The most obvious thing missing at Stephen Dante Holland’s funeral this morning was his magnificent, all-encompassing smile.
Everyone who rose to speak about Steve during that memorial service mentioned it—and with good reason. You couldn’t walk into the Borrower Services area of San Francisco’s Main Library, where he worked for 20 years, without feeling the warmth of that smile and the generous personality and spirit behind it. You couldn’t have even the briefest of conversations with him without feeling as if you had been drawn under the protection of an all-encompassing force that seemed to melt any sadness and ephemeral concerns you had faster than an ice cream cone melts on a hot summer day.
It was the kind of smile that always felt genuine. Heartfelt. Drawn from some deep inner core. And capable of making everyone around him want to smile back—which is quite an achievement for someone working in public service and often facing all sorts of unhappy people with all sorts of complaints. But that’s just one of many parts of Steve that made him so special. So cherished. And now, so obviously missed.
So, how do we cope with that moment when the phone call arrives telling us that a 43-year-old friend/colleague/source of inspiration has suddenly, unexpectedly been taken from our lives because of a health problem many of us never knew he had? We gather, as so many of us did this morning, to tell and hear stories that deepen our understanding of just how magnificent he was, and just how much we have lost. We hear that he moved, with his mother, from Memphis to the San Francisco Bay Area when he was eight years old. We hear from a Riordan High School classmate about the time Steve ignored a coach’s plan and ended up scoring for his team—then incurring a penalty because of his exuberant behavior in the end zone after scoring that touchdown just because he happened to be in the right place at the right time to catch and run with a ball that unexpectedly remained in play. We hear about how this most gentle of men stepped in to help a high-school-aged niece at a time of need and ended up scaring the bejeezus out of everyone on her campus. (And no, we can’t imagine someone like Steve being the least bit frightening, so the story only makes us laugh that much harder at a time when we so desperately need to laugh.)
There are the stories about his love of children—the five he and his wife, Shari, raised during their 25 years together, and the more than 25 foster children they took in over the years (the last of whom was scheduled to return to her own mother the day Steve passed away).
“Steve, being the loving gentle soul that he was, didn’t mind having the children underfoot,” we are told in what had to be one of the greatest smile-inducing understatements included in the eulogy delivered in that San Francisco Mission District church that all-too-briefly served as sanctuary for so many of us this morning.
Looking around the standing-room-only space during the two-hour gathering gave us a reminder of what one person accomplishes in creating and nurturing family and community. We saw the obvious extended-family core of Steve’s family there. We saw what was referred to as his “library family”—a group of which I was proud to remain even though I formally left to pursue other endeavors more than seven years ago (and I note, in tribute to Steve, that I wasn’t the only former library employee to push everything else aside this morning to join the community which held him at its center).
All of which makes me ask the obvious question: what did we learn from Steve, and what can we continue to do to make the sort of positive difference Steve made in the lives of all he touched? And the obvious answer comes from that same deep place from which Steve seemed to draw that smile of his: we take a deep breath, look as deeply within ourselves as we can, and find a way to pass along our own version of his genuine, heartfelt, all-encompassing smile and warmth to all we see. And, as I once again discovered during the brief walk from a subway station to that Mission District church in the San Francisco autumn-morning sun, it was the greatest tribute I could pay to Steve. For even though my heart was aching from the loss I feel and I wanted to do little more than let pent-up tears flow freely, I found a way to pass on smiles which, in turn, drew smiles from nearly all of those I passed.
It doesn’t make me miss him less; I already know, from all-too-many losses, that we never stop missing those who are no longer physically with us. But it does remind me, as the minister reminded us so many times during the service, that we’re all eventually headed where Steve has already gone. And the best lesson we can learn from those who have preceded us is that a shared smile is one of the greatest gifts we can create and offer others—and the best way to keep their spirits and their contributions alive.