You'll be brave and tough

In our early years together, when Steph was healthy, we talked about death now and then — always very briefly, as something we knew would eventually happen, but with the safety of knowing it was probably a long ways off.

Sometimes it was me who took the conversation there, and sometimes it was Steph. One of us would say, "Life is a lot better with you in it, than it was without you. Thank you for everything," or completely different words, but to that effect. The other would respond with a similar romantic sentence or two, and usually that's where we'd switch the topic to something else, but sometimes one or the other of us would bring up death.

"When you're gone," one of us would say, "I don't know how I could go on without you."

"You'll be brave and tough and you'll go on," the other would reply. I'd reach for her hand, or she'd reach for mine, squeeze it, smile and nod. The actual words varied, of course, but the sentiment never did.

We had, of course, similar but darker and more extended versions of that conversation after Stephanie started to accumulate fatal diagnoses, but in my dream last night she was still walking, so the conversation was quicker, more romantic and less painful.

We were in the kitchen of our Kansas City apartment, where Steph was preparing a meatloaf and I was washing dishes. In reality our kitchen was too tiny for both of us to be busy there at the same time, but in my dream there was ample space for both of us.

"For so long, I always came home and cooked dinner for one," she said while chopping celery. "Now I cook for the man I love, share everything with him, tell him my troubles and he really hears me, and — he's you."

"You know I feel the same way. Sharing everything with you is what makes life worth living."

She'd finished cutting vegetables, and now she was pouring flour into a measuring cup, and for ten or twenty seconds she didn't say anything. Then, suddenly and strangely as dreams tend to be, we were in Winstead's, the best fast-food burger joint in Kansas City, and the reason Steph wasn't saying anything is that she was chewing a bite of her hamburger. She swallowed and wiped her face with a napkin, and said, "You know, I hate even thinking it, but someday one of us will be dead."

"I'd be ruined," I said. "I'd never settle for being with anyone else, and I'd never want to go back to being alone.

"Well, maybe you'll die first," she said, "and I'll be the one who's ruined."

"Let's hope we go out together," I said, lifting my waxed paper cup of diet root beer as a toast. "Here's to both of us getting run over by the same bus."

She lifted her cherry cola, nudged it against my cup, and said, "Here's to both of us slipping on the ice, double concussions, quick, painless, fatal, and together."

"Steph, I love you," I said, and put my hand on top of hers on the table.

"I love you too," she answered, "always have, always will." Then she squeezed my hand, and the cat jumped onto my chest and woke me up, and I started typing the dream before it could fade away.

Stephanie seems to visit when I need her the most. It's wonderful to see her again, hear her voice, hold her hand, and it's always awful — but oddly optimistic — when I awaken and realize it was only a dream. I'm crying, sure, but we spent a little time together last night, and that's the best thing that ever was, or ever could be.