My Friend Steve
I am so honored that Steve suggested I speak at this celebration of his life. I know he is watching us right now, and I know he wants me to get on with it so he can watch the Michigan-Notre Dame game at 2:30.
When someone you love passes away, it’s easy to remember him as having been a perfect person, to speak about him only in superlatives and to inflate his accomplishments. Steve was a humble man, and I promise to honor that trait by not exaggerating his qualities in this remembrance.
My friend Steve was The Single Funniest Human in the History of Earth or Any Other Planet. Scientists studied his laugh in hopes that its radiant quality could be harnessed to help us reduce our dependence on foreign oil.
So wicked, so sharp was his sense of humor that he made the sound of laughter seem a like a natural occurrence in cancer treatment rooms across North Texas.
That last one was not an exaggeration.
In her blog, Tyra has written again and again about her “sweet Steve” or her “super Steve.” I’m here to tell you about my “silly Steve.”
Let’s start with that laugh. Anyone who spoke to Steve is familiar with the basic version: the rapid, machine-gun exhales, the squinty eyes, the slightly toothy grin and bobbing head.
Those of us who saw the real Steve laugh, though, we saw something even more magical. The dinner party for his 40th birthday comes to mind. First, a blank stare for five seconds, followed by a long, throaty wheeze and pet-store bird noises with every inhale. Then the head-bobbing, on a much grander scale. In the spiky-hair days of high school and college, it looked like an angry porcupine was wrestling his face for control of his scalp.
It was so goofy, so unique. So beautiful.
It also was the reason he and I watched most of our senior calculus class from the hallway. I swear, there were times in the last 21 months when I thought Ms. England would appear in his hospital room and lead me out by the ear.
Tyra tells me his favorite meal was steak with garlic mashed potatoes and asparagus. I’m here to tell you that if I had asked him what he wanted for dinner, he’d answer, “a bloody mary, a steak sandwich and a steak sandwich. Put it on the Underhills’ tab.”
If you’re laughing at that, you know it was a quote from the movie Fletch. You also know Fletch was Steve’s second language. He and I – and probably more than a few others in the room – could have an entire conversation about something non-Fletch-related using only lines from Fletch. It was one of his gifts.
Silly came easy to him. In recent weeks, he decided to start updating his Facebook status based on whether or not he was wearing pants in his bed at home. And for those who have been wondering, I can finally solve the mystery: The entry “p=y” meant “pants equals yes,” and the entry “n”?
Yes, Steve was silly and fun-loving. But Tyra is obviously right, too. He was the Single Sweetest Man in the History of Earth or Any Other Planet.
I wrote this story for Tyra’s blog, but I hope you won’t mind if I repeat it now.
A few months before Steve’s symptoms began, he and I joined my cousin and his friends for a 12-person relay race in the mountains of Colorado. We ran 195 miles from Fort Collins to Steamboat Springs, each of us taking on three different legs.
He and I were clearly the least athletic members of the team, and we were not accustomed to the thin air up there. Of course, the van we used for the event was full of laughter the whole way, and by the time we were running our final legs, we were all pretty gassed.
On my final leg, I was on a long downhill stretch in the hot sun, and I asked the guys in the van to go a couple of miles up the road to meet me with some water. The van sped off, and I expected it to disappear from sight.
About a half-mile away, it stopped. I saw someone get out and start walking uphill towards me. As I got closer and closer, I could tell it was Steve. He hadn’t run his last leg yet, and I knew he needed his rest.
When he finally got to me, he handed me a cold bottle of water. Just thought I needed it sooner rather than later. He was right.
We walked a ways together, and he spoke quiet, encouraging words to me – words I repeated over and over to myself as I finished my run.
That December, when we learned how serious Steve’s condition was, I was on my way to stay the night with him in the hospital. My pastor prayed with me, encouraging me to be the “cup of cold water” for a friend in need.
I immediately pictured Steve walking up the mountain. I have not been able to shake that image of him since, nor do I ever want to.
That’s the kind of friend Steve was. The kind you pray you can be in return.
Here’s something I didn’t write for the blog about that trip to Colorado. As soon as Tyra dropped us off at the airport, Steve pulled an e-a-r-r-i-n-g out of his pocket and put it in his left ear. It was the first time I’d seen him wearing one in many years, maybe since the kids were born.
As long as he had that thing in, I called him “Steve Denver.” “Check out Steve Denver.”
“Dude? How old are we?”
“Steve Dallas” forgot to take it out when we got home, and I wish I had taken a picture of the look on Tyra’s face when she saw “Steve Denver.” Such confusion -- “Where did you go again?”
My friend Steve and his true love had such a beautiful connection.
Tyra, I told you this in private Monday, and I want to say it again for everyone to hear. You were so good to him.
Not just for the last 21 months. I know how deeply you love him, and I know he loved you the same way.
And through this journey, you have displayed more grace in the worst of times than most of us do in the best of times.
Throughout his illness, Steve fought not just for his own life, but for more time with you. I know you will always remember that even when he was in great pain, he worried first about you and the kids. I know you will also remember that you were first in his heart well before he got sick.
Over the last 26 years, I always saw the same fun-loving, all-or-nothing glow in him that I remember from high school. But your love made that glow even brighter.
Before you met, he was a great guy. You inspired him to become a great man.
Jim, Betty and Jim: I loved Steve like a brother. And if you look around this room, you know I’m not the only one. Nothing we can do will fill the hole in your hearts right now, but I hope you can find at least some comfort in the love of this extended family.
Here is a man – so funny, so kind and caring, so sweet and super. Here is a man I am so proud to have called my friend.
Here is a man I miss so very much.
But as our precious goddaughter Katie said Sunday, “he is still in our hearts.”
You know where else he is? In Cooper’s long legs. In Katie’s mischievous laugh. In his children’s loving spirit and in their brilliant minds.
Cooper, please know this: You do not have to be the daddy now. You just have to be yourself. Your father is in you. He’s in your heart and in everything you do. You can talk to him whenever you want to, and as you grow, all of the great things about him will become great things about you.
That goes for the rest of us, too. We carry him in our hearts, and if we truly want to honor Steve, the Single Greatest Friend in the History of Earth or Any Other Planet, here’s how I believe we can:
Laugh hard many times a day, every day. Grab a friend and run up a mountain together. Be kind to everyone. Live out loud. Love your family and friends with all of your heart.
When we returned from Colorado, Steve wrote me a check to settle up some of our expenses from the trip. In the memo line, he wrote, “Celebrate life!”
I know he wants us to do that today. I know he wants us to do that every day. And I know he wants us to put that celebration on the Underhills’ tab.
Will and Steve, 2004, Dallas White Rock Half Marathon