph would've been so happy.

Steph in her 40s, though, wouldn't have been happy on the train. Not at all. Amtrak is disabled-accessible, sort of, but she would've been limited to the first floor of the train; the seats on the second level — with better views — can only be reached via stairs. 

Wheelchairs would also have a problem traversing the space between train-cars. To open the door and step from one Pullman to the next, you have to reach forward and push a button to open the door, then walk into the netherspace between train-cars and push the button on the other door to the other train-car. Well, the surface between those doors isn't flat, it's three or four feet of bumpy, shaking metal somewhat scary on two feet and certainly scarier in a wheelchair. So it would be daunting for anyone in a wheelchair to go to the dining car, or the lounge car, and the observation deck would be completely off-limits, since that's a second-story thing.

Balance is a challenge if you're walking while the train turns a corner, and no doubt it's more difficult in a wheelchair; everything is more difficult in a wheelchair. If she was rolling down those narrow aisles when the train curved, she might have banged her knuckles on the walls.

And then there are the toilets. Facilities on the train are cramped and rather awkward, with very narrow doors that a wheelchair couldn't squeeze through. Presumably there's one toilet somewhere in each train-car that could accommodate someone in a wheelchair, but I never saw it.

Steph's biggest obstacle on the train, though, would be her kidneys. As I wrote in an earlier entry, you can’t travel on dialysis unless you're rich, or at least a lot better off financially than Steph and I ever were. Insurance doesn't fully cover "out of area" dialysis, and each session costs hundreds of dollars. Or if you're on do-it-yourself dialysis at home, like Stephanie was toward the end, you'd have to pack and bring hundreds of pounds of fluids and a thirty-pound machine we'd need to plug in while the train was rolling. Either way, it's completely impossible.

So this trip to see my family in Seattle wouldn't and couldn't have happened if Stephanie had been alive. I always knew that and so did she, and I can't tell you how much that wasn't a problem. I love my family, but Steph was my everything. Her life and health were far more important to me than the idea of tootling west to say hi to my mom and sisters and brothers and nieces and nephews. So my trip to Seattle was wonderful, and I wouldn't have missed it for the world — but I would've missed it for Stephanie. Would have very happily missed it.

* * * * * * * * * *

The most common sentence from everyone in my family was, "We've missed you." And I've missed them. I'd been gone for twenty-seven years, a long time indeed. But the second most common thing they told me was, "You've sure lost a lot of weight."

That's all because of Stephanie.

I never took care of myself, and ate for entertainment more than nourishment, and from my early 20s I've always been a big fat man. I wanted to lose a couple of hundred pounds of flab because I needed to be healthy to take care of Stephanie, who'd become less healthy. I wanted to help her for many, many years to come.

That plan didn't work out, but after her death I continued losing weight. Lost it more quickly, since nobody was cooking yummy dinners for me, and since I didn't have much of an appetite for six months or so. Mostly, though, I continued losing weight because Steph had been so very proud of me for getting healthier. She said it many times, and her words still echo in my head.

I reached my weight goal, my chart weight, a couple of months ago, so now I'm not dieting, just eating healthy. Steph would be very proud of me for that, and knowing she'd be proud is more important to me than being skinny. Her pride is such a warm and fuzzy feeling in my heart, I can say with certainty that I'll never be a fat man again.

* * * * * * * * * *

My mother and several others in my family have asked me to move back to Seattle. But, no, can't do that. Steph brought me to Wisconsin and made Madison my home. Leaving here would be like leaving Stephanie, or like getting fat again. Inconceivable!

In Seattle, my memories are from childhood, and from being a silly young man. In Madison, almost every sight I see, almost every place I go, there's a memory of Stephanie. Either we've been there and done that together, or we have memories a block or two away. And that's not a problem, that's a plus — an enormous plus. That's the best thing left in my life, and it's my intent to soak in those memories until I die. Those memories are in Madison, so I'm in Madison too.