My best friend died yesterday.
It was 4:20 a.m. on May 16th when 23-year-old Steven drifted to sleep, never to wake up again.
His death came after a two-and-a-half month long bout with aggressive liver cancer caused by the hepatitis B virus that he carried in his blood, an invisible reminder of his adoption from South Korea when he was three months old. It was 8:00 p.m. that same day when I read the news. I’d like to say I took it gracefully, but I didn’t. My legs gave out and I sat in shock.
That day I’d been to the optometrist with vision problems, thinking for certain it was an incorrect contact lens prescription that was causing my blurry vision and swollen lids. The doctor shook his head at my words and wrote me up for prescription eyedrops to clear up my chronic conjunctivitis, which I’d been suffering from for the past couple of months.
As I laid in my bed that night, I let a few infected tears slide down my cheeks into my ears, trying my best to retain the steroid drops that I had just instilled into each of my eyes.
There were almost positively more than a few individuals who considered Steven to be their best friend. At just 5’6″, Steven was built stocky and strong and could make fast friends with just about anyone. I met Steven at the beginning of the second semester of my freshman year of college through my other best friend Sigrid. I had recently began attending Chi Alpha, an on-campus Christian ministry for college students, and it was there that Sigrid introduced me to the friendly Korean who referred to himself as Asian Persuasion.
From that point on, Steven and I became fast friends, playing football, taking walks and watching Netflix whenever we could. On a mission trip in Portland, OR, we teamed up to explore the city together and ended up spending the afternoon on the swings at an urban playground, wandering pawn shops and buying burritos for homeless guys. Steven’s hometown of Columbus was just a short drive away from mine, so whenever he was passing through we would play catch at the park and drink milkshakes from the drive through. Every Friday afternoon during the school year, we would order chocolate peanut butter milkshakes from the Bonanza Freeze and talk about life. During my rough transition into college life, Steven was the one constant I knew I could always count on.
Steven and I were working our way through the Netflix series The Tomorrow People, in which we both agreed the main character Stephen (spelled with a “ph”, therefore, Phteven) was quite attractive. We joked that Steven and the character were related because they both had the same name.
In December of my sophomore year, Steven graduated with a degree in Petroleum Engineering and went to China to marry the love of his life. Ellen, whom Steven had met while on a mission trip, was a petite Chinese woman with an infectious smile and a love for life. When Steven and Ellen returned to the States after marrying, I met her for the first time and liked her instantly. Ellen was gentle, friendly and witty. I could not have imagined a more perfect match for Steven’s outgoing, blunt personality.
After their brief visit home, Steven and Ellen moved down to Denver where Steven had accepted a job offer. Shortly after arriving in Colorado, Steven was admitted to the hospital with stomach pains. It was then, on February 28, that the doctors found the tumor that had engulfed sixty percent of his liver, metastasized and spread to both of his lungs. The diagnosis was grim- the doctors estimated Steven had somewhere between two and six months to live. After hearing the diagnosis, Steven and Ellen decided it would be best to move back to Columbus to spend the remainder of Steven’s life with family and friends.
Although we were in the middle of taking our midterm exams, Sigrid and I were able to go visit Steven and Ellen during Easter break. We spent the afternoon filling Steven in on what he was missing at school, asking Ellen about the wedding, and cracking jokes back and forth. It was a fun afternoon full of lighthearted laughter and conversation.
After our visit, Steven’s health began to decline fairly rapidly. He started experiencing more pain and swelling in his organs, and eating became more difficult. Steven wasn’t eligible for most clinical trials for treatment because of his hepatitis B. The family made plans to travel to Mexico for alternative treatment.
The day of travel, Steven felt really sick and couldn’t make it to the airport. He tried again the next day, but while getting out of the car his legs gave out and he couldn’t walk. The family decided to nix the Mexico trip and to rest at home.
It was around this time that I found out I had been awarded a National Science Foundation grant to travel to Guam and the Mariana Islands for the summer to perform research on tropical forest ecology. I was ecstatic, but my first thought was to turn this dream opportunity down so I could be closer to Steven. The day after receiving the offer, I talked on the phone with him for over two hours, which culminated in Steven convincing me to take the offer.
S: “You wouldn’t change your life’s path for a guy, right?”
Me: “This isn’t the same thing, and you know it.”
S: “I know, but same rules apply. It’s an adventure. Take it.”
A couple of weeks later, I made plans to visit Steven again. In the midst of finals week, I left Saturday morning for the three hour drive to Columbus. When I was five miles out, I got a call from Ellen. Steven was too sick to see me.
“He’s here, but he’s not here,” Ellen said.
I turned around and drove home.
The next day, the pain hit me hard. Steven was now too sick to answer my text messages. His liver had not been functioning properly for past week, and jaundice was beginning to set in as bilirubin built up in his system. I’d learned enough in my Anatomy class to know what came next–Steven would slowly slip into a coma and fall asleep, never to wake up.
I wept bitterly for four hours, curled up on the floor of my dorm room. This was pain like I’d never felt–knowing that someone you loved was going to die, but not knowing when. I was afraid that I’d be halfway across the world in Guam when I got the news, unable to be in the comfort of home. I felt like part of me was dying with Steven. I felt like the rest of the world was spinning a million miles an hour around me, while my world was at a standstill. After a while, I exhausted my supply of tears and reverted to staring blankly at my room’s stuccoed ceiling. I got up, carefully reapplied my winged eyeliner, and headed down to the library to study for my Organic Chemistry final the next morning.
A week went by with little news. Ellen told me that it was getting harder and harder for Steven to get out of bed, that he barely ate and that he slept most of the time. I prayed for God to ease his pain and to give Ellen peace. My heart felt like it weighed a billion tons. I cried myself to sleep most nights.
Exactly one week after my failed road trip to Columbus, Steven died in his sleep, his soul leaving his body to go be with the Lord. The night before his death, Typhoon Dolphin hit Guam, causing thousands of dollars of damage and effectively postponing my trip to the Mariana Islands. I laughed through my tears at the irony of it all. Two hurricanes had hit me in two days.
My favorite memory with Steven was when was the day of my baptism in the Flathead River in October. I had just changed out of my soaked clothes into a baggy read flannel and had exited the lodge to begin loading my bags into the car. I heard a shout to my left and turned to see Steven. We both smiled and ran towards each other in our typical slow-motion, cheesy manner. Steven wrapped me up in a hug and spun me around a couple of times, autumn leaves falling around us.
“Congratulations Macy, I’m proud of you,” he said.
Even as I grow older and Steven stays the same age, I will never forget the sixteen short months I had Steven as my best friend. He was passionate, he was full of life, and he encouraged me to live mine to the fullest. I will continue to pursue my dreams, and I know that no matter where I go in this world, no matter where this life takes me, Steven will always be there with me. Rest easy, Steven. I love you.
To make a donation to support Ellen and the rest of Steven’s family, visit http://www.gofundme.com/o6lfko.