I was at my mother’s house in Boulder, Colorado when I found out that Stephen Ford ‘15 had died. First one, then many Knox friends texted. Then we were calling. Then we were crying.
There was nothing real to me about this night, and as I clutched my cellphone to my ear, my best friend kept saying it over again: “It’s Stephen. This can’t be happening.” I fell asleep late and restless.
The next night, a Friday, I had plans to meet up with a high school friend at a restaurant downtown. One perk of being from a big college town is assimilating with local students whenever I visit, but as I walked out into the uncharacteristically foggy dark something nagged at me: This friend I was heading out to see, though I love her, had no context for the bizarre feeling that had settled in my gut. It was not quite grief, yet, but a desire to hold on. I wanted not to have to mourn Stephen, not to have to look at the loss. I wanted to remember.
Fortunately, Colorado attracts a lot of Knox alumni. A recent graduate friend of mine happens to live within an easy distance and he met my friend and I for drinks and pool at one of the underground bars downtown. As the evening wore on, we toasted Stephen again and again, laughing harder than I’d anticipated around brief moments of chasmic, contemplative silence. Eventually just my Knox friend and I decided to walk up closer to the university’s campus.
The fog had grown thick by this point, holding streetlamp light, painting the shapes of buildings and strangers indistinct, mysterious. I suggested we cross campus and have an adventure.
“For Stephen,” my friend said. “He used to get us into the best adventures.”
On the way through the twisting paths, we continued to reminisce. I recalled Stephen’s 22nd birthday when we’d held an accidental celebration on his front porch, all singing along and devouring pizzas as he and I strummed on our various instruments. My friend told me about four years’ worth of expeditions to certain Knox rooftops, inane, harmless rule-breaking that had worked out perfectly despite all likelihood of being caught. When we discovered the door of the university’s beautiful old opera house ajar, we took it as a sign.
The building sat eerily silent. We crept through shadowy hallways with bated breath and finally reached a door marked simply “Stage.” Through it we went and emerged onto the massive opera stage, hundreds of empty velvet seats facing us in the gloom. Alone on stage left stood a brilliantly bright light. We stepped into its glow in silence.
“Oh, my god,” I said. “This is so cool.”
What an understatement. I grew up attending performances by graduate students here, costumes and glamour, unattainability. Now, at their age, I stood looking out from their platform, missing a friend whose unfailing positivity in my life had buoyed me through so much hardship, wishing more than anything that I could hear him sing that song about how “everything is gonna be alright.”
So I did it myself. I stood on stage in the light, trespassing and sure we were about to get caught, and whispered the lyrics alone, too soft to be heard. My chest got tight. But I didn’t cry. This was a miraculous night in celebration of the miraculous friend whose presence in my life was so absolutely necessary, whose brilliance I only knew for one year but whose kindness led me to being happier than I had ever been at Knox.
In the morning, sweating and slipping up the side of a mud-covered mountain, there he was. The sparkling winter sunlight, the crisp, clean air, the chilled rocks into which I hooked fingers for climbing: Stephen.
He was the first friend ever to take me to the Broadview for greasy bacon and cheap coffee. He was the person who reminded me, after a long break from music, that I had a voice and that that voice could sing. He brought art and color and laughter into dark moments with the ease of simply turning on a light.
During his final Flunk Day, Stephen led a parade of friends, covered in paint and cartwheeling, across the lawn of Old Main with his trumpet. He was the embodiment of spontaneity, of peace, of optimism, as evidenced in ink on his right forearm: a brilliantly yellow smiley face, because his blood type was B-positive and so was his outlook. In his presence I felt constantly inspired. I believed in the world he saw, in the version of myself he reassured, in the possibilities of the future he was making for himself. The time I spent curled and sunbathing in the hammock on Forrest Linsell ‘15 and Stephen’s front porch was some of the best I’ve ever known; he is Knox to me.
I didn’t know what shape our friendship would take when he moved to China last summer to
pursue his dream of teaching English. I did not reach out as well as I would have liked. But I thought of him — I think of him — often.
As I sang softly to myself on the opera stage in Boulder, I thought of the nickname of Stephen’s I’d heard dozens of times: The Invincible Boy. I cannot fathom that anyone so fiercely good is gone and so I refuse to. Stephen’s presence in my life, and in the lives of everyone who loves him, was miraculous. But it will never cease to be.
The night Stephen turned 22, he sang a song he’d written, the song that has been playing on a loop in my head since I first heard the news of his passing. The refrain, over and over, of “everything is gonna be alright.” It is impossible to believe as I sit crying in an unfamiliar airport and writing an obituary to him that I will never hear Stephen Ford sing those words again. It is not so impossible to believe that he wrote the perfect words to get all of us through the staggering challenge of living in a world without his light. And so:
Thank you, Stephen, for the things you did for people I love and for people I’ve never met. Thank you for what you were to this world. Thank you for your voice and your music and your eternal optimism. Thank you for believing in art and friendship and love. Thank you for seeing the best in everyone.
Thank you, Stephen, for everything you ever said to me that made me feel worthy and strong.
Thank you, Stephen, for loving us so hard.