25 years ago today Steven Stern lost his short, brave fight against AIDS. I still haven’t wrapped my head around it. He’s been gone longer than the number of years he was physically here but I’d be lying if I said that I’ve had much closure. I’m not sure if losing your first love to AIDS at 22 is something you ever really get over; I still think of him almost daily in different ways. Such is the peculiar currency of memory: preserved under a bell jar—frozen, unchanging, untouchable, gleaming.
Sometimes I hear Steven’s frequent admonishment to be more self protective: “make like a doormat and you’re gonna get stepped on,” he’d warn me in clipped Brooklynese, even though I don’t think he ever lived in Brooklyn and if he did it wasn’t for long enough to sound like Thelma Ritter when dispensing advice. For Steven, this was a creative choice he made for emphasis, like the shrug of a shoulder, or a wink. He thought I was naive and let people take advantage of me. Of course, he was right and I still hear him hectoring me on the subject when my need to be liked clouds my judgement. Sometimes I just think of Steven’s incredible smile and how it lit up so many rooms and the way it lit me up on the inside because I knew seeing me was one of the things that made him so happy. Most often though, I hear the exquisite sound of his laugh: huge, effortless peals that punctuated every conversation and guarded against painful things. I am so glad that I can still hear that joyful sound, because as long as I can hear him, hear his voice and his laughter, I know the tremendous, unbreakable bond we shared connects us still.
His friends called him “Steve,” but he was never a “Steve” to me—only “Steven,” and there were very few things Steven loved as much as the sound of Barbra Streisand’s voice. On this subject he was completely unbending and unapologetically uncritical. He loved it all—even the questionable stuff like Butterfly—didn’t give a shit, to him, she walked on water and he’d be the first one to tell you that (in clipped Bro0klynese). I felt Steven’s presence strongly last October when I held our friend Nancy Balbirer’s hand while tears streamed down her face at Barbra’s concert in Philadelphia. Nothing would have made him happier than to hear Barbra sing live or to know that the 20-year rift in my friendship with Nancy caused by the trauma of his death did not keep us apart forever after all, so the “rift” became a “pause.” Streisand’s recording of Coming in and Out of Your Life may seem a bit dated now but, but it was one of Steven’s favorite songs—we listened to it together all the time—and, as with so many of my memories associated with Steven, turned out to be rather prescient.
Steven wrote me a card on September 9, 1982 (his birthday). I still have it. I saved everything including notes he wrote me on napkins and passes to excuse him from class to go to doctors appointments and drawings he made. On this particular card, which he wrote just days after I left him in New Jersey and went off to college in Boston, he wrote “true love means parting without separating.” I know he was proud that he came up with that himself because he wrote “Steven H. Stern” under it in capital letters. He wanted me to know that and I think that he intuited that I would need to have these words.
Steven could be prescient—as he was when he would tell me that he didn’t think he would live to be 30. I used to scream at him when he would say that because I wanted him to be with me forever and live a long, healthy life, but there were some things that he just knew. On this point he was correct. He didn’t live to be 30, or even 25.
I called him “french fry.” He called me “Mr. Bright,” because he though I was such a brain. Steven lacked confidence in certain things, like his intellect—owing, I think, to undiagnosed learning disabilities and the stunning averageness of East Brunswick High School—but in addition to his precocious street smarts, he could be very insightful sometimes, like with the aphorism under which he proudly signed his name. At the time, I never would have thought I would come to understand the meaning of what he said so deeply, or that with 25 more birthdays now passed, I would still rely on those six words with both an indescribable ache and tremendous gratitude.
If you knew Steven, share these photos and my humble words with someone else, for as the novelist Samuel Butler said, “to die completely, a person must not only forget but be forgotten, and he who is not forgotten is not dead.” For those of us who knew and loved him, Steven is still very much alive.
On August 8th, 1982 Steven inscribed my graduating yearbook in a sprawling, effusive love letter. Though not particularly sentimental in general, he worked himself up to writing this passage by listening to Streisand’s recording of John Lennon’s Love at least 10 times. He did this because, I think, he knew it was important to me and so he dug deep enough to find these words. Reading them now they seem callow, but also tremendously sincere and very much like him. Though their intention references our imminent separation just weeks away, they ended up carrying a much heavier load when he got sick just a few short years later. Knowing as he did that he might not physically be with me for very long, he expresses very clearly that being remembered was important to him. Perhaps that is why, 25 years later, I am still writing an elegy for Steven Stern and though I am still heartbroken, I am also happy, because as long as I can hear the sound of his voice I know he is here.
Remember…remember…remember…remember it all
We had a blast. The best. We have had incredible times together and you must remember them in order to keep me alive in your mind.
There is nothing, ever, that could make me forget you.
Yes, I’m “coming in and out of your life,” but what the song neglects to tell you is I’m returning. We will stay together forever, no matter what, we’ll push through.
You are the best thing that ever happened to me. Our love will last always.
You may also enjoy:
New York City in the 1980s, or “Squirting AIDS With Research”
kalvestaOctober 11, 2012 at 2:53 pm
That’s a very nice piece, David. Well done! And the song’s pretty good! Oh, and watch those apostrophes…
Jennifer TownsOctober 14, 2012 at 9:41 pm
I loved your tribute Steven. My memories of him all include his winning smile.
David MunkOctober 15, 2012 at 1:26 am
Hi Jennifer. Thank you for taking the time to say so. I was rather disappointed that so few people took the time to acknowledge. Perhaps remembering takes too much time. Of course, it’s the writer’s constant fear that the problem was the writing. David
John BalesOctober 15, 2012 at 7:07 pm
A very moving piece that comes at a special time for me. I lost my best friend to AIDS on October 27, 1989 at the age of 34, just really getting started with life. It sounds like were were both away from the one we loved: I had moved to Dallas about 8 month’s before Gordon’s death to follow my career and so wasn’t with him when he passed. I relate to what you say about not a day passing where you don’t think of the person in some way. Life was never the same for me after his passing, always this god-awful hole. So I was glad to see that you continue to celebrate Steven’s life. He may not be here but he’s never lost as long as you and others can remember.
David MunkOctober 16, 2012 at 8:05 pm
Hi John, Well thanks for digging a little deeper in my blog! Obviously, I appreciate your thoughts and I’m glad my piece resonated with you. David
veronikaOctober 10, 2013 at 3:24 pm
Tears at my desk this morning…beautifully done, David.
Michele SinowayOctober 10, 2013 at 3:27 pm
Beautiful, David. Steven was a sweetheart. and, you’re right-where the hell did that accent come from?
Rob SurruscoOctober 10, 2013 at 3:32 pm
Thank you to Phil Stern for sharing your elegy. Steven and I did most of our hanging out in grade school (Memorial) , but always remained friends throughout our high school days. I have fond memories of Steven and Red Coat Dr. His brother Howie and my brother Chris are best of friends to this day. Great to see these pictures! Smiles all around!
Suzanne Finaldi-WalshOctober 10, 2013 at 3:56 pm
What an awesome tribute. I think of my childhood often and Steve was big part of it. Thinking of both of you today.
May you continue to heal knowing he is watching over you.
Amy EricksonOctober 10, 2013 at 3:56 pm
Oh, David… that made me cry. Such a beautiful tribute to, what sounds like, an incredible man! Thank you <3
I don't think we ever get over the loss of people so dear, I lost my spectacular big bro to AIDS in June of '96 and am still missing him so much- I always will. I was touched that he moved back home from NYC and we could be with him as his days became shorter and shorter… until he passed and many siblings surrounded him.
Blessings to you and ~Peace~
David MunkOctober 12, 2013 at 12:32 pm
Hi Amy. I am so sorry to learn of the loss of your brother, especially so close to the turning point in the treatment. He must have been very brave. One of the things that really interests me in my writing is telling the story of what happened in the 1980s and early 1990s, because the tendency toward cultural amnesia has already begun to reshape the narrative for young gay people, who stand on the shoulders of your brother and Steven, enjoying the benefits of a life not circumscribed by discrimination and illness without understanding what happened just a few short years ago.
As always thank you for reading and your wonderfully supportive feedback,
Rachael Zink CraigOctober 10, 2013 at 7:50 pm
A beautifully written piece, but what I love is his love letter to you. Be well.
MarisOctober 10, 2013 at 8:04 pm
David, I am sitting here now with a smile on my face remembering Steven. Thank you. He was truly one of a kind.
Michelle (Rothbard) BlumenthalOctober 10, 2013 at 9:30 pm
I’m not sure where my sister found this, but she sent it to me via Facebook. Thanks for writing that. It really touched me. I still think of Steven as well. We were really good friends in elementary school and junior high, and then when I returned from Switzerland for our senior year in HS. I don’t know if you remember me, but I think Steven introduced us when I returned from Switzerland. Steven did my makeup for the prom (and told me to stuff my bra). I still remember our honest conversations. And I’m really sad that his life was so short.
David MunkOctober 12, 2013 at 12:27 pm
Anecdotes like yours are truly animating Steve’s personality vividly and for that I am very grateful. I’m sure that everyone else who loved this truly dynamic friend, son, brother, and, for me, soul mate, appreciates all the feedback. Thank you again for making me laugh in my grief, because your story was just so “Steven!”
Sandy UdellOctober 10, 2013 at 11:20 pm
A truly touching way to remember Steven. My heart both breaks and fills with happiness when I think of him. Thank you for bringing him back today.
Amy WeissOctober 11, 2013 at 12:37 am
I really enjoyed reading this. Steven was a great guy and will always be remembered. His sense of humor and his laughter will live on forever in our hearts.
KevOctober 11, 2013 at 3:44 am
Joe HartOctober 11, 2013 at 5:34 am
David, that is just beautiful. Thank you for sharing, and I too weep for Steven tonight.
Roni NatovOctober 11, 2013 at 1:42 pm
David, I’m in tears reading his words/your words. And you write so beautifully. Love, Cousin/Aunt Roni
Yara SternOctober 11, 2013 at 3:31 pm
This is so beautiful…Thank you!
Debbie MalagaOctober 11, 2013 at 8:09 pm
That was so well written. I have to admit David that Steven(always to me too) was my first love, first real boyfriend. At 16 he gave me a ring in the shape of a heart with a diamond on it. I will always remember the card… A heart means love and a diamond is forever, so our love will be for forever….. You can say, oh they are just words… but, back then we meant them… I loved him!
He was bright, funny and in the end was brave…I will always remember him as my first boyfriend, the years we spent together will always be a great memory, I am so happy that you have amazing memories too. You as well as I were lucky to have had special times and memories with a talented man who set trends, loved Barbra and most of all you shared an amazing friendship and love.
The day I realized that Steven was gay I remember thinking “wow, for a man who loved women so much, that is crazy!” Theater, music, dance and singing, that was Steven, so in his element.
I last saw him the summer I came home from my first year of college.(1984) He told me he was good, that he was happy, I hardly spoke to him our senior year except when one of our teachers made us work together on a Barbra Streisand project together. I think it was Mr. Chulupa. I told him how happy I was for him and that the choices he made in life were brave and courageous. I wanted to see him on Broadway one day. He laughed at me, kissed me goodbye and I never saw or spoke to him ever again.
The day he died I had 27 phone messages with people telling me to call them. Only one person was brave enough to tell me Steven had passed. I was so sad to hear of his passing, I thought of Howie and Phil, how were they going to live without their brother? How was Reva going to live without her son, her pride and joy? It saddened me so, but the memories I always had in a white and blue box from a gift he had given me once. I still have that box, the memories will always be there. I know you to have them, maybe not in a blue and white box, but to know him and to love him, that memory you will always have.
What you have written above is beautiful and from the heart, Steven was so lucky to have you in his life!!!!
David MunkOctober 12, 2013 at 12:23 pm
How can I thank you enough for sharing your story? In fact so many people have shared such wonderful things that I am completely overwhelmed. I do remember hearing about you and your name is familiar; now, in stitching together the chronology I see that our relationships with Steven were almost back to back. Does that make me a rebound or was he seeing us simultaneously? That hussy! LOL!
Seriously, I am grateful that you shared your memories and I hope you’ll stay in touch. what kind of design do you do, by the way?
Holly Fidelman WeissOctober 11, 2013 at 8:35 pm
David, I only knew Steven in a phys ed dance class at EBHS, but I am good friends with his brother Phillip through my husband Len. I feel like I know him so much better now. What an incredible way to honor and remember him. I’m touched. BTW, I graduated with Jonathan. please send him my regards.
David MunkOctober 12, 2013 at 12:17 pm
Hi Holly. Please give Lenny my best wishes and thank you for reading the blog. It means so much to me. David
Lynn WeisenfeldOctober 11, 2013 at 10:31 pm
David, Your Elegy for Steven left me with tears in my eyes. You clearly shared a rare love.,what a gift . He was a beautiful soul.
DocOctober 15, 2013 at 8:07 am
what a phenom tribute to a bright light. it awakened my heart to remembering, reliving and rejoicing in the brilliance of having known and loved such great men and women. all gone too soon to HIV/AIDS. bravo david, bravo.
Judy GoldmanNovember 6, 2013 at 9:14 pm
David -A little late to reply, but I just had the chance to read this amazing tribute to Steven. I loved every single word of it and felt the quality of your beautiful and unique love for each other shining through. It brought back memories that gave me a big smile and made me miss you so much. Great, heartfelt writing….thanks so much for sharing it with me.
shawn GoldMay 16, 2016 at 12:07 pm
Excellent, well written tribute – thanks David!
David MunkMay 16, 2016 at 2:18 pm
Thanks, Shawn. You’re just seeing this?? I look forward to reconnecting sooner than later. d