This month, Stephanie (Brown) Kuehl should have had her 46th birthday with her 21-old-daugher, Zadie, and her 19-year-old son, Thomas, by her side. And though, 46 isn’t typically a “big” celebration, it’s another reminder of the normal, every day, little and big celebrations of which the Brown and Kuehl families have been robbed…
It was Friday, May 30, 1997. The youngest Brown sister, Carmen, was getting married the next day so there was a lot going on for the family. Twenty-four-year-old Stefanie, who was three months pregnant with her son, Thomas, had been at their grandmother’s house that cool, rainy, Friday afternoon with her 6-month-old daugter, Zadie. Stefanie strapped Zadie into her car seat in the backseat and they left for her parents’ house to attend the rehearsal dinner.
The pastor, friends, bridal party, and the rest of the family including Stefanie’s and Carmen’s sister, Denise, was already there. Denise says everyone thought it odd that Stefanie and Zadie had not arrived yet. One of the bridal party mentioned seeing a horrible wreck about a mile away at the corner of Canada Road and Highway 64. But they sat down to dinner expecting Stefanie to walk in at any moment. Instead, Stefanie’s husband, Greg, literally fell through the kitchen door. He looked at Stefanie’s dad, Dave, and said, “She’s dead, Dave. She’s dead.”
No one wanted to believe it. Dave called a friend from the Tennessee Highway Patrol who confirmed there had been a fatality in the crash down the street. Stefanie’s Saturn had been broadsided and hit so hard that it was sent airborne and bent almost in two. Carmen and Denise held their father while he cried, “My baby. My poor baby.” They watched their mom kick into gear cancelling food, flowers, and guests for a wedding that was supposed to have happenend in a few hours as they all rushed to the hospital to be with Zadie who was now on life support. They lost Zadie the next day. The infant who should have been a big sister in a few short months became an organ donor.
They later found out, the driver who hit Stefanie and Zadie was driving on a revoked license and was on his way to serve a weekend sentence at the Shelby County Penal Farm for a previous DUI. He was driving approximately 76-80 mph when he hit them with a BAC of .22.
Denise says the enormity of the loss took awhile to sink in. Stefanie was the one who always took care of everyone. She was always looking out for the underdog. She was strong (She had Zadie by natural childbirth and only uttered one small whimper.), beautiful, and had a sweet smile. She loved her husband, her family, and her friends. Denise recalls that Stefanie was turning prematurely grey and they were “having fun” with that. “She was my best friend until she was ripped away.”
Even today, “I can run into an old friend, and my first thought is to call Stefanie and tell her,” Denise says. “It can be a song, the slant of the sun, or a picture that sends me back in time and brings a smile and tears at the same time.”
Stefanie had worked as a microprocessor at International Paper. She enjoyed her job, but it was really the people she worked with that mattered the most to her. She loved to decorate offices and cubicles and bake cakes for birthdays. She was the kind of person to show she cared and make people feel special.
She attended church and never missed a family celebration. She was a great mom! She and Greg were anxiously awaiting the birth of their son, Thomas Sterling, in December 1997. But the day they were scheduled to go to the doctor to hear Thomas’ heartbeat for the first time, was the day they buried her.
Denise shares, “She touched so many, and influenced so many, just by being the person she was. Anyone who knew her, truly knew that angels exist among us.”