On February 15 the planet Earth was narrowly missed by a meteor strike that could well have destroyed life as we know it. The day before, a cosmic event took place that did alter forever the lives of the Stern family. A beloved son, brother and grandson—our bright and shining star, Eitan Stern-Robbins—was taken from us. He was just 18. It was and is a catastrophe. The loss is incalculable. Valentine’s Day, for this family’s will be for evermore a day of sorrow.
Shortly thereafter, we learned a new acronym--SUDEP—Sudden Unexpected Death from Epilepsy. It was all of that: sudden, unexpected and deadly, caused by an epileptic seizure. Eitan had been having seizures periodically for seven years and managing his medication was a constant challenge. Yet nothing prepared us for the possibility of the condition killing him. It was on no one’s radar.
Eitan was the middle child of our daughter Lisë Stern living in Cambridge Massachusetts. From his options, he chose to attend the University of Miami where there was an active Greek life. The idea of a fraternity really appealed to him—he was truly a guy’s guy. He also wanted to be far from the New England winters he detested. He was where he wanted to be and he was so happy. On the Tuesday before he died, I phoned him spontaneously—perhaps because I was guided by an unseen mentor. He did not pick up, but less than a minute later, he called back. I will be grateful for that call the remaining days of my life. The conversation was beautiful in its ordinariness. We talked about his courses, his continuation in the business school, and the fact that he had just pledged AEPi, a premier fraternity. He was really pumped about that. We promised to talk again soon and that maybe we’d see each other soon. I wrote a follow up letter. But scarcely a day later he was dead. The letter was never mailed.
In this valley of the shadow of dying, I still have to be grateful for so much: that Eitan came into this world at all, Eitan with his huge brown eyes and ready smile. Eitan also had a big heart and that was evident early on. The story is told that when he was 3 1//2 and his sister Shoshi still an infant, his parents were packing the car to return from a vacation on Cape Cod. Shoshi had been left safely in her crib inside but she had begun to cry. Little Eitan said, “I’m going back in to be with Shoshi; she’s alonely.” You have got to be born with that kind of compassion. Eitan was born with it. Fast forward 15 years. Among the many letters of condolence from his friends received by my daughter was this: “Without Eitan I never would have passed calculus.” Even more telling was a letter from a girl who had once been part of Eitan’s high school clique. For reasons she did not explain, she and her twin sister were at one point ostracized from the group. But in her letter she wrote that Eitan never abandoned them. He was strong enough and popular enough to both align himself with the rejected and maintain his position in the clique. I find that amazing. He made the lives of these high school girls tolerable. Eitan was a mentsh. If he was around, no one was ever going to be alonely.
Eitan had a thorough grounding in Judaism, but was not at home in synagogue. How often did I scold him when he was younger because he did not pay attention during services. Still, he had a lovely bar mitzvah, ably taught to read the sacred Hebrew texts by our daughter. It was my privilege to help him with some last minute refinements of his bar mitzvah speech, which I have to this day, and I also coached him on the delivery. After the event, when the crowd had thinned, he came up to me, looked at me with those big brown eyes of his and said simply, “Thank you Granny.” Nothing more. But it was enough.
A few years earlier, Eitan had started to spend his summers at a camp in Massachusetts. Eitan loved Camp Avodah. He just loved it. His buddies were there, including William, his best friend since second grade from Boston’s Solomon Schechter School. Last week, William boasted to me that Eitan was the only kid at camp who became licensed to operate the camp’s motor boat and Eitan would drive campers all over the lake. He also qualified in life saving. William gave a eulogy at Eitan’s funeral and his buddies from Avodah stood behind him as he spoke. My heart ached for those kids, babies really, weeping openly over the casket of their young friend. Of Eitan, one close Schechter friend said, “He made me a better person. I love him and I will always miss him. He will always be the first best friend I had, and I will cherish our countless memories forever.” William closed his eulogy by saying, “Thank you Eitan. My life would not have been the same, and certainly not as rich, without you in it, and neither will be my future.” Speaking of the Avodah group he added, “He’s our brother and we will always love him.”
As we see, Eitan had made life-long friends at Schechter and at camp. But once he started high school in Cambridge MA, that boy really came into his own. He set goals for himself and defined steps to achieve them. He went in for rowing and wrestling, took Italian, made the honor roll, and discovered a flair for ceramics, winning the sophomore art award that year. Outside of school Eitan held two jobs. He served on the city government’s Kid Council in Cambridge and he worked for Terrascope Youth Radio at MIT. There, he focused on environmental issues, researched them, conducted interviews on various topics with experts, and wrote them up for broadcast. These broadcasts were picked up on public radio stations across the country. I’m told his broadcast voice was fabulous. I believe this is where he would have established himself—in the media. He was a natural.
He also was a gifted writer with a stunning sense of humor. One essay he shared with me was entitled “Netflix and the Downfall of Western Civilization.” It’s hilarious. His college application essay however was comprised of his musings on God. It was this essay that the president of UMiami, Donna Shalala, shared with the grieving students of his dormitory shortly after the reports of his death circulated. Dr. Shalala went to the student lounge that very day and personally counseled the students and read to them excerpts from Eitan’s paper. Here’s one:
I look at the evidence that the belief in God causes. In reality, the belief in God has caused so many tangible things. It’s caused people to become good citizens, to follow laws, and to be decent human beings. In contrast, wars have been fought in God’s name and people have died over him. For better or for worse though, I believe that the observable effects of belief in God are enough to make God exist.
I would have loved to debate that point with him. But I never got the chance.
The prophet Jeremiah asks, “Is there a balm in Gilead? “ For us in deep mourning, that balm is acts of loving-kindness. We experienced that balm over and over first in Miami then in Cambridge, then home in Washington. Our contact at UMiami was Pat Whiting, Vice President for Student Services. Instead of facing an indifferent bureaucracy when we went to claim the body of our loved one, Pat and her staff anticipated our every need. We were free to mourn and try to absorb the shock. In total gratitude, I said to her, “You are doing holy work.” They also had immediately contacted Rabbi Baruch Plotkin, Director of Hillel, the Jewish student organization on campus. He went at once to Eitan and recited Psalms. It is our belief that the Psalms, holy words, help the soul, hovering near the body, to be transported higher and higher to reach God. Eitan was never without someone to guard his body and say Psalms.
Rabbi in training Robyn Fischer contacted AEPi and together they arranged a memorial service at Hillel Friday night. That service was remarkable. There were over 100 people there, mostly from his frat and dorm, including his roommate Reid who called him “my brother,” and another boy, Michael, with whom he was close friends—the three had planned to room together next year. (“How does one bond in love to others so quickly?” I wondered.) His pledge brothers stood one after the other to give testimony about Eitan’s greatness as a human being. I marvelled. One read a poem he had recently shared with Eitan called “The Dash.” (It’s attached.) Pledges who weren’t acquainted with him said things like, “I didn’t know him yet, but I wanted to.” (“How could a kid make such an impression in three weeks of pledging?” I asked myself.) Eitan did because Eitan was Eitan. He was my grandson and of course I loved him, but what was it that made these boys love him so much and so quickly? I asked some of the boys directly: “What was so special about him?” The answers came: He was a rock. He was steady. He was self-confident and caring. And funny. People just wanted to be with him. The AEPi chapter president told us they were inducting Eitan as an honorary member at the end of the semester along with his fellow pledges.
But the kindnesses did not end when we left Florida. The people of Lisë’s synagogue, the Tremont Street Shul, saw that there was a group to recite mourner’s prayers at her home twice a day for a full week. Lisë did not mourn alone. From her synagogue, from her many activities—theater and community opera, her mothers’ group, from the kids’ schools, people kept arriving bringing food and their love. AEPi reps came to prayers twice. They presented Lisë with an AEPi frat pin, “Because he’s our brother,” one rep said. It was to these representatives that I said, “You have provided a balm. Eitan’s loss is a wound that will never heal, but the balm lessens the pain.” Our gratitude to AEPi is enormous. After a week with Lise, we returned home. There was food from friends, from our synagogue’s Sisterhood and from my Hanukkah bat mitzvah class of 1989. I had had a week of consoling emails, but found a mailbox full of condolence cards. The phone calls continue. We too are not mourning alone. I feel surrounded by your love, and with that love, Michael and I can carry on.
And Eitan? Where is Eitan? Eitan is not on some lonely hill above the Mystic River in Boston. No. His mother on the eve of the funeral was perhaps granted a fleeting image of him. She said in her eulogy, “As I drifted into an aching sleep, my mind was filled with an image of golden liquid, infused with tiny bubbles of light, like champagne, like a galaxy, and I felt, this is where you are now, a peek, a glimpse of the path you are traveling, your expanding soul. Gold and light and joy.”
That his mother was allowed a vision of her son’s pure soul ascending is insufficient comfort to his family, newly grappling with a shattering reality. It is not enough. But I suspect one day it will be. Even now it gives us assurance that Eitan is traveling the supernal worlds to God. And through the pain of it all, in my heart I know there is a God and that he is just.
Joyce Stern, Eitan’s maternal grandmother
By Linda Ellis
I read of a man who stood to speak
At the funeral of a friend.
He referred to the dates on her tombstone
From the beginning... to the end.
He noted that first came the date of her birth
And spoke of the following date with tears,
But he said what mattered most of all
Was the dash between those years.
For that dash represents all the time
That she spent alive on earth
And now only those who loved her
Know what that little line is worth.
For it matters not how much we own,
The cars, the house, the cash,
What matters is how we live and love
And how we spend our dash.
So think about this long and hard:
Are there things you'd like to change?
For you never know how much time is left
That can still be rearranged.
If we could just slow down enough
To consider what's true and real
And always try to understand
The way other people feel.
And be less quick to anger
And show appreciation more
And love the people in our lives
Like we've never loved before.
If we treat each other with respect
And more often wear a smile,
Remembering that this special dash
Might only last a little while.
So when your eulogy is being read
With your life's actions to rehash...
Would you be proud of the things they say
About how you spent your dash?
I hope you can take as much from the poem as Eitan and I have.
All the best,