Just like a big girl

In San Francisco, public transit goes just about everywhere, quickly, cheaply, reliably, so it's not necessary to have a car. If you miss the bus or train, there's another one coming in five or ten minutes. It ain't a swanky limousine, but Muni will get you where you need to be, and after Steph moved to Frisco with me, she quickly learned the city's buses, streetcars, cable cars, and subways.

We rode public transit to work, for shopping trips, to Golden Gate Park, to the movies, to the library, and sometimes just took scenic rides for the view. Picnic at the beach? We took the N Judah. Date night in Berkeley? We took the streetcar to downtown, then BARTed under the Bay. Steph attended graduate school in San Jose on Saturdays, a long bus ride coming and going. In California, we never needed a car, and rarely wanted one.

Kansas City, by comparison, had only buses, with spotty, underfunded service. Most routes, even on the busiest streets, ran only twice an hour, so if you missed the bus you'd be shivering in the cold for a long while. Also, a lot of Kansas City neighborhoods don't have sidewalks, so you might be waiting for a bus on someone's lawn, or sitting on the curb, with your legs in the street. It was yet another way that Kansas City was certainly not San Francisco, so while we lived there we took the bus when we could, but we had to own a car.

In Madison, our third and final home together, Stephanie and I always had a car, but still, we frequently took the bus. Madison's bus system is pretty good. Most routes run every half an hour, same as Kansas City, but Madison is much more densely-populated than Kansas City — it's about half the population of KC, but a fraction of the geographic size, so Madison feels more like a city. Even if you're stuck waiting for a bus, at least you're not stuck in the middle of nowhere, and it's a twenty-minute ride home, not an hour … and I know of no streets without sidewalks.

Here in Madison, we both took buses to work most days, just because it's easier, and because parking is expensive downtown, where we both worked. And we usually took the bus to Cinematheque, our favorite venue for old movies, or to the Film Festival, because parking looked like such a hassle.

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I'm thinking about the bus, because today I drove past a bus stop that has Steph memories. It's where we waited for a #5 bus after attending a Film Festival screening downtown.

The theater is about three miles from our home, and this was long before any of Stephanie's health problems, so she suggested that we walk home. We took the bus to the movie, and planned to walk home afterwards. The movie was the documentary King Corn, and we found it profound. The venue was the Bartell Theater, where I stood in line for the screening, while Steph sat on a bench.

Walking home after the movie was delightful, until it started raining, so we huddled under my umbrella and waited for the bus. We talked about the movie, cursed the rain, and laughed a lot. It's one of those wistful moments that never fade, a memory that'll be magic to me for as long as I'm alive.

That bus stop, right there. And today, driving past that bus stop, these memories flashed through my mind as they always do. And then I saw a woman waiting there; a woman with roughly Steph's body shape — somewhat short, somewhat stout, and she was wearing a green jacket the same shade as a coat Steph used to wear. For a fraction of a second I thought it was Stephanie. Then my brain unscrambled, and of course it couldn't be her.

As I drove past, I noticed that the woman at the bus stop had grey hair and was probably older than me, and I'm a senior citizen. So next came the outrage that still rises in me now and then, at the fact that Steph never got to be an old lady. Dead at 48, and I pounded my fist on the dashboard.

My next thoughts were about the green jacket that old woman had worn, which reminded me of Steph's green jacket. Steph's jacket is embroidered with the words Wisconsin Cheese, from the time she'd spent working at the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, before I'd known her.

She always liked that jacket, and frequently wore it even as it started to get a bit ragged, so after her death when I gave most of Stephanie's clothes to Goodwill, I kept that jacket. After my weight loss, I paid $48 to have it re-tailored to fit me, and I was actually wearing it this afternoon, as I drove past that old woman and insanely thought she might be Steph.

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Next stop, an unforgettable bus ride. After  Steph's leg surgery (her first major health problem), she wanted to get back on the buses, but she was nervous about being the person who has trouble getting from the sidewalk onto the bus. Nobody says anything out loud, but sometimes there's palpable frustration from the other passengers if someone frail takes an extra half-minute getting up those stairs. It means the bus won't make the light, and everyone on the bus will be delayed by another couple of minutes.

Madison's buses can hydraulically kneel, to make it easier for folks to get on board, but it's still three steep steps up (or it was then; now they have buses that are only one step up from the curb). The driver pushes a button when he/she sees that someone has mobility issues, and the front of the bus tilts, so the first step is only a few inches off the ground. Steph refused to use a cane, though, which means the driver wouldn't have known she needed the bus to kneel — and anyway, Steph didn't want the bus to kneel. When it kneels it beeps, loudly for safety, but the beeping is also an announcement to everyone on the bus that someone's about to struggle getting on. All of this — the kneeling, the beeping, and everyone watching — was exactly the spectacle Steph didn't want.

So Steph being Steph, she analyzed the problem and came up with a solution. A few days before her first post-surgery bus ride, we rehearsed getting on the bus, on the steps to the second floor of our apartment building. I stood three steps above her, reached for Steph with my hand, and she took my hand, and let's guesstimate that her legs did 75% of the work of climbing up those steps, and my arm did the other 25%. And then we did it in reverse, practicing getting off the bus; I'd go first, and hold up my hand for her to lean on as she came down. Up and down, up and down, until it seemed fairly smooth.

Our date was to Cinematheque to see a movie (I think it was Singing in the Dark starring Lawrence Tierney), so we walked to the bus stop, and waited on the bench. Steph had timed it so we'd have a long wait on the bench, because she knew the walk to the bus stop would leave her a little winded.

When the bus eventually pulled over and the door opened, I quickly bounded up the steps, then reached back for Stephanie. She took three difficult but quick steps up, and with a slow but steady yank by me, we were both on board. It worked, just the way she'd planned it, and it had taken no longer than anyone else getting onto the bus. And while I paid our fares, Steph said to the driver, "I'm a little lame from leg surgery; please don't pull away until I'm sitting." Madison's bus drivers are notoriously nice, so he watched us in the rear view mirror, and didn't accelerate until Steph was seated.

Once the bus was underway, Steph was almost giddy. "I'm taking the bus," she said, "like a big girl." That was one of our 'love clichés', the code words and inside jokes we shared — she often described herself as a "big girl" when she felt proud of herself. And Steph felt proud of herself that afternoon, with justification.

She had wanted to ride the bus like anyone else, without the hydraulic kneeling, without the beeping, without anyone staring at the woman huffing and puffing to get onto the bus. So she'd planned a strategy for doing exactly that, and we'd practiced it, and we'd executed her strategy flawlessly. Success! And best of all, Steph said, nobody knew what she had just accomplished, or how difficult it had been, except me and her.

This time, of course, we had no intention of walking home after the movie. Instead we walked a block to another bus stop, where Stephanie sat on the bench and mustered her energy. When the #4 bus came, we repeated our choreography, Steph climbing the steps and me gently pulling her up. Again she was giddy when she got to her seat. "Just like a big girl," she said.

Steph fully recovered from the leg infection and surgery, and within a few weeks she was walking like a big girl everywhere she went. A few years later, though, new medical issues made walking more and more difficult again, and we used her pulling strategy to climb the three steps in front of our building, daily, for months. And then came the wheelchair, and the amputation, and all that followed.

That's another story, though, and like the story I've just told it probably doesn't sound like a happy story, but honestly, with Steph, almost all stories were happy stories on some level.

Sounds kooky to say this, like some godawful Hallmark movie, but she was undefeatable. Steph's health dealt her a rotten hand, yet she always found a way to still be Stephanie — active, optimistic, always making me laugh, and always doing things and going places and having little adventures with me. Considering the medical crap she had to endure, every day she smiled was a victory, and she smiled and made me smile every dang day. So, yeah, Steph was undefeatable.