Stephen was born on May 8, 1990 and immediately became “everyone’s” baby. We hadn’t had a baby in our extended family for a few years so he was the center of attention, with people vying to be the first to hold him, play with him, or feed him. As a toddler he continued to hold a special place in our family – he was the youngest brother and cousin who tried to keep up with the older kids. We still considered him our “baby” and showered him with attention. In return, he would provide hours of entertainment – pretending to play the drums to “Give it Away” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, swinging his arms to “Hip Hop Hooray”, telling us, “I love you”, and melting our hearts with his beautiful smile. As he grew, his wit and intelligence, as well as his affinity for sunglasses and bandanas, would become some of his signature traits. But his smile was THE feature that resonated with everyone he met. It could be a huge, toothy grin, a goofy smirk, or that closed mouth smile where his joy was so great that it spread from his mouth and sparkled through his eyes. Teachers, friends, and acquaintances would always comment on how big and inviting his smile was.
Just as distinct as his smile, so was his presence. Everything he did was “big” or to the extreme. When he was about 8 years old, he and his friends learned to play poker. In typical Stephen fashion, it was not your traditional poker, but poker with 5 or 6 wild cards. When he played with adults, he would always win because no adult could remember every wild card. During that time, he also became obsessed with mac ‘n’ cheese. I remember walking to Friendly’s with him one day and him ordering not one, not two, but three orders of it. And yes, he ate them all. Next, came his obsession with the Harry Potter books. He read each as soon as it was released and, most notably, he finished the last book of the series, all 784 pages, in less than 48 hours. Stephen did not do things simply when there was the possibility to do them grandly.
As Stephen grew, his bigness was shown in other, and sometimes not always endearing, ways. His loud feet clomping up and down the stairs at various hours of the night and the clanging of pots and pans as he made his early morning breakfasts (he did always offer to make my mom tea but that sometimes meant yelling up the stairs to her when both of my parents were still asleep). And who can forget his debating skills? Stephen loved to debate ANY topic and quite frankly was very good at it. He could convince you that the sky is green, the grass is blue, and the sun is black. He won a debate in highschool dealing with the topic of fruitcakes, and, after he proudly retold the story, he ended with the fact that he didn’t even know what a fruitcake is. But that was our Stephen.
Not only did Stephen develop his debating skills in high school, but he also enjoyed being a member of the football team and wrestling team. He sometimes joked that he played center in football because he was not fast enough to play any other position. But what he lacked in speed he made up with strength. At a championship wrestling match his senior year, a 180 pound Stephen was paired against a 215 pound opponent. When my mom retells the story you can still hear the fear and amazement in her voice as she recalls how Stephen was almost pinned to the ground but somehow he bench pressed the opponent off of him to win the match. But that was Stephen – determination ran through his blood and somehow his strength always carried him through a challenging time. As his senior year came to end, Stephen headed off to Delaware University. His freshman year did not go exactly according to his plan, but he readjusted and continued his college career at Temple University.
During this time, his beautiful smile started to shine a little less and the light in his eyes shone a little dimmer. Those of us in his family noticed this difference but attributed it to college life and we were reassured when Stephen would seem his usual self – entertaining us with imitations from movies or retelling humorous stories that seemed to only happen to him. We still felt his big presence, just not as much. And he was still always ready to help others and to make THEM feel good. He did it in simple ways, such as teaching his oldest nephew how to ollie or giving him cheat codes for Madden; making the time and having the patience to teach his nieces and nephews how to draw; and, in his youngest nephew’s words, making me laugh when I am sad. He also assisted in more serious situations such as helping a cousin with her insurance, helping friends write resumes and apply to jobs, or salvaging the glass business where he worked. Stephen was proud to help others. Unfortunately, he could not help himself. For some reason, he did not see the funny, lovable, generous man that we all did. But, he did try. The determination that was so dominant in his younger years was still there, but just not as powerful.
He did want to be the person that he was in his younger years, but it was too much of a struggle. In one of our last conversations he told me how much he loved our family but how hard it was to be the person that everyone expected him to be. Somehow that charismatic, vibrant, and confident boy had disappeared. The light and energy that radiated from him when he was younger had been lost. He knew that people were here to support him but that knowledge was not enough to reignite his spirit. While we are all in pain because he is gone, I know that Stephen is at peace, and is smiling again with true joy, something that was more often absent than present in the last decade of his life. When the pain of losing Stephen seems too much, think of a goofy face he made, a funny story that he told or a loving act that he performed to make YOU feel better. Think of his wit and intelligence. Think of the time that he devoted to others, even when he really should have devoted that time to helping himself get better. Stephen‘s spirit will continue to live through the people that he knew and helped. He will never be gone from our hearts. He will never be gone from our minds. His spirit will survive in all those who knew him.
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