I have to interrupt my series of posts about Florence today to write a post that I didn’t expect to be writing for a few years yet.
My dear friend, Stephanie Figueroa (née Benning) passed away early this morning after, to my understanding, hitting an unexpected bump in her battle with cancer. She was 40. Stephanie leaves behind her husband, Ricardo, their daughters Johanna (12) and Jenna (8), as well as her parents and older brother.
I met Stephanie in high school when I moved to Timmins in 1989, and by the end of that year she was a part of my core group of friends (well, really, I was the new guy; I became part of their group). Indeed, she was arguably the central member, coordinating most of our activities. The circle of about eight guys and girls was tightly bonded by all the dramas of teenage life, from school to parties to relationships (within and outside the group), movies, cars, and everything else over my last three years of high school, set to a soundtrack consisting largely of what was even then classic rock. Stephanie’s house (where Christine also lived) was one of our regular hangouts, and the occasional summer weekends at her parents’ cottage were memorable highlights.
When our high school days ended, everyone went their separate ways—except Stephanie and me; we both went to Queen’s University. While I studied engineering, Stephanie worked on a concurrent B.A./B.Ed. program, so we didn’t see each other as much. But we crossed paths regularly, and her circle of friends had a lot in common with mine. One summer, I boarded at her house in Timmins for a couple months. Ultimately, we were each other’s date for our respective senior-year formals.
At the time Stephanie graduated, opportunities for teachers in Ontario were few and far between. Like many of her classmates, Stephanie looked for work overseas. Unlike many of her colleagues, however, she took a job teaching at Panamerican School in Bucaramanga, Colombia. Pretty exotic, and pretty bold for someone who didn’t, to my knowledge, speak a word of Spanish at the time.
We kept up via email. I don’t remember all of the details, but I think the first year (or was it a two-year contract?) was pretty rough. Between homesickness, a bout of dengue fever, and some other challenges, there were some pretty low moments. But, she’d met a guy, and I promised that if she were still there the next year, I’d visit. I have no idea whether my promise had anything to do with it, but Stephanie re-upped and in 1999 she and Ricardo showed me around Bogotá and Bucaramanga. While we were in Bogotá, Ricardo took a little while to acquire some emeralds in the market there for Stephanie’s engagement ring.
Stephanie and Ricardo moved to Canada a short while later, and I was happy to be part of the wedding party when they were married in North Bay on July 1, 2000. Both found employment in their chosen fields near Toronto, and bought a house in Caledon.
I last saw Stephanie (and Ricardo) at my own wedding in 2012. I’ll never forget them racing up the road to beat the bridal limousine to the ceremony.
Not long after the wedding Stephanie was diagnosed with breast cancer. After undergoing a series of treatments they thought it was beaten, but the cancer was found in her brain, lungs, and bones early this spring. This week, she caught an infection in her lungs that was more than she could handle.
At cards, Stephanie was the Queen of Spades, and among friends she could trade innuendos with the best. I will always remember her as eternally friendly and sincere, with a perpetually positive attitude and a quick smile.
I don’t know what Stephanie’s favourite song was these days, but for at least one memorable night back in high school it was Hotel California, so it seems appropriate to paraphrase the Eagles: You may have checked out too soon, Stephanie, but you can never leave our hearts.