Another winter without her

Winter came early this year. Wisconsin usually sees a few snowflakes in October, but nothing that sticks or accumulates. This year, though, I've already scraped a few inches off the car — twice — and it's not even Halloween yet. Snow over a heavy layer of autumn leaves on the ground is an invitation to slip and fall on your butt, so be careful out there.  

Stephanie was a tough dame, and she liked our difficult Midwestern winters. She enjoyed bundling up and going out into the cold. We had snow-picnics — driving somewhere snowy and scenic, then munching sandwiches and sipping cocoa in the car. A couple of times, once in Kansas City and once in Madison, we made snowmen. We sometimes made snow-angels — you know, where you lie down in the snow and flap your arms, then stand up and see the life-sized "angel" impression you've left behind. Fifty-some years old, I hadn't made any snow-angels since I was a little boy, but Steph and I made snow-angels. Just another way she brought joy to my life.

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She picked out our snow-shovels, and we bought them at Ace Hardware. We had two, because when there was snow we usually shoveled together.

We have an assigned space in the parking lot behind our apartment building, and the management has a contract with some plow-jockeys, so the lot is plowed whenever it snows. They'll plow the individual parking spaces if they're empty, but if your car is parked when the plow comes, they'll plow a mountain of snow right up to your bumper. They're hired to plow snow off the asphalt, but the snow has to go somewhere so when they're done there might be two or three feet of snow between your car and the cleared, snowless lot. Yup, Steph and I spent plenty of time shoveling our car out of the snow.

The building superintendent has a mini-plow, about the size of a lawn-mower, which he uses on the sidewalks in front of the building. It's appreciated, of course, but he's only a part-time super — he's at his real job forty hours a week, so if it snows while he's not home we're on our own. Yup, we've shoveled the sidewalk many times.

And even when the super plows the sidewalk, he stops at the property line, so if we were feeling energetic we'd sometimes bundle up and shovel the sidewalks on either side of our apartment — the house to the right of us, and/or the apartment building to the left. Good Samaritans with a couple of snow-shovels.

Once Steph started having difficulties walking, we only needed one snow-shovel. For several years, though, we kept the second snow-shovel in the closet, hoping that Steph's problems with her legs would be only temporary. Closet space is at a premium in an apartment, so I quietly took her shovel to Goodwill after her left leg was amputated.

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Wisconsin is well-known for its cold and cruel winters, and winters in a wheelchair present additional problems. There's an eight-foot stretch of grass between the sidewalk and the street, and that grassy strip sees lots of foot traffic, so a dirt trail has been worn through the grass in some spots. When it rains or snows, the dirt trail becomes a sea of mud; the wheelchair's wheels would sink into the mud.

And sometimes in our neighborhood or elsewhere in our travels, the sidewalks were blocked by construction, or boxes, or storm-downed tree branches, or bags of trash — things you'd easily sidestep while you're walking, without much thought or hassle, but these are serious obstacles to anyone in a wheelchair. When I wasn't pushing, and Steph had to roll her own wheels through snow and mud, her hands and fingers were often grimy and wet, so we kept several rolls of paper towels in the car.

Winter is cold, of course, but Steph mentioned numerous times that one of the side effects of her kidney failure was that she always felt colder than the ambient temperature could explain. If the apartment was 70° Fahrenheit, to her it felt like 55°, so we kept the thermostat cranked pretty high.

At the kidney clinic, for reasons never adequately explained, the thermostat was always dialed uncomfortably low; I wore a jacket whenever I accompanied her, and it usually felt about 60° inside that place, so to Steph it felt like 45°. Which means she spent several hours being uncomfortably cold, three times weekly, in addition to all the other indignities of dialysis. She always packed a blanket in her dialysis bag, and often asked for a second blanket during her treatment. When I picked her up afterwards, she usually wanted me to run the heat full-blast in the car, even in summertime.

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When she was still walking easily, and working for the state, she drove to her office, parked in an open-air lot, and I took the bus to my job. When walking became difficult for Stephanie, scraping snow off the car seemed much more of a precarious challenge, so always on snowy days I'd get up ten minutes early, and scrape the car for her before she left. If it snowed during the day while we were at work, I'd try to leave work a little early, bus to her job, and scrape the snow off the car before she came out of the building.

Sometimes, if we had a date or she was in an especially good mood, Steph would drive a mile out of her way to pick me up at my job a smooth ride home in the car, instead of a herky-jerky ride on the bus.

One afternoon, with snow gently falling but not much sticking to the ground, she volunteered to give me a ride home. I waited in the lobby at my workplace, and when she pulled to the curb, I came out with a smile. Seeing Stephanie usually made me smile, even on lousy days. I walked toward the passenger side as always, but she was already stepping out of the car. Not our usual routine.

"You're driving, OK?" She said.

"Sure," I said. We opened our doors, and took seats opposite of where we usually sat in the car. "But why?" I asked.

"You know I've been having trouble walking. The leg muscles don't follow orders like they used to…"

Of course I knew this; she'd already seen a couple of doctors about it, and gotten really no help. She'd taken up exercise, and we'd joined a gym, with Steph putting most of her time and effort into strengthening her leg muscles. Lots of pedaling on a stationary bike, and standing in a machine that simulated climbing stairs. We'd been hitting the gym three times weekly for a month, and I could feel increased strength in my legs and arms, but Steph only felt weaker and more exhausted, not stronger.

She continued: "When I'm driving, my legs don't work the gas and brakes as well as they used to. On my way here just now, pulling out of the parking lot at my work, I tried to stop the car so I could look both ways before going out into the street. But my leg's response was slow. The car ended up five feet into the street before I could stop it."

"Yikes," I said, after a long pause.

"I didn't hit anything, and I drove extra-extra careful coming here, but … I think I have to stop driving, at least until I get my leg strength back."

I've replayed those words many times since that afternoon. "I think I have to stop driving," she'd said, "at least until I get my leg strength back." She spoke plainly, with no tears and no noticeable emotion, but she was scared, and so was I. She wore her brave face so I wore mine, too.

After that, Steph went through a lot of physical therapy, and countless hours of "practice walking" in our apartment. We continued going to the gym, until that horrible evening when she collapsed in the parking lot after our workout. She underwent several surgeries, but all to no avail. Her leg strength never returned, and she never again drove a car. The next winter, her left leg was amputated, and she was never able to go back to work.

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For the rest of her life, I drove us wherever we needed to be. I rejiggered my work schedule to drop her off at her job on my way to my job, and to pick her up on my way home. Doctor's appointments, trips to the library, to the park, to the hobby shop for crochet materials, or the hardware store for a hammer — wherever she needed to go, I drove her.

Steph was, of course, frustrated and sometimes furious at the loss of her independence. Never again could she simply get-up-and-go anyplace she wanted to go, but she rarely complained about it, and often thanked me for being her live-in Uber. "Complaining wouldn't help," she said. "What helps is that you're always willing to drive me where I need to go, always there when I need someone to talk with, always holding my hand even when I'm at home and you're at work."

In her corniest, sweetest moments, she'd sometimes add, "I don't know how I'd be able to do any of this without you — the doctor appointments, the dialysis, any of it. And without you, I don't know whether I'd bother to try."

Stephanie tried, and Stephanie succeeded. Despite all the obstacles in her way, all the bad-news diagnoses and a lot of borderline-competent medical care, the isolation of living in an apartment that wasn't disabled-accessible, and all the other unfair challenges Stephanie stared down every day, she never stopped trying.

Even in the last days of her life, in that hospital she hated, amidst all the doctors and nurses and interns, even as she was slipping in and out of consciousness, Stephanie never gave up. She died, yeah, but she never stopped trying, never stopped fighting until her heart stopped beating.

So winter is here, another winter without her. Autumn leaves, covered with snow. Scraping ice off the windshield. A snow-picnic at Tenney Park, with a sandwich and cocoa in the car. At home, the thermostat is again cranked up, making the apartment a little too warm, so Steph won't be chilled.