My friend Stephen’s middle name was Lawrence; I wish I had known that when we were kids—I would have called him Larry, although, that probably would have been a mistake. His wit was quick and unforgiving; I would have paid dearly for such a trespass. He was a master of public humiliation, and he had an expressly crude way of making people look stupid. I learned early in our friendship what devastating humor Stephen was capable of.
It was our first year of middle school—sixth grade—when our shared love for crude humor landed us each our first detention. On the day our friendship blossomed, we had a substitute teacher in Mr. McKelvy’s science class; and he had made just a few more mistakes than we could let slide. Our credulous teacher was unprepared for our barrage of insults and preposterous questions. Half-way through class, Stephen asked the teacher if he really went to college. The sub replied that he did and asked Stephen why he was curious. Stephen replied by saying that no one that went to college should misspell the word science. (He mistakenly put the E before the I. I before E except after C.)
We capped off the hour of consistent and unrelenting abuse with the oldest, and in my humble opinion, the greatest crude joke of all time—the fart noise. The substitute, from now referred to as Bo Jangles, innocently dropped his chalk and bent over to grab it—derriere aimed ominously at the class. (Two girls audibly gasped). As his hand approached the floor, Stephen cupped his skinny, pale hands, filled his cheeks and bellowed the most realistic fart noise ever heard in the halls of Indian Valley Middle School.
In the most acrobatic movement ever produced by a 300 pound man, Bo Jangles shot up from his bent position, whirled to face the class and simultaneous widened his eyes to the size of silver dollars. The entire class was in stitches, but the whites of his eyes, and his finger, were pointed at two smart asses sitting together in the second row—Stephen and I.
Bo hollered, “Out in the hall!”
Stephen retorted, “Thanks! But you could have kicked us out before you farted!”
The class erupted again, and I started laughing so hard that I smacked my head off of my desk. Then I met Stephen in the hall and we walked with sheepish smiles to receive our comeuppance at the office.
We finished middle and high school in much the same way. Stephen would say or do something outrageous, I’d laugh like a Hyena, and we’d both get in trouble. I shouldn’t play the innocent card—I always contributed. But he was the performer; I’ve never had his talent for presentation.
Our career as miscreants, however, would always have set backs. At first I didn’t understand—Stephen would intermittently disappear for a month. He wouldn’t be at school and his AIM messenger was always offline. I thought he just went rogue. Dude, had shit to do and school wasn’t stopping him. But someone that went to elementary school with him, and had a little more sense than I did, filled me in.
Stephen had cystic fibrosis—a disease that affects 30,000 Americans and is caused by a defective gene. The protein produced by the gene causes the body to produce thick mucus that clogs the lungs and limits the release of pancreatic enzymes. Those afflicted are prone to respiratory problems and lung infections; they also have difficulty digesting and absorbing food.
On Monday and Thursday nights in high school, Stephen, our friends and I would go out for wings. (One all-you-can-eat wing night per week didn’t satisfy us). As he was eating, Stephen would take two or three pills—pancreatic enzymes—and chase them with Mt. Dew. I always questioned his protocol—surely enzymes and soda don’t mix; but I never said anything.
As we went to more and more wing nights, and Stephen and I got closer and closer, he started letting me know when he’d be going into the hospital. Our friend Brett and I would drive to Hershey to visit him at least once every time he was admitted. Early on we didn’t understand the severity—Stephen played it off. He’d tell us that the doctors just wanted to adjust his medication, or that he checked himself in as a precaution. He was very private; he also didn’t want us to worry. But he lied to us.
In reality, Stephen outlived his life expectancy three times during our decade long stint of recurrent hospital visits. I don’t remember the exact ages, but sixteen, twenty-one and twenty-five stick out in my mind. It didn’t stop him from living his life and getting what he wanted from it.
Being friends with him had his ups and downs; I’m not going to bullshit you and tell you that he was always bright and shiny; that his perspective on life was serendipitously pleasant. Anyone that stares death in the face every day has the right to be an asshole every once in a while.
He didn’t have a lot of time for pleasantries—if you didn’t know him; chances are you would’ve considered him a jerk. At times he was rude, and he wasn’t going out of his way to make your day brighter if he didn’t respect you. But I think he knew he didn’t have time to be phony.
What terrifies us, and we assume is decades away, Stephen dealt with every day and he found a way to make peace with it. He found solace in Phillies baseball, the 76ers and horror movies. Many times he’d watch movies or games by himself. If he couldn’t get the games he would watch internet sports tickers, eyes glued to the screen waiting for the next score update. He didn’t miss a minute of any game. It’s what he wanted; it was his time.
But he also chose to be close with his friends and family, defusing our concerns with his remarkable sense of humor. He seized every opportunity to make someone laugh, especially if he could slide in a perverted joke about taints, assholes or DPDA. (If you don’t know what those initials stand for, I’ll not be the one to break the news). That was Stephen, though; even while making others laugh he was undeniably himself.
He died on a Tuesday. I was at the beach with my beautiful girlfriend Annie and her family; it was late at night when my cell phone rang and I heard Brett say a muted hey after my obligatory hello. He said Stephen wasn’t doing well, he was on the way to the hospital and he might be dying. Brett said he’d make a call and find out for sure before he called me back. The phone rang five minutes later and Brett, his voice muffled by sobs, gave me the news. Stephen was gone.
I often think about Stephen’s life, his uniformity of persona and what gifts my friend left for all of us. The way he approached life and faced a disease he knew would take him before he was an old man. The more I think about it, the harder it is to keep tears from clouding my vision; but the message, and the gift, appears clearer.
Time is an illusion. The fourteen years that I called Stephen my friend, and his twenty-six years of life went by fleetingly. I’m sure the next twenty-six years of my life, and any bonus time that I’m granted, will follow suit. I’ve realized that after a transitory moment we’ll all be memories held by those that love us.
This presence of mind was Stephen’s gift to me–a gift worth re-gifting. After twenty-six and a half years of life, I’ve realized I’m already in the bonus. I wrote this post to share Stephen Lawrence Leddy’s gift with you. Please don’t waste it. I promise you that I won’t.
In rememberance of Stephen Lawrence Leddy
August 16, 1985 – August 23, 2011