For Stephen

I’ve dreaded this post, because I knew this entry had to be about Stephen. And I fear failing to convey what happened. How it felt. How it still feels.

***

We stayed with my friend Angie before flying to London, Labor Day weekend. Not only was my family there, but her brother-in-law, Stephen, was there, too. He was a nice young man. 24. Blonde. Tallish. Polite. Computer-y. Well-spoken in a nerdy sort of way; and, I felt right away, a very gentle soul. He said he was going to his first ever concert that night.

“Oh?”  We chatted over lunch. “Who’re you seeing?”

“The Backstreet Boys.”

I giggled, but Stephen owned it, saying his girlfriend really wanted to go. ( So add “good sport” to the above description); and the next morning, he padded into the kitchen looking very sleepy. “You are my fire, ” I told him. “My one desire.”

“Shut up,” he smiled in his orange juice.

He admitted the concert was good, but that he was tired. As a result, he spent the day on the sofa, playing Minecraft with my son, Harvey. I’d say they played Minecraft for 8 hours that day and every time I walked by, I overheard Stephen explaining things to my little boy with profound patience and respect, answering his 9-year-old questions without irritation. Every once in a while, Sophia and Emily, our screaming banshee little girls would tear through the living room, sometimes crawling over Stephen like a climbing frame, which he tolerated without complaint, only pausing sometimes to quiet them down, or stop their arguing with a calm, gentle voice. I remember thinking how very good he was with the children, GENUINELY good, the way some people just are.

The next day, Labor Day, I walked downstairs, smiling to see Stephen on the couch, this time held captive by two pajama clad little girls, snuggled into either side. I know he’d rather been playing Minecraft than watching the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, but he wasn’t about to disappoint Sophia and Emily. “You’re so good, ” I told him, and we all spent a quiet day together. Christopher and I packed for Europe while Angie cooked, and the children played. The neighborhood pool was closed, so the girls put on their princess best and sweet talked Stephen into blowing up their pool.

He died a few hours later.

He lost control of his vehicle and died at the scene.

His parents found out when policemen knocked on their door. They called Mike, Angie’s husband, at work, then Mike called Angie. I heard screams from the next room. That’s how I found out. She dropped the phone and fell into me.

***

There’s a white-hot numbness that accompanies tragedy. You’re stunned into shock. Silence. Your mouth falls dumbly trying to say something rational. But I just saw him! your mind screams. I made his last meal. How do we tell the children? My God, his parents . . . The ringing in the ears stops for other questions: What happened? Was he wearing his seatbelt? Was he on the phone? His plate’s still in the sink. This isn’t really happening, right? His breath is still in that pool.

My last words reverberated in my head. “Take care,” I told him, not knowing . . . but then there’s that part. The knowing. Earlier that day, I told Angie I had a bad feeling.

“What kind of bad feeling?” she asked.

But I couldn’t give specifics. Just a bad feeling. We didn’t discuss it further.

Later that night, before we got the news, I saw two quick, bright purple flashes in the living room. “Oh hello!” I said brightly. ( I almost always acknowledge Spirit out loud.)

“Girl, don’t be bringing your ghosts in my house,” Angie laughed.

“Don’t worry,” I said. “Purple is good Spirit.”

We carried on chatting, 30 minutes away from knowing.

***

I think about how young he was. 24. I think about his parents, his brother, their gut-wrenching loss. I think how often we’re warned that tomorrow’s not promised, and how easily we recite that and dismiss it at the same time. I wonder if any part of Stephen’s soul knew he was moving on, to be with God that day. I’d like to think he did. Because he spent time with his favorite people, attended his first concert, won the hearts of my children, and was surrounded by love. He called Angie on his way home, thanking her for a wonderful weekend. She said it was the first time he’d done that.

Firsts.

And lasts.

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In loving memory of Stephen Novacek, November 22, 1988 – September 2, 2013.

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