I met Stephen two days after his wife and their unborn child had died. Jennifer, who would have become my sister-in-law, was killed by a careless driver. Having barely met my boyfriend’s family, I arrived to share their worst moment.
Stephen and my friendship came to define the word bittersweet to me. Jim, my boyfriend, had spent a lot of time with his sister and Stephen in the past, and now Stephen spent time with us. There were cold days in the Shenandoah Valley looking for bluebirds and warm days along the Shenandoah River looking for bluebells; there were floats on the river and spills into the river; there were trips to the Eastern Shore and wet, smelly trips home with Stephen’s two cocker spaniels; there were days of dancing at folk-life festivals and evenings of Stephen playing the fiddle; and then there were those long, sparse phone conversations when Stephen wanted—needed—company, but there was so little to say.
Even in his sadness, Stephen kept his sense of humor—quite twisted at that. Seeing my snobbish urban streak, he invited me to see a film with an appropriate foreign-sounding title. He quickly ushered me into the theater, and it took me a few minutes to realize that I wasn’t watching haute-culture passion but instead a porn flick. One of my fondest memories is of making Stephen laugh. I was wearing my University of New Hampshire t-shirt. “What does U.N.H. stand for?” he asked, and I grunted, “unh.”
But Stephen’s sadness overwhelmed him. Jennifer had made his life work, and without her he began to unravel. He pushed us away. He no longer called or wrote. He didn’t respond to my letters. A few years went by in this state of affairs. I continued to send him notes periodically. In one I enclosed a self-addressed envelope and response sheet on which he could construct a letter out of options I had given him. He returned the note with a message, and I was optimistic. We received news from Jim’s mother that Stephen had been in touch with her and was taking positive steps— returning to school, folk dancing again, dating.
Not long after that there was a phone call. While riding home on his bicycle, Stephen had been struck by a car—a drunk driver. He was in a coma.
Going to see Stephen was painful. Any little movement gave one hope, even though the movements were likely meaningless. Six months later, Stephen died.
For a long time in my dreams I continued to include Stephen in family gatherings. Some years later, when I was pregnant, I dreamt of Jim’s family being at the beach. Stephen was there, and I was so happy to see him. I knew this was my opportunity—I went to him and silently placed his hand on my stomach.
I think of Stephen whenever I think of bluebirds, bluebells, or love.