A Big Sky Full of Stars

My friend Stephen died last night after a brave battle with glioblastoma. 

I met Stephen for the first time about a year ago, but felt the same instant connection to him that I felt when I first met his ebullient wife, Britt. 

Britt and Stephen live in Iowa, and happened to be in Chicago at the same time as Nick and me last April. We met up at a bar and quickly clicked into an easy rapport. We talked about travel and music and our favorite TV shows and silly stories about their kids. It felt like the beginning of a lifelong friendship. We talked about where we might want to meet up next — maybe we could make a habit of exploring new cities together. A few months later, Stephen went to the ER with a severe headache and doctors found a brain tumor. 

Something I want to tell you about Stephen is that he possessed two of my favorite qualities: curiosity and spontaneity. 

In fact, Nick and I thought we were spontaneous until we met Britt and Stephen. Their favorite way to travel was impromptu, unplanned, and open-ended: no destination, no reservations, no itinerary. Just start driving and see where you end up, who you meet, what grand adventure unfolds itself before you and invites you to join in. You might find yourself somewhere you’ve never been. You might stumble upon a view that takes your breath away. You might get stuck in a blizzard. You might score a last-minute deal on a 5-star hotel. You might have to sleep in the car. 

Stephen and Britt loved to live in the moment and lean into the “what ifs.” They did this all the time. 

The last trip they took before Stephen entered hospice was a trip to Wyoming last week. They rented a van and packed up the kids, taking precautions to keep Stephen safe but leaving everything else open-ended.

Their only plan as they hit the gas and headed west: to see a big sky full of stars.

A few weeks ago, I got the chance to sit down with Stephen and interview him about his life. He wanted to record some memories and stories for Britt and the kids. I compiled a long list of questions and prompts to guide the conversation. One of them was, “When were you happiest?” 

I expected this question to spark a vivid description of a big life milestone – the births of his kids or his wedding day – or maybe a once-in-a-lifetime experience like the family’s recent trip to Hawaii.

Instead, Stephen took a deep breath and looked around. He was sitting in a recliner in the living room of his home in Cedar Rapids, his body swollen from steroids prescribed to treat his pain, his scalp scarred from brain surgery. “It sounds crazy,” he said, “but I think I’m as happy now as I ever have been.” 

I was stunned. 

“Can you…say more about that?” I asked. 

“Seeing everything that Britt and I have accumulated from the time we first met…having two beautiful kids, two good jobs, this house. I can’t think of a time that I would be happier.” 

“That’s pretty special,” I said. 

Stephen smiled. “I think so.” 

I have never seen someone as completely and totally present as Stephen. He wasn’t in denial about his diagnosis and his situation. He wasn’t fixated on the past or future. Even while facing the stark truth of death, he was living fully in the moment, and when he looked around and breathed that moment in, the truest thing he felt was lucky.

As I process this loss, I find myself reaching for platitudes and explanations. I want comfort and proof of a bigger plan, some kind of merciful logic or meaning. 

But I am angry, too. I hate cancer. Stephen deserved to live. Britt deserves to grow old with the love of her life. Their magical, sweet kids deserve their dad. All of Stephen’s friends and loved ones deserve to enjoy more time with him. When I think about the randomness and cruelty of cancer, the injustice of it feels like too much to bear. 

So I’m thinking about those spontaneous road trips Britt and Stephen loved so much instead. 

I’m thinking about how the journey of life works this way, too: We don’t know where we’re headed or the infinite iterations of joy and grief awaiting us along the way. 

I think Stephen knew what we’re all here to learn: that it’s not so much about where we’ve been or where we’re going. In fact, if we can focus less on those things, we might be able to take a deep breath, look around, and appreciate exactly where we are. 

We might be able to look up and see a big sky full of stars.

If you feel moved to donate to Britt and Stephen’s family, you can find a few ways to do that here. And you can read Britt’s beautiful journal entry about Stephen’s passing here.