a Taj MuttHall Dog Diary: Goodbye Steph

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Goodbye Steph

SUMMARY: September 1954 - June 2011
June 12, 7:30 p.m., added more (flagged below).

Last Tuesday, my friend Stephanie lost her battle with cancer, and it's been hard to think what to say.

I've known her since the late 1970s through mutual college friends here. She moved up to Reno and worked as a dealer and then as a pit boss in a casino, and then was actively recruited to move back to New Jersey when the Atlantic City casinos opened, which she did for a while, too. Came back to San Jose, got married, moved to Maryland (where I visited her once), got divorced, moved to Berkeley to finish her computer science degree as a 30-something returning student. Worked at Apple and a couple of other high-tech companies. I just learned that the founders of Cisco attended her wedding, back before there was a Cisco.

She never recovered enough from her last rounds of chemo, and the cancer's steady advance, to take the road trip that she really wanted. But she did get a chance to spend money on herself, things she'd been wanting to do for years but, being sensible, had put it all away into retirement funds. She had the whole interior of the house cleaned and painted. Replaced the old leaky, sticking, cracked windows with beautiful, new, smoothly-operating, double-paned windows. She got to enjoy them for a few short months, and that was very important to her.

She always avoided having her photo taken, so although we did lots of things together, I have almost no photos of her. The one time we actually sat together, up at Henry Coe, and had a passer-by take a photo of us together, dang, my camera malfunctioned and I never got that photo (and didn't double-check until I got home).

Mostly I have photos of her covered up to protect herself from the sun (some of the treatments she got made her more sensitive to sunburn), often with her camera--we went off together to take bird photos, flower photos, nature photos, mountain photos, anything.

It's too bad there aren't more photos of her--she was a handsome woman. She did pick one of my photos of her to use as her official Facebook photo for quite a long time:

Added following paragraph and photo: June 12, 7:30 p.m.
She liked taking photos, though; her digital SLR was a pretty new thing for her that she researched carefully and was given as a gift by her family. She got some great shots of birds in particular. Here's one she particularly liked (and I do, too), of avocets up at the baylands--I didn't get my camera up in time and missed the cool pas de deux that she captured.

Steph was a good and generous friend. She could sometimes be a little overwhelming, but she really did seem to place other people's needs higher than her own. She spent a lot of time in the last couple of years doing really excellent genealogical research for people to whom she wasn't even directly related by bloodlines, and working hard to make sure that it would be easy for her family to take care of her and her estate.

Her love for, and knowledge of, birds and flowers and all things natural were amazing. She could cite common name and scientific name. She could identify many birds by their song. (She had similar encyclopedic knowledge of just about anything that she ever paid any attention to at all, and she wasn't shy about sharing it.) She could strike up a conversation with anyone and wasn't afraid to do so (here with a volunteer trail worker on one of our wildflower hikes at Edgewood Park).

When she decided to fight the cancer by being as healthy as she could be, she arranged regular weekly walks with two or three different people--I was Friday Walkies. She liked dogs, too; because of her illness, she hadn't gotten another after her last one died. But she was always willing to hang onto my doggies while I and my camera got up close and personal with various plants.

She also approached her cancer with as much humor as she could muster. She had quite a variety of shirts like these.

Sparky—her midsized "doglet"—and my Remington joined our respective households at about the same time. Sparky manifested cancer of the anal gland at a too-young age, and Steph went to amazing lengths (washing the backside sometimes several times a day with special treatments and so on) to try to make Sparky's life as pain-free and fun as long as possible, a couple of years at least. She had a Sparky cancer diary while I had Remington's, and both dogs moved on out of this life at about the same time.

Her last posted photo of Sparky she titled "Heavenly dog." I do hope they're back together now.

Steph's web sites:
  • Sparky's Cancer Page
  • Steph's web site with brief bio, links to photos and notes
  • Free-Range Turtle, her blog mostly about gardening and nature, lots of photos
  • Kicking Butt, Taking Names, the blog she started with the cancer diagnosis but covers her life in general, too--trips, genealogy, hikes, whatever, although the last few months it's just been her health status. (In the teeny tiny font list of tags on the left, scroll to the end and click on "View My Tags Page", then click, say, genealogy to get posts mostly about that.)
  • Her Facebook page


  1. Ellen, you were a wonderful friend to her. It's not everyone who will be there for a friend going through something like that. I hope that if or when the time comes that I have a friend in that situation, I will be as strong as you were.

    Rest in peace, Steph.

  2. Auntie Stephanie, I'm going to miss you. Ellen, you had it so right when you said that Steph had a strong personality but was mostly concerned about helping others. I will always remember how I met her at DeAnza in Physics class, and how Earl and Steph and I would meet every morning before class so that Earl could help us figure out what the heck we were doing. I remember one day she showed up to class wearing a black Afro wig (this was in the mid-1970s), and I couldn't figure out who was sitting at Steph's seat on the worktable in front of mine! We got into a lot of trouble together during those days! ("Stop it, Earl!") We both had a crush on our Calculus teacher, Mr. Minnick, and had embarrassing dreams about him. Mine always got derailed before we got anywhere because he kept asking me rate problems (one boat going upstream at 15 knots and the other boat going downstream at 22 knots...) so they would end up as nightmares. She ended up staying friends with him until he passed. She had the ability to make friends with anyone.

    Thank you so much for putting up the photos. I know I have one of her as my Maid of Honor when I married Kusch - I'll have to dig through boxes in storage to see it I can find it. I just remember she looked so pretty in this photo, and had that famous grin and twinkle in her eye!

    Carol Irving

  3. Oh, if you could find that, Carol, that would be great! Hmmm, I wonder whether I took any photos at your wedding? Sometimes I take tons at weddings, sometimes I decide to play a member of the audience and forgo the camera. I don't remember taking any... but maybe I should go look, too.

  4. P.S., great story about the wig!

  5. Oh no, I'm so sorry. So hard to lose a friend like that. It's a nice thought that she's finally back with her dog.

  6. I'm so sorry to hear about your friend. She died far, far too soon.

  7. I've been thinking about her, off and on, since you said she went into hospice. I'm so sorry Ellen. So hard to let a good friend go. She sounds like one of a kind. I always enjoyed her comments on your blog. So sad. I hope she is with her dog; they can run and play and take photos together now.

  8. Unlike me, who likes to leave the dogs home when I go on vacation, she always took her dog with her. They had some good times, so I am told.

  9. I thought about her all day today...and I never even met her...that's a tribute to you and the caring way you wrote about her, this time and in previous posts. Thanks for sharing her with us. Wish I could have gone hiking with you both.

  10. I dreamed vividly about her last night--that she suddenly showed up at a gathering of friends. Turns out that she had had a last-minute improvement--not cured, but able to function again-- but they had decided to just tell everyone she was dead anyway. First we were all shocked to see her, then I became very angry at what they had put us all through and was saying so in no uncertain terms, and then I had to stop myself and say, "I am SO GLAD that you're still alive!" and burst into deep wracking sobs and woke up crying.

    I guess my subconscious is trying to deal with its denial stage of grief.

  11. And the anger stage, all at one time. :-/