May-June 2020

Love & tragedy

For Jeffanie Rantung-Kramar, what was supposed to be a honeymoon in paradise turned into unimaginable heartbreak

share this
Jeffanie pictured in March at The Universities at Shady Grove in Rockville, where she took college courses toward her degree from the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. Photo by Lisa Helfert

Jeffanie and Stephen planned to meet at a Panera in Rockville, in the apartment building where she worked. She’d been cramming for exams that week, preparing for graduation, and hadn’t washed her hair in days, so she suggested rescheduling. The texts between them read something like this:
Maybe we should meet after the holiday rush, she wrote.

Why, are you feeling sick?

Um, no, well, I just don’t look so “dashing.”

That’s when she realized she wanted to look good for Stephen, and now he knew that, too. Don’t go down this road, she told herself. You don’t have time. She needed to reroute the conversation, so she resolved to cast their get-together as a business meeting. She suggested working with him on his resume, and showed up in her work suit and big eyeglasses with a laptop in hand. The first words out of Stephen’s mouth: “Are we here for a tutoring session?”

The conversation flowed from there—for more than four hours. Jeffanie learned that Stephen didn’t care much for academics. He worked some odd jobs after graduating from Rockville’s Thomas S. Wootton High School in 2010 and took a few courses at Montgomery College before serving in the Navy for two years, first in Pensacola, Florida, then San Diego. She also learned they were both Christian. Stephen had spent the better part of the previous year at a discipleship training program, first in Denver and then in Lebanon and Greece. “He was very spiritual,” she says. “He had a real passion for missionary work, and that’s the kind of work he wanted to do.” But he was in limbo, exploring his options.

It was during their second outing a few days later, while they were browsing through museums at the National Mall, that she told him she didn’t have time for a “normal” relationship that involved dinner and movies. A relationship with her would be nothing more than quick coffee breaks—unless he stopped in at her various jobsites, she joked.

At 7 a.m. the next morning, he showed up for her double shift at the apartment building and kept her company for 16 hours. It became their thing. On New Year’s Day, he showed up again, with coffee and some pancakes his mother had made. “I teared up when I saw him,” Jeffanie says. “I thought, this guy is the real thing.”

Nine months later they were married in a small outdoor ceremony at an upscale Falls Church restaurant. She wore a traditional Indonesian batik and kebaya wedding dress, and he had on a black suit with purple and white orchids pinned to his lapel. They had a reception that evening in a party room at a Rockville apartment building. As the festivities came to an end, guests locked hands to form a tunnel, and before Stephen ran through it with his new bride, he turned to his brother and best man, Gavin, and hugged him, a wide smile on his face. Gavin carries that memory with him.
“What makes this tragedy so remarkable is how things went from very good to very bad, very quickly,” Gavin says. “Everyone was left confused, unsure how to pick up the pieces.”