It was just getting dark outside. I was sitting on the porch with my friend, Amber, and our two guy-friends, Mike and Danny, when I heard the phone ring inside. I joked and said, “I bet it’s my dad calling to say goodnight.” Moments later Cheryl came to the screen door and said, “Kristin, it’s your dad.” I laughed, “What’d I tell ya?” as I walked into the house to get the phone. “Hi, dad.” The conversation that ensued changed my life forever.
“How are you?”
“Fine.” I said, worrying that I was about to get in trouble for something…
“Good. So…do you remember Keith *____?”
“Uh…yeah?” I responded. Of course I remembered Keith! I grew up right next door to him and his family until they divorced. Of course I knew who he was. What the heck is this about???
“Well…there was an accident today…on his motorcycle.”
“Oh my gosh! Is he OK?” I was so worried about him! Stephanie adored her father and I knew she would be crushed if something was to happen to him.
“Well…he is in the hospital and it isn’t looking too good…”
“Oh no! How is Stephanie?”
“Well…that’s the thing, honey. I’m so sorry. She didn’t make it.”
I felt the room spinning and the ground suddenly was no longer under my feet. I was certain that I didn’t hear him right. He had to be kidding. My dad was such a joker…all the time. But this? Would he really joke about this?
“Dad! This isn’t funny! This isn’t a funny joke! You have to be kidding!” I said through my tears…barely able to breathe.
“I’m sorry. I’m not. Do you need to come home?”
I couldn’t contain myself and collapsed on the couch in Amber’s front room as I uncontrollably burst into tears. A million things were going through my mind…but mostly that this just could not be real. There had to be some mistake. She was a beautiful, smart, talented 13 year old girl. This just doesn’t happen to 13-year old girls with bright futures! This could not be real. I knew that we would continue to create memories. I would arrive at school on Monday and this would all be a big mistake. Some big misunderstanding. We would walk down to Ben Franklin with our change and buy candy during the summers for the rest of our lives. We would make spiral macaroni and spaghetti o’s for lunches for our families someday and laugh over memories of tornado warnings, playing school in her garage, and trying to get transparencies to work with a flashlight. We would laugh over the memories of dancing on the bed and pretending to be the Spice Girls. Our memories were not over. This was not over.
Cheryl knew something was terribly wrong. “Amber, I think you’d better come inside.”
Amber came in and, without knowing what happened, burst right into tears with me. Whatever it was, it was bad. Very bad. She hugged me and pressed, “What happened?” until I could finally get it out.
Amber and I decided we really needed to take a walk. We needed some fresh air. We walked around the block several times and talked about memories with Stephanie. We talked about basketball and softball and all the funny things Stephanie used to do. Her laugh was so fresh in my mind. What were her parents going to do? What was her sister going to do? How would we move on? Could we ever truly move on?
That night I had the most peaceful sleep of my life. I dreamt that I was at a playground and I saw Stephanie. I ran to her and told her, “Stephanie! Everyone is saying that you’re dead! They said there was an accident and that you’re gone! You need to go tell them that it isn’t true.” Stephanie was so calm. All she said was, “I’m OK, Kristin.” I repeated what I had said before urging her to go straighten everyone out. She just kept telling me, “I’m OK, Kristin. I’m OK.”
I woke up feeling such a peace that I could not express. Now, I don’t know that every dream has some kind of deep, spiritual meaning. I do, however, believe that God gave me this dream to put my heart at rest. I needed that peace. She was OK. Maybe not here on Earth. But she was OK and enjoying Heaven way more than I could ever imagine.
Amber and I got up and went downstairs. Everything felt so surreal. Life just seemed different. It reminds me of that feeling after a positive pregnancy test. Odd. I know. But that knowledge that hits you like a ton of bricks that your life is never going to be the same. And suddenly, you see the word through completely different eyes. Life seems so delicate and fragile. So simple. And yet so completely complex.
Cheryl brought in the newspaper from the porch and Steph had made the news. There it was. Confirmation that one of our worst nightmares was, indeed, a reality. She really was gone. This wasn’t some sick joke or misunderstanding. We burst into tears, again, as we saw her beautiful face and read the wonderful words the reporter had said about her and her family.
It wasn’t long before my parents pulled up to pick me up and we drove over to Brenda and Greg’s house. What do you say to a mother and step-father who are grieving the loss of their daughter? Even if I could speak, there would have been no words to offer to make them feel better. Greg greeted me with a big smile and a big hug as he lifted me off the ground. “How ya doin’, doll?” How am I doing? I can’t believe you’re asking me this. I should be asking you! My heart is breaking in more ways than I ever knew possible…and even that was just a taste of what they were going through in that moment. We hugged and cried.
I went inside the house through the garage. I remembered how we would go out to the garage and ride bikes. I still get on my bike the same way Stephanie did…one foot on one pedal as you get a jumping start and swing the other leg over. I stepped into the kitchen and remembered all the cans of Spaghetti O’s that Steph had so carefully portioned out to each of us…one O at a time. I walked through the living room and remembered how we frantically searched for her dog, Skittles, in the middle of a tornado warning until she burst into laughter, “Skittles is at Nana and Papa’s house today!” I walked toward the hall and looked into the front room remembering all the toys that Stephanie had set up in there. I walked down the hallway and saw Greg and Brenda’s room…better known as our stage when we would sing Spice Girls songs (Brenda and Greg weren’t home…so this may or may not come as news to them…). As I made it to her room I saw my name and phone number up on her marker board and I was so honored that it was there. She had so many Beanie Babies. Lisa was in there picking out clothes for Stephanie to wear. She was so strong. So composed, somehow. She had been such a cool big sister…one that we always looked up to and wanted to be just like her. I knew that whatever she picked that Stephanie would look beautiful.
We made our way home and I spent the rest of the day crying and sleeping on the couch. Monday morning was about to come and I just wasn’t sure if I could face it.
Whether or not I wanted it to, Monday morning came. I arrived at school and it felt empty. I mean, it was full of students…but so much joy was missing. It was a dark and gloomy place filled with sad people and sad announcements. It was so incredibly hard to focus. Who cares about the presidents of the United States? Who cares about science projects? Who cares about anything else at a time like this? How could my mind possibly focus??
A couple days later we got ready for the visitation. Even though we couldn’t all go together, the whole basketball team decided to wear our jerseys to the funeral home to show our love and support for her family. Greg, once again, greeted me with a hug and a lift. I saw Stephanie’s step-mom outside and offered my respects and wishes that Keith would get better soon. I don’t think I had ever met her before that time. I couldn’t imagine what she was feeling.
The funeral at the First Baptist Church was packed. Standing room only. Her beautiful, white casket adorned the front of the church. Death could not hold her beauty in a closed box. It was a beautiful ceremony for a beautiful little girl. I remember someone reading a letter Steph had written about her future. I think it was one of Steph’s cousins. We all laughed as she said that the only thing she would change about herself was her unibrow. I still laugh about that because I don’t ever remember noticing it. She looked forward to being a marine biologist. She had so many plans for her life and I think we all cried as we realized that her plans were not going to come to fruition the way that we would have all hoped. Her cousin closed her segment with quotes from the song, “I Hope You Dance.” I don’t like that song anymore. Her piano teacher, Carma, played Pachelbel Canon in D, the last song Stephanie had been learning. Every time I’m at a wedding I remember this moment. We closed the funeral with the song, “Jesus Loves Me.” That song had never sounded more beautiful than it did on that day.
After the funeral we all went out to the cemetery for the burial. We were given an opportunity to take a flower from the arrangement on top of the casket. As they lowered the casket into the ground I could not contain my tears. I wanted to scream and say, “NO! STOP! You can’t do this to her! You can’t do this! What if she isn’t gone!? Don’t do this!” I wanted to jump in and grab her and rescue her from this dark place! “You can’t take her forever!” But instead I just cried in my mom’s arms with my muscles aching to reach out to Stephanie. I had to remember that it was just her body. Her soul was gone. Her soul was not in a dark place. She was in a bright, beautiful place without tears or mourning. She was in a better place than the rest of us.
This time of year I am keenly aware that her birthday is fast approaching. I remember waking up on her birthday in 2004. It was a Saturday and I had a non-conference softball game that morning against Milwaukee King. I didn’t want to go. Softball was such a huge part of my life but it seemed so pale in comparison to how my heart was feeling knowing that she should have been there playing with us. The morning felt odd and eerie. I just couldn’t get into the game no matter how I tried. I knew it would be a bad day to play softball. In the first inning, I broke my nose. Yeah…not a good day for softball. Just a month later we were going to play the same team on her death-day anniversary. I thought it seemed a little too coincidental. I, again, believed it was a bad day for a game. Well, it rained and was cancelled. She would be 26 years old in just a couple weeks. She would probably be living in Florida fulfilling her dream of working as a marine biologist. She would be so beautiful. I often see women that I think she might have looked like. There is one that I see every week at church. I’ve never spoken to her and I can hardly even look her in the eye because all I see is Stephanie…what she may have looked like. I hope she doesn’t think that I don’t like her. I’m sure she is very nice and sweet. She is incredibly beautiful…just like I believe Steph would have been.
Around this time of year I spend extra moments thinking about her family and praying for them. I imagine the greatest pain a family can go through after the loss of their child or sister is the worry that people will forget about her. I know she is not forgotten because I think about her all the time. My mom still reminds me that she can still hear Steph’s giggle. I think about Steph at least once a week at church…and much more often than that. I remember her birthday and her Entrance-into-Heaven Day. And I remember how her life and death changed my life. Had it not been for her it may have taken me a lot longer to consider the fragility of life. So many teens feel that they are invincible. I, instead, was always very keenly aware that life could end at any moment and, with the death of several other classmates through high school and since, I have never forgotten that. Life is precious. It is a gift that we are given for however long we have. Some of us get 100 years of life. Others just moments. Had it not been for her, I may have learned to take myself too seriously. Steph was never afraid to enjoy life or to laugh at herself. She was so open to everything the world had to offer her and let nothing hold her back. She was full of life and joy until the very end. And I am eternally grateful for the time I had with her on earth and look forward to our eventual reunion in Heaven.
I cannot believe it has been almost 13 years. I am thankful for the 13 years I had with her and have not forgotten her the 13 years since.
Exactly one week after her death I wrote this poem for her in my notebook:
My Sweet Butterfly
You fly around without a care
and dance a waltz in mid-air.
You’ve always been happy-go-lucky
and you sat on a flower whether fair or yucky.
You showed your happiness and all of your grace
And I saw the smile upon your face.
I still see it now when you’re up in the sky
but I must admit I really did cry.
I still know you fly around
showing happiness to ugly bugs on the ground.
Your butterfly beauty and your dancing grace
You created a smile on everyone’s face.
(May 27, 2000)
*I left last names blank to protect privacy.