May-June 2020

Love & tragedy

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

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About two weeks after she arrived in Molokai, Jeffanie flew home with her family. Waiting in the McLean apartment that she and Stephen had planned to share were unopened boxes of his and piles of mail, a mix of congratulatory wedding notes and condolences. Jeffanie would not be returning to work for another two weeks. She had a funeral to plan.

Jeffanie says God pulled her through those dark times, though she acknowledges her faith was tested when Stephen died. “I felt like I was being asked: Do you still believe in God or not?” she says. “But I know God is here.”

She says the signs have been there all along. She saw God at work when private scholarships came through in desperate financial times, when mentors guided her on school and her career, when the locals on Molokai embraced her, when her in-laws bonded with her like a daughter, and when her green card came through in December 2019 after two decades of uncertainty.

Jeffanie also felt God’s presence when mourners gathered for Stephen’s funeral on Sept. 29, 2018, at Christ Our Shepherd Church on Capitol Hill, his lifelong place of worship, she says.

At the service, Stephen’s friends spoke about his love of the guitar, his passion for Frisbee and skateboarding tricks, his quest to solve a Rubik’s cube as fast as humanly possible, and his antics. “When I cut my hair, I think of the first time he came back [from the Navy] and had shaved his head,” said Marco Mayo, a childhood friend. “He begged me to let him shave mine, which I did.”

Stephen’s father, John Kramar, said the second oldest of his four children was a deep thinker from an early age. As a child, Stephen was the one to interrupt a bedtime story when a detail didn’t fit in, the first to get depressed on Christmas afternoon because it meant having to wait a full year for the next one. And he never bought into the Santa Claus story. When his mother, Connie, shared it with him, “he just looked at her like she was crazy, and said: ‘uh-uh,’ ” John said.

But his love of God stood out as the recurring theme. As a kid, the highlight of Stephen’s year was an annual overnight service camp sponsored by his church, John said. In high school, he returned to the camp as a counselor and enjoyed connecting and praying with the kids. He developed a habit of keeping a list on his phone of people he prayed for, people that God had healed, because it reminded him of God’s power, his father said. Stephen struggled academically, bouncing around from school to school. Without a college degree, his career choices were limited, but he wasn’t interested in an office job anyway. Stephen never tied success to money and material possessions, his father said. Everything he owned could pretty much fit in his car. His dream was to live in a van and travel the country.

“Other than Jesus, the best thing that ever happened in Stephen’s life was Jeffanie,” John said at his son’s funeral. “It is a rare woman who would not immediately run if a man told her that his life’s dream was to live out of a van.” The church erupted in laughter. “They were good for each other spiritually.”

Jeffanie says she believes with all her heart that Stephen is experiencing more joy in heaven than he ever did on Earth.

After their wedding ceremony, Stephen told Jeffanie how happy he was that they had the rest of their lives together. But she told him what he already knew, that life on Earth was short, that what matters is the eternal life with Jesus. “Promise me that you’ll be my friend in heaven, whether I check in first or you check in first,” she told him. “Promise me that we’ll unite as souls.”

He cried, and he promised.

Dina ElBoghdady spent more than two decades as a journalist at several newspapers, most recently The Washington Post.