There were three wishes Randy Stephens requested at a time when he was considering the chance he could die.
He never wanted his parents to sell his prized Ford Mustang.
He wanted his family to fight childhood cancer forever.
And he wanted to marry Emily, a lady he met and fell in love with during his battle.
That was it. Three wishes.
At the age of 15 he was diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma, and when he asked the doctor if he were going to be OK, the gentleman replied, “I can’t tell you that right now.” It wasn’t because of genetics or his penchant for golfing or the fact he was born with a club foot that underwent reconstruction. Cancer just found him for no apparent reason, and by the time doctors finally figured out the cause for his pain in his left hip, the evilness had spread to his lungs.
Randy was a thinker despite his youthfulness, and his grades were great; he loved playing sports – especially golf – and he adored his tight-knit family of four and his girlfriend, Emily Megna. When he was confronted with a disease from which far more die than survive, his wisdom quickly grew beyond his teen-age years.
“I believe that happiness is the key to life. For without it, I am taking the living out of life. It all begins in the mind. Because if it doesn’t come from within, you will go without.”
Randy wrote that, and yes, he composed the poem at a time when his color was bad, his slender stature had regressed to skinny, and after he had stopped taking his days for granted. He spent the majority of his high school years at UPMC Children’s Hospital in Pittsburgh, and he made many friends for two main reasons:
- The television in his room was always on ESPN because he never wanted to watch any of those sappy shows his mother watched often.
- He was a conversationalist concerning the topics that traveled far past the highlights and sports scores.
When I met with Randy’s mother, Liz Stephens, and his sister, Leigh Ann, they wanted me to watch the video of Randy and Emily’s wedding. The respirator was removed because time would be limited; then vows were read; and just when it was time for Randy to say, “I do,” he communicated the only way he could following a stroke that robbed him of his ability to communicate verbally.
Randy squeezed Emily’s hand, and he squeezed it hard. He then smiled at Emily when they were pronounced husband and wife. Randy was really there and really realizing one of his wishes had come true as he defied the odds yet again. It was a moment of peace, of happiness, and also of finality. The wedding was on Feb. 21, 2013, and Randy passed away, surrounded by his family, at 6:50 a.m. four days later.
“For whatever reasons one of Randy’s favorite phrases was, ‘It’s always darkest before the dawn,’ and it was something that I had heard most of Randy’s battle,” said Liz. “But a couple of months after Randy passed away, I noticed that on Feb. 25, the dawn in Pittsburgh took place that day at 6:50 a.m., so … .”
As word of his passing spread through the hospital, Randy’s friends began visiting his room. They were friends his parents did not realize he had made.
“They all came to see him to pay their respects,” Liz said. “Everyone from the janitor to his doctors and his nurses. He had made connections with all of these people, and we never really knew that for sure until then.
“When the Nailers were on sale, he was their number one salesman because all he did was try to convince doctor after doctor to buy them so he could help save them for the people of Wheeling,” she said. “We later found out that he spent a lot of his time, even when he was going through all of the treatments, trying to help others in any way he could.”
It Was After that First Chemo Treatment
Randy wasn’t happy, and he was confused. He was asking the question he deserved to be asking, especially those of the “Why me?” variety.
He was pissed, and he wasn’t looking forward to his initial treatment of chemotherapy. He had heard so many bad things, most of which were true.
“His attitude changed after that first time, though,” said Liz. “I think it set in, and then he made a decision to do what he always did, and that was to stand up to a challenge and fight.
“When he was getting ready to go to Wheeling Park for his freshman year, he wanted to make the golf team so much, but he knew that not a lot of freshmen made the team,” she recalled. “So he played every day so he could improve enough to make the team, and Randy made that team. He was determined to do the same with cancer.”
Randy explained his endearment for his favorite quotation, though, on his Care Pages on March 25, 2010:
Well, one quote I’ve heard so many times: “It’s always darkest before the dawn.” I thought I understood those simple six words, but what I’ve learned after five months in the “darkness” is that a dawn could never be more beautiful. All that you have to go off of at this point is that this “dawn” is on its way, and I fear for those who cannot put faith into believing that this is true. With treatment five over halfway in the books, I can see that halftime is all but here. So far from what I can tell, and along with the doctor, that the first half score is Us: 1 Ewings: 0. Now this fight is nowhere near over, and many things can and will happen, but I’m blessed to say we’ve made it nearly halfway without huge problems. I can’t thank those around me enough for I have so many people without whom I could not and would not have made it this far this strong. Now the darkness only seems to get darker as we get farther in, but, “It’s always darkest before the dawn.” – A very thankful Randy Stephens
Troy was “his boy,” and yes by Troy I mean retired Pittsburgh Steeler Troy Polamalu. Randy also met the likes of Sydney Crosby and several other members of the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Stephens family, in fact, was transported to Dallas in February 2011 for Super Bowl XLV between the Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers. Randy, in remission at the time and restarting his life, met everybody there was to meet that weekend thanks to the Make a Wish Foundation, but something was different upon the family’s return to Wheeling.
“It had nothing to do with the fact that the Steelers lost to the Packers. I just think he was done after that; I think his curiosity about events and people like that were answered by that trip,” Liz said. “I think when we got home, he moved on to other things.
“Because he was in remission then, he was ready to get to living after spending a year straight in the hospital with the treatments and the hip surgery,” she continued. “He was all about moving forward and spending time with Emily and the rest of us. For a little while, he got his life back.”
The Stephens family also was able to take a beach vacation for the first time in a few years, and Emily traveled with the family, too. During the last two days of the trip, though, Randy complained of a headache, and after an examination it was discovered that the bone cancer returned to his skull after only five months in remission. Randy underwent another round of the grueling treatments and reached remission status once again.
But for only four months. When learning his third diagnosis, he was told he was terminal and had less than a year to live. The final fight lasted 2.5 months, but Randy went to school for an hour a day and continued attending Wheeling Nailers games as long as he had the strength.
Randy wanted people to laugh at his funeral. He wanted it to be a celebration of life and not a sad farewell to his life, and he asked his sister to make sure that happened four days before his stroke.
Leigh Ann, a 2013 graduate of West Liberty University (speech pathology) and is soon to earn her graduate degree in communication disorders from Marshall University, delivered, too. During Randy’s “Celebration of Life” service she spoke to those in attendance and told them silly tales that only a sister can tell, and even today the laughter echoes in her memories.
“When something like that happens, you lose your identity,” she said. “I still consider myself his big sister, only now I am taking care of him by carrying on his legacy to make sure people remember him.
“It was a turning point in my life because of how close we were. We were always each other’s biggest supporter no matter what we were doing,” she continued. “I know any relationship I have in my life will never come close to the one I had with my brother.”
Emily is a student at West Virginia University and studying abroad this summer, and she continues to be friends with the Stephens family.
“Our hearts are filled with love and gratitude for Emily,” Liz said. “She loved Randy and was there for him through the darkest hours, holding his hand until the very end.
“She was put in his life to give him exactly what he needed, and we couldn’t be more thankful,” she said. “That’s pretty amazing for a 16-year-old.”
His Fight Is Now Their Fight
Liz remembers little of the funeral home or the funeral itself, and she admits that she’s not taken very good care of herself since. Her grief and sadness have led to many days of staying in bed and missing her beloved son. There’s a void, nothing can fill it, and only a parent who has buried a child can truly relate to her angst, depression, and despair.
“You lose interest in the rest of the world when something like that takes place,” Liz said. “The light goes out, and now I don’t like big events. I don’t like happy occasions. We don’t say the word, ‘happy,’ and we don’t say, ‘Merry Christmas,’ or ‘Happy Birthday,’ either.
“Life is empty,” she continued. “I remember when we got home after Randy was given his diagnosis, he came to me and told that he knows he’s really in trouble because he saw his dad cry. That wasn’t something anyone in our family was used to seeing because my husband has always been an optimist.”
But Liz and Randy Sr. still own Randy’s Ford Mustang. It’s red, it’s beautiful, and his parents cruise in it sometimes on Sundays.
And the Stephens family also has decided to begin their fight, as they promised, against childhood cancer. On Aug. 22, the Inaugural Randy Stephens Jr. Memorial Golf Scramble will take place at the Fairview River Links Golf Course in Rayland, Ohio. The 18-hole track was Randy’s favorite, and the goal is twofold:
- To supply a scholarship to a senior member of the Wheeling Park High golf team.
- To provide gas/gift cards and assistance to children and their families who are battling childhood cancer.
“Finally, this past May we decided that we wanted to do something to honor him and to continue his fight against this disease,” Liz explained. “At first I didn’t want to do a golf scramble because we have so many around the Valley already, but then I had to consider how much Randy loved playing golf.
“One of his best days was when he returned to Wheeling Park’s golf team his senior year after he had part of his hip removed because of the cancer,” she recalled. “He was so happy that day that I knew this was the right thing to do in his honor.”
“Since Randy passed away,” Leigh Ann said, “there’s been no hope for anything good. But now with the scramble, there seems to be hope again because we’re getting the chance to remember him and getting the chance to help others. That’s a big deal for me.”
Sponsorship opportunities are available to those interested in participating, and the cost for a foursome to play in the scramble is $220 and includes green fees and the cart as well as lunch, dinner, and hole and door prizes. Elm Grove Dodge will put up a Jeep Wrangler as a prize on one of the Par-3 holes, and the first-place team will win $200. Those interested in golfing or sponsoring the memorial golf scramble can do so by contacting Liz at 304-277-1352 or Richard Cross at 304-277-4559.
“It’s time to get this fight going,” said Liz. “We spent a lot of time being sad, but now it’s time to honor our son by fighting back against what took him from us. We just want to try and make a difference in his honor.
“This is the first year, so we are learning as we go along, but thankfully I have met a lot of people who have been willing to offer a lot of advice and a lot of help,” she continued. “Jody Miller is an incredible person, and she has been a great help beyond what I could ever hope for.”
Miller, who is the co-founder of the Heather Miller Memorial Golf Scramble in honor of her daughter who was killed in a drinking-and-driving incident in Wheeling on March 25, 2008, is also the founder of Wheeling’s chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
“She has taught me much more than just about golf scrambles,” Liz said. “Jody has shown a lot of people in this area how to battle back against something that took your child away from you so you can save other parents the same pain you have felt. She’s a true inspiration.
“It’s an unnatural loss when you lose a child. It’s not supposed to happen like that, and she’s experienced this, too,” she added. “But now, two years later, we’re strong enough to stand up and do this scramble for our son. Randy only had three wishes, and we’re going to make them all come true.”