When Stephen Died

by Davis Campbell

I was 16 when Stephen killed himself. My brother and I were on a mission trip in South Africa, teaching kids about AIDS and how to avoid it, cleaning classrooms and painting and stuff like that. There were probably close to 100 people on the trip, split into two groups in two different cities, Durban (where my brother and I were) and Port Shepstone. Many of the other people participating were high school students, like we were.

A little over a week into the trip, the leaders brought us and a few others who knew Stephen into a small room in the guesthouse where we were staying and had us sit down in moderately comfortable cushioned chairs. Shelves stacked with books and board games lined the walls. The leaders all maintained grave facial expressions as Aunt Donna broke the news to us. At first, I thought it was some sort of sick joke. Of course, Aunt Donna would never joke about that, and even if she would, she wouldn’t be able to convince so many others to get in on it. But to me, the idea that Stephen, someone I actually knew, could have died, let alone killed himself, was even more preposterous than the possibility that Aunt Donna might falsely claim that he had for a couple of chuckles. I had never really known anyone who had died until then. Stephen and I had had classes together; I had seen him almost every day for the past year in Mr. Keegan's AP Economics class. Could it really be that I would never see him again?

In the midst of the absurdity of it all, I couldn’t help but smile, and almost laugh. You can’t put one past me so easily, I thought. I waited for the mood of the room to lighten, for all the serious faces to morph into grins and for Aunt Donna to reveal that Stephen was alive and well, excited to begin his studies at Vassar College at the end of the summer. But there was no grinning; there was no joke. This was real. The smile fell off my face as it dawned on me that my friend was actually dead.

We weren’t close, Stephen and I. He was certainly a friend, but we didn’t hang out much outside of school. Still, I had this hollow feeling in my chest as we filed out of the game room, this sense that the world was somehow emptier than it had been before. To be honest, I don’t think that sense of emptiness had as much to do with Stephen’s permanent absence as it had to do with the shock of encountering death. It knocked the wind out of me. People die. People actually die. Stephen died. Stephen is dead.

I went to my room and lay on my bed, staring at the ceiling. Crying might have been appropriate, but I was just sort of blank. The idea that Stephen was dead was simultaneously simple and impossible to grasp. I know what “dead” means; I know who Stephen is (was). It’s not much of a leap from there to understanding the meaning of the sentence “Stephen is dead.” And yet there was no way for me to make sense of it. I had known what death meant in the abstract, but this was real — it was personal.

A silly thought entered my mind. Stephen and another one of my friends, Ben, had made a slap-bet (the winner of the bet slaps the loser, in lieu of financial compensation) with each other regarding the outcome of a basketball tournament which was to take place about two years in the future. One of them had bet that our high school would win, and the other that we would lose. I have since forgotten who bet what. But I was the slap-bet commissioner, meaning that I was to preside over the slaps (they had bet two slaps, rather than just one) when the time came. Now that Stephen was dead, the bet was off, presumably.

A few days after hearing the news, those of us who knew Stephen visited the group in Port Shepstone. We had some friends over there who also knew him, and the leaders of the trip wanted us all to have a chance to grieve together. They brought us to a beach. It was winter in South Africa, and the salty ocean breeze chilled the trails of water left by tears falling down our faces. Waves broke and clawed their way up the shore before gravity mercilessly dragged them back into the sea. The sky was gray and lumpy. I strummed on the guitar I had brought and we sang some hymns as we looked out over the horizon. “It is well, it is well with my soul,” we sang, even though it wasn't.

We sat in a circle and shared memories of Stephen. Some of us were crying. Someone mentioned Stephen’s many roles in our school’s theatrical productions, prompting us to smile. Stephen had wanted to be an actor. He and Ben, the same friend with whom he had made the slap-bet, were the leads in our school’s performance of “The Importance of Being Earnest.” Ben was John Worthing and Stephen was Algernon. They were funny in that show. We talked about Stephen’s facial hair. The guy could grow a beard when he was only like 13. At one point, when he let his hair grow out, he looked sort of like Jesus. Maybe he’ll come back from the dead.

That evening, we all had dinner at a restaurant called Mugg & Bean. Apparently they have good coffee, which makes sense given the restaurant's name, but I didn't drink coffee back then. We avoided talking about Stephen while we ate; the time for that was past, and we were tired of being emotional. Instead, we acted almost as if everything were normal, talking about our expectations for the rest of the mission trip and the quality of our food, cracking jokes, telling stories, laughing. An outside observer would probably not have guessed that our friend had died, and that we had gathered for the express purpose of grieving him. After our meal, we said goodbye to our friends from Port Shepstone and went back to Durban. The day was over.

If Stephen were still alive today, he'd probably be graduating from college in a couple of months—it has been almost four years since he killed himself. He and I would probably have seen each other every once in a while, too—Vassar is in Poughkeepsie, not too far from New York City, where I live now. He and Ben would probably have made more slap-bets—probably. We don't know what the world would be like if Stephen were still with us. All we really know about that world is that it doesn't exist. In this world, the actual one, Stephen is dead.