Happy birthday, Stephanie

Once, in a dark mood about a year before her death, Stephanie said, "I'm going to die before I'm even fifty years old." I told her she was wrong, and we spoke at length about her health frustrations and prognosis, and that conversation ended with a hug that helped both of us.

Sometimes when we disagreed over factual matters, Steph might playfully taunt me after she'd been proven correct, by sing-song saying, "I love being right!" And we'd both laugh. I don't think she wanted to be right about dying before 50, but she was.

Today is July 8, Stephanie's 49th birthday. She's been gone for a little more than ten months. I miss her tremendously, of course, and constantly, permanently. Her birthday should be a celebration, though, and I'm going to celebrate it, even without her.

We'll begin with breakfast at Ogden's North Street Diner:

For the first ten years after we moved to Madison, there was a small, abandoned, rather depressing brick industrial building, at a nearby corner of our otherwise residential neighborhood. Someone bought the place several years ago, and we were curious as they began remodeling. Over the weeks we watched as tables and chairs and windows were installed, and we cleverly deduced that the neighborhood was getting a restaurant. It was christened Ogden's North Street Diner (Ogden's in honor of the owner's dog, and North Street because, well, it's on North Street). We were among their first customers, and ate there often. It's an excellent diner — a Mom & Pop place with prices comparable to Denny's but much, much better food, service, and decor. Heck, they even have fresh (not fake) flowers on every table, every time we're there.

And we were there quite often. Once a week or so we walked to Ogden's, me pushing Steph's wheelchair, and it felt like we were walking toward a special treat. On the walk home afterwards, we always talked about how much we liked Ogden's. Steph was disappointed with her meals at Ogden's once or twice, but we ate there dozens of times so that's a solid batting average. Me, I was never disappointed, but she had much higher standards than me, for food and for everything.

I'm not a brave man, so I haven't been to Ogden's since Stephanie death. But today's her birthday, so dining alone at our favorite restaurant seems like an appropriate way to begin the day. Even the walk to Ogden's was weird without her; I've walked past Ogden's alone many times, but until today I'd never walked to Ogden's alone.

There was some trepidation: Am I going to burst into tears? Is breakfast at Ogden's going to leave me deep in grieving all over again? I paused at the entrance, where a tiny step made wheelchair access a little tricky. I always had to help her over that hump.

In the restaurant, I was greeted by a different waitress, not one of the two waitresses who usually served us, and that was a relief. It meant she wouldn't ask, "Where is your wife?", and I wouldn't have to explain. I sat at the counter, where I'd never sat before, thinking that I'd be less likely to dissolve into blubbering than if I'd sat at one of the tables where we'd had so many breakfasts and lunches.

I ordered an omelet and coffee, and in Stephanie's honor a stack of blueberry pancakes, because that's what she often ordered. And also, let's be honest, because I've always enjoyed eating big meals. The food was excellent, I tipped half the tab, and I only sniffled, didn't bawl like a baby. If anyone noticed, they probably thought I had a cold. It was good to be at Ogden's, and maybe I'll return. But not weekly.

After breakfast, a cat:

This morning, soon as they were open, I went to the veterinarian's office to pick up our cat. Boarding her at the vet while I was in Seattle was more expensive than hiring a high school kid, but offered more peace of mind that the cat would actually have her prescription pills plopped down her throat twice daily.

Minky — that's the cat — seems crazy-happy to be home. She won't stop happily meowing and following me around the apartment and hopping into my lap like a puppy.

Stephanie was always delighted to have a cat, the first non-lizard pet she'd ever had. She was convinced that Minky was especially brilliant and beautiful, but I've had many pets; I'm fond of this one but not quite persuaded that she's exceptional. It's nice, though, having the cat in the apartment again. She's a living link to my wife, and I sometimes wonder whether the cat wonders where Stephanie's gone.

After bringing home the cat, a walk through Olbrich Gardens:

Another of Stephanie's favorite places in Madison was Olbrich Botanical Gardens. It's a public park, with a substantial curated collection of flowers, bushes, shrubs, and trees, and trails, benches, and views.

We almost always went through Olbrich along the same paths, so that's the way I walked the park today, starting at the Sunken Garden — flora with fountains and long rectangular pond. At the pond, I always wisecracked that I wanted to bring and release a few goldfish, and Steph always rolled her eyes. She was patient with my very few jokes, told over and over again.

Next came the Meadow Garden, a broken-stone trail through the tall grass, and around and behind a little lake that's always full of fish. In recent years, though, we'd started skipping the trails around the lake and into the hill behind the lake, because a broken-stone pathway, while lovely to walk or look at, makes for a bumpy, uncomfy ride in a wheelchair. Steph said she felt like a James Bond martini — shaken, not stirred. After that area, though, the rest of the trails at Olbrich are brick or concrete, dirt or gravel, any of which are kinder to wheelchairs and their occupants.

Then we came to what's officially called the Herb Garden, but we called it the Stinky Patch. It's an area full of spice plants and other odoriferous weeds and flowers, the only section of the park where you're allowed and even encouraged to touch the plants, and then sniff your fingers. It was always fun, and more fun later, when we came home and Minky was fascinated by the scents on our hands.

After the halfway point at Olbrich, I'd sit and rest on one of the park's many benches, and Steph waited patiently as my batteries recharged. We would linger and wander through Olbrich for hours, into the Perennial Garden, across Starkweather Creek to the Thai Pavilion, back through the trails to the Rose Garden, and across the Great Lawn — Olbrich's overly fancified name for a big circular patch of grass where we sometimes attended free concerts.

All throughout Olbrich Gardens, there are thousands of plants and flowers, all accompanied by educational markers. All that living flora brings birds, of course, so Olbrich is also Madison's most reliable place for up-close bird-watching. We always enjoyed the people-watching, too.

The climax of every visit was climbing the tower, accessible via stairs or a winding, sloping, wheelchair-accessible walkway. Without Stephanie, today I could've taken the stairs, but the walkway had become our walkway, so that's the way I went up and down and and always will.

At the top of the tower, there's a view of the fountains, the circular lawn, Lake Monona across the street, hundreds of trees and people, and the shady and sunny patios surrounding the tower. It's quite lovely, and my meager description doesn't do it justice. I should've brought my camera, but didn't, and on-line I find only pictures of the tower, no pictures from the tower. Here's a picture of the tower and fountain:

The waterworks under the tower probably aren't intended as drinking fountains, but after walking so long you'd be thirsty, too. It has ten nozzles shooting water into the air at an angle, so yeah, bend over and take a drink — there are no signs saying "Don't." We would also playfully slap the water into each other's faces, and we'd laugh.

It was pleasant to walk through Olbrich Gardens again, and same as Ogden's it was my first visit since her death. Instead of walking and talking with Steph, I was walking alone, talking to myself, and scribbling notes in my journal to be later typed up for the website.

On our way out of Olbrich, on the covered walkway adjacent to the big circular lawn, there are numerous engraved plaques on the pillars, saying thanks to major donors. "Thanks" start at $10,000 and proceed upwards to "$500,000 or more," so obviously, Stephanie's name won't be on a pillar at Olbrich Gardens.

The benches are all dedicated to donors, too. Today I sat on one that said, "In memory of Joe Schmoe, who loved flowers." But I called and inquired shortly after Steph was gone, and the cost for an engraved plaque on a bench is thousands of dollars — not the low thousands, the high thousands. $25K, if I'm remembering right, which doesn't include the cost of the bench.

An engraved memorial stone on one of the walkways can be had for as little as a few hundred dollars. I'm hesitant, though, not because of the price but because, well, they're engraved stones on a walkway. Over our years visiting Olbrich, we saw the lettering on those stones wiped away by thousands of footsteps, and a memorial stone with lettering that says Stephanie Webb doesn't seem appropriate. Stephanie doesn't fade.

If there's a memorial for my beloved wife at Olbrich, it'll probably be goldfish, when I finally bring some in a baggie and release them into the pond in the Sunken Garden.

We usually wandered through the gift shop on our way out, but the prices are steep for our income bracket, so we rarely bought anything. The last time we'd come to Olbrich Gardens, Stephanie had mentioned that she wanted a sun-hat, and she had considered one hat in the gift shop. It was pinkish-purple, and Steph said, "I wish it was a little more purple and a little less pink," but still she held it, looked at it for a few minutes. "It's too expensive," she finally decided. "I'd like to support Olbrich Gardens and I do need a sun-hat, but I need a $20 sun-hat, and this is a lot more than that." She said she'd look for something similar but cheaper on-line; I don't know whether she ever did.

The gift shop was still selling that hat today, for $52, which is probably twice what it's worth. I bought it and brought it home and added it to Stephanie's Shrine. Wish I would've bought it for her when she could've worn it, but the hat looks nice, and Steph was right again — it ought to be a little more purple and a little less pink. She loved being right.

Back at the apartment:

After the big breakfast and the long walk through Olbrich Gardens, I spent my afternoon in the Shrine, and petting the cat, and remembering the lady I loved more than everything else. Wish I could've spent the day with her, instead of remembering her.

Not long after she'd gone, a friend said to me, "At least she's at peace." I said thanks and smiled, because that's what this person hoped I'd do. He was trying to be supportive and optimistic, and nobody knows what to say after someone's died, so you don't quibble, you just smile.

Honestly, though, I don't believe she's "at peace" — that's spiritual or religious thinking, and Steph wasn't particularly spiritual or religious, and neither am I. She'd say that "peace" and "dead" aren't synonyms, so she's not "at peace."

When I'm trying to be optimistic, I'd say "at least she's no longer sick, as she was during the last few weeks of her life." Of course, I'd rather she was aliveand well. I wish she was here at home with me, as Stephanie instead of as a box of ashes. I want to hear her voice, see her smile, take her to breakfast and to the park. Happy birthday, my love, forever and ever.