The year with no summer

A year ago, Stephanie had been dead for just a few weeks, and the world without her seemed absolutely empty. There was not an ounce of joy, just endless days of drudgery and solitude, in an apartment that echoed with her absence. There seemed to be no particular point to going on, beyond knowing that she'd want me tom which was all that keep me going.

Twelve long, lonely months later, a world without Stephanie still seems absolutely null and void. You'd maybe think I'm doing better, since I no longer spend large chunks of every day crying or staring off into space. Reckon that's better, but still there's not an ounce of joy, just endless months and eventually years of drudgery and solitude, in an apartment that we're still sharing — me and my memories of Steph. And still I know, she'd want me to keep going, so I do.

Today, the temperatures are in the upper 50s. It's the first day in months that hasn't felt like summertime. September 28 — we're in autumn, I guess. In Wisconsin, we get nice summers and brutal winters, and Stephanie always wanted to squeeze as much fun as she could into the summers. There are no picnics in the snow, y'know. No baseball, no Sunday drives.

At about this time of year in 2016, I remember, Stephanie was blue because summer was slipping away, and she'd been bedridden for the entire year to date. A few days after New Year's, she'd checked in to the hospital to have her left leg amputated, and they'd told her she'd be hospitalized for a few days before coming home. There were complications, though, which left her in three different hospitals for months, and then in a nursing home for more months. It was June before Stephanie came home, but even then she hadn't recovered enough to get out of the apartment often.

Summer was well underway, and then it faded to autumn. We had taken just one day's drive, when we'd usually have taken at least a dozen, and even on that one long ride in the country she'd loved the view but been unable to get out of the car. We had gone to no baseball games, and no drive-in movies — two of our usual summer staples. We'd ordinarily have had picnics in the park on at least two or three sunny afternoons every month during the summer, but we'd had only two picnics the whole year — one on the patio at the nursing home, which barely counts, and one picnic in our car, parked at a park, because Steph was too weak to scoot herself onto her wheelchair, even when I volunteered to push her to a picnic table.

"We didn't even have a summer," she said sadly, on the first day of autumn temperatures in 2016. Basically, three years ago today.

"You know what we'll do?," I said. "We'll make up for this crappy summer by having two summers worth of fun next summer. You'll be doing better, walking on your prosthetic leg, and I'll take some extra days off from work, and we'll go to baseball games twice a week, and to the drive-in any time they're showing a movie that looks even a little interesting, and we'll have picnics every sunny day instead of twice a month."

"That sounds great, Doug. Can we do all that?"

"We'll do all that and more."

And we did, for the most part. Of course, we didn't know back then that she'd never be able to walk on that ghastly, painful, improperly-fitted prosthetic leg, but other than that, most of what we promised ourselves for the next summer, we delivered. By 2017, Steph was feeling better, stronger, and she'd grown accustomed to getting around in her wheelchair.

"I can do pretty much anything I want," she announced one sunny summer afternoon. "I mean, everything is more difficult from a wheelchair, of course — more time-consuming, more work than when I had two legs, but it's a fair trade-off. The leg they chopped off was weak and painful, and I'd been barely hobbling on it when it was so badly infected. I'm making much better time now, covering a lot more distance in this wheelchair." She was usually optimistic, about almost everything.

"Yeah, sure, you betcha," she added — a Midwestern figure of speech, always delivered in an exaggerated Wisconsin accent and with an enormous smile. "I can wheel across the grass to any picnic table, and the baseball games are disabled-accessible. I can cook, so long as you're here to open and close that heavy oven door. We can go to the movies, or go on walks, or go shopping together. Other than walking," she said, "there isn't much I can't do."

I'll always remember that lady's optimism, her smile, and her joy all year 'round, but especially in summertime. Almost always she saw the bright side of almost everything, and her positive attitude sticks with me. I still try to look at the bright side, and sometimes I can see it. "Yeah, sure, you betcha." 

Other times, though, without her, I squint and look into the distance and the bright side is awfully hard to see. Feels like everything went dark a year ago, but Stephanie would want me to go on, so I'm going on.