Losing Friends Too Soon
One of the things I have come to learn about myself is that I am a connector. I love connecting people together. I love connecting and reconnecting with people. Later in my career, when I took my “strengths” test to see what my strengths were, “Connectedness” was one of my top five strengths. Over the years I have reconnected with friends from my youth. I think it is especially because of one particular friend who taught me that life is short, and we have so much history with our friends, that reconnecting is all the more meaningful to me.
When I was a kid, as I had mentioned before, our family was active in a small European church. The churches on the whole were small. Their congregations were made up of mainly German, Hungarian, Serbian, and Slovakian people. We had a few activities that brought us together throughout the country. It included summer camp for all ages in three parts of the country, and an annual “Youth Rally,” although it was open to everyone (maybe it made the older folks feel young). These were so important to me. My parents were very strict, and my social life was to revolve around the church kids.
Midwestern camp was my highlight of the year. When I was a teenager, I went to camp in Indiana. I had friends from Illinois and Ohio whom I looked forward to spending time with for the week. We went to Bible classes and services, hanging out, flirting with the boys, giggling with the girls, and campfires where we sang gospel songs. I have many friends who I have reconnected with on Facebook who are from these days.
One of my special friends from this time was Steph, short for Stephanie. She was a unique individual. She had a strong personality, and there was never a time you didn’t know what she thought. She wasn’t afraid to speak out on any subject in which she had strong feelings! I was always impressed by her because her hair was always perfect, and I don’t think her clothes were ever wrinkled. She was just so put together. One year at camp, we taught ourselves finger spelling from a book about Helen Keller. She would go to choir practice at camp. I was not a singer, so I would sit in the balcony of the chapel during the choir practice, and we would finger spell messages to each other—usually about the boy we had a crush on at the time! We were also night owls, so one night after everyone fell asleep in the dorm, we quietly snuck around and chatted with our friends who were asleep. We found out that if they were sleeping and if we didn’t fully wake them up, they would talk to us in their sleep. We would ask them questions, and because they were asleep, they would answer, but usually with something nonsensical which made us laugh, although we had to laugh quietly so we wouldn’t wake anyone up, especially our dorm leaders who would know we were up and around after “lights out.” We also learned that some people just don’t like to be bothered while they are sleeping, one in particular who swung her arm at us in her sleep. Fortunately, we ducked to keep from being hit, and it put us into a fit of giggling, which we had to do very quietly.
When camp was over, we all went home with shared addresses so we could write to each other. Steph was a prolific writer. She would send me a letter which was several pages. One of the things I remember about her letters was her beautiful penmanship. The day I received her letter, I would answer her with an equally long letter. I have no idea what all we wrote about, but I know we shared everything we did and everything thought about. When she received my letter, she would reply the same day also, so every few days, we were receiving mail with a lengthy letter.
Then we grew up. I went away to college, and she went to nursing school. My family had started going to a different church, so we were no longer going to the summer camps, and anyway, I was too busy with my new friends to be thinking about these summer camps. Time marched on and we had occasional connections. One day, Steph contacted me that she was going to Colorado with her boyfriend, Roger, and wanted to stop in St. Louis to see me. I barely remember the visit, but I know she came to my home. I was married and had four very young children, and she and Roger spent the evening with our family. After that, somehow we lost contact. Years went by. In the mid to late 90’s I was visiting with my mother’s cousin from Ohio. He still attended the church in Ohio of the denomination that we had belonged. I told him that I often wondered about two of my really good friends from Ohio, Marylou and Steph. Dave went back home to Ohio and proceeded to find their addresses for me. I don’t remember how he connected with me, but he gave me both Marylou’s and Steph’s addresses. That Christmas I sent them Christmas cards with notes and included my current mailing address and my email address. I got a letter back from Marylou, and we have sent Christmas cards back and forth since then. I love to this day seeing her photo cards of her husband, children, and grandchildren. It such a joy to still be in contact with her. Although, I am writing about Steph, Marylou was one of my best friends, but she was not good at writing. Marylou actually came to St. Louis to attend my high school graduation, and when I got married, her parents showed up at my wedding. I was honored that they drove all the way from Mansfield, Ohio to attend my wedding. I still think about how much that meant to me.
So, I heard from Marylou, but not from Steph. My friend, who was raised in Barberton, Ohio, is missing in my head. I decided to send her a Christmas card the next year, once again giving her my mailing address and my email address. I decided that if I did not hear back from her, that I would accept that she decided to move on with her life, and I would stop sending her Christmas cards. A few months after Christmas, I received a letter from Steph. She told me that she received the first card, but was in the hospital at the time and was not up to writing. She went on to say that she was very ill and waiting on a liver transplant. Thus, our correspondence began.
Instead of letters, we were now emailing each other. Steph was married to Roger, and they now had two teenage children. Time sure does fly! I don’t know what kind of computer she had, but every so often, I wouldn’t hear from her in a while. Whenever that happened I got concerned because she was not in good health. I would send her an email or two, hoping she was okay. Sshe wrote back and apologized because she was having computer problems, and one time she mailed a note because her computer crashed. Back in the late 90’s PC’s crashed a lot! I was always relieved to hear from her again.
In the summer of 1998, she sent me an email and said she and her family would be coming through St. Louis on their vacation. Her son, who was about 14, was a baseball fan, and he and Roger were going to go to a St. Louis Cardinals baseball game. Steph wasn’t interested in the game, nor was her 16 year old daughter. Steph wanted me to meet her and Lori for dinner the night of the game. It was so good to see her. She apologized to me for how she looked. She was very self conscious about the apparent red spots on her neck and chest. She said that was from her liver disease. Actually, I had not noticed, and I thought she looked wonderful in spite of being so ill. We had a wonderful time at that dinner, and getting to know her daughter, Lori. Then Steph suggested I come to the St. Louis Zoo with the family the next day. I felt a bit awkward because I had not seen her in years and was wondering if I was intruding on their family vacation, but she assured me that she wanted me to be there. The next day I went to the zoo with Steph, Roger, Lori, and Mark. We spent the day together and had a wonderful time.
I remember one particular email when she asked the question of how sick does one have to be to get to the top of the transplant list. She was never on top. Family and friends were scrambling to find her a living donor. She told me she had an offer from a cousin’s husband, but he had been rejected. We continued writing. Time went on, and Steph was still waiting for a donor liver. In the spring on 2000, she told me that her younger brother had offered to donate for her. She at first rejected the offer because he was completing dental school, and he was engaged to get married. The family intervened and convinced her to accept this life-giving gift. Her brother was now going through all the testing for the transplant procedure. The plan was to have the transplant early summer. I wanted to go to Ohio and visit with her. She told me to wait until about a month or so after the transplant, because she would be feeling good, and we could enjoy our time together. I was set to fly to Ohio for a visit in late summer or early autumn.
Once again, there was a gap in our email writing. I was always glad I had a Mac that didn’t have these issues of crashing like old PC’s did. I didn’t get a note in the mail this time. Now I was beginning to worry about my old friend. I sent a few emails, the kind that said, “Steph, where are you? Are you okay? I’m getting worried about you.”
I was getting a new house built at this time and had sold my current home, and was living in a temporary apartment while my house was being built. I asked my boss at work if I could get my emails at work so I didn’t have to go to the trouble of setting up cable and internet at a temporary place. He was okay with that, so the important people in my life started emailing me to my work email.
One day in early June, Kay, my administrative assistant walked into my office. I was in tears at my desk. She stepped out of the office and looked around thinking I had an unpleasant encounter with someone at work. She walked in again, shut the door and sat down across from me and asked me what was wrong. I looked at her and started crying again, and I started reading an email I had just received. I still have that email—I printed it and saved it.
It started, “Andrea, I regret to reply with sad news about Steph. Steph was called home by her heavenly father on June 2nd. It was a great a shock to all of us, how sudden and the agonizing series of events.” This was an email from Steph’s email account but written by her husband, Roger, to me. He said that Steph was so happy with the anticipation of her surgery (the upcoming transplant). In late May, she called Roger and he rushed home to find her lying on the floor short of breath. He called 911 and within minutes they were rushing her to the hospital. They stabilized her at the local hospital, and then transferred her to the Cleveland Clinic, where her specialists were waiting for her. That next day, her husband went home to get his daughter ready for prom. Steph was sitting up in bed and doing well, and was going to be transferred from ICU to a regular room. When he returned to the hospital a few hours later, the doctors were waiting form him to inform him that she took a “nose-dive” and needed to go into emergency surgery. She had a 4-hour surgery in the early evening to stop the internal hemorrhaging. At 9:00 am the next morning, the doctor took her back into surgery for over 3 hours to stop additional hemorrhaging.
Steph did not do well after that second surgery, and was placed on dialysis. Now it was the following Thursday, a week later, and the day of her daughter’s graduation. Roger told me that Lori was the president of her class and was to give a speech at graduation. He said, “Lori, class president, was a true champion at graduation. Led the class into the auditorium, gave her speech, and marched out with her head high, so proud, which she had every right to be.” What a sweet dad to acknowledge his daughter’s bravery at such a difficult time in their lives. Steph held on until Saturday evening, June 2, 2000, surrounded by her husband, children, her mom, and her pastor. Roger stated, “A recording of the Hallelujah chorus was playing when Steph was taking her final breathes [sic].”
My friend Steph was loved by many people. Over 400 people attended her memorial service. As Roger stated, “Steph was unique but you always knew what she thought.” So true. He could not have described her any better. She was truly one of a kind. She had a heart of gold. She also had many, many opinions of which she was not afraid to share. She was honest to the core.
As I was reading this email to my friend, Kay, I looked up and saw that she was also in tears. Even in her death, Steph makes an impact. I miss her. I miss our candid conversations. I know she would be so happy for me how things in my life finally fit together.
I do not know what has happened with Steph’s family. It has been almost 18 years since her passing. My guess is that over time their hearts have healed. Roger may have remarried. He was young (in my definition of young), and the kids have grown into adults, are probably married, and have children of their own. I am sure they have great stories to tell their kids about their very wonderful and unique grandmother who they will not meet until they get to Heaven.
I am still touched by Roger’s email. At the end he said, “Hope I didn’t overwhelm you with details. It’s good therapy for me. She really appreciated your friendship and had a lot of fond memories of you . . . We serve a loving God and I pray he will comfort you as you grieve over the loss of a good friend.” He is comforting me in my sorrow. Pretty amazing and powerful. I am so grateful that I reconnected with Steph, and we picked up our friendship right where we left off. I am so glad we spent time together in St. Louis. I am glad I wasn’t so busy that I couldn’t spend the day at the zoo. Those were the last days I saw her.
There is so much to learn from this. This is what I have learned:
- Life is short. Love and cherish everyone you encounter. You never know if it is the last encounter with them.
- Make time for your friends. Don’t be so busy to miss out on possibly the last time you may see someone.
- Even in grief, one can minister to another, as Roger did to me as he wrote this incredible email.
- We have a loving God who gave his life for us, and gives us an abundant life daily.
- Even in times of grief, we can feel the loving arms of God encircle us.
- I will never forget the friendship I had with Steph. She was special.
God bless you! When life is tough, lean into God. He will hold you!
The last verse that Roger shared in his email: