They have kept his room the same. His clothes are still folded in his drawers and his bed is made, but they keep his door closed now.
Inside his room, cards and letters line his bookshelves, and two candles glow in his windows. Those candles never go out, and they greet his parents, winking out from the windows of their son’s room.
“There is still a light on for him,” his mother Diana Istvan said of their home in Farmington Hills, Michigan. “I always look at those lights when I drive up to the house, but for some reason it’s really painful to go in there. Probably because he had just finished the room when he passed away, and it’s hard to go in there with all of his things because it just seems like he should be there.”
An A.J.’s Café hat hangs on the doorknob, embroidered with the name of their son A.J. Istvan, a 2001 Hillsdale graduate and the namesake of Hillsdale College’s A.J.’s Café.
“A.J. was the epitome of a good, solid Hillsdale student,” A.J.’s former adviser Lee Coppock, professor of economics at University of Virginia, said. “A.J. had everything. He could do anything he wanted, he was that kind of guy. Could have done anything he wanted. And then he had that stupid accident.”
In June 2005, just after sunset, A.J.’s motorcycle hit a dip in the road, and everything that could have gone right went wrong.
His motorcycle spun out of control, sending him careening into a nearby field. He had almost gotten his bike back under control when it hit something, throwing him over the handlebars. The bike landed on top of him.
Two hours later, his sister Kimberly got a call telling her that her brother was in the hospital.
“At the time, it was: he had a broken ankle, some scrapes, and was unconscious. That’s what they told me,” Kimberly Istvan said. “The unconscious thing sounded bad, but there were a lot of people trying to comfort me.”
Kimberly didn’t know the truth: It wasn’t A.J.’s ankle that was broken, it was his leg; and he wasn’t unconscious or scraped up, he was in a coma, bleeding out.
Kimberly kept trying to get a hold of her parents, but all she got was silence.
Her parents were racing to their son, flying down shadowy roads as the clock ran down toward midnight. At 11:30 p.m., they reached the hospital.
“And there he was in a coma, being kept alive by the machines,” A.J.’s father Andrew Istvan said. “It says in the Bible that there is life in the blood, and there was nothing more evident when they would give him a pint of blood. His vitals would pick right up, and as he bled out internally, the vitals went down.”
But the hospital was not equipped to deal with A.J’s injuries. A.J.’s parents tried to airvac A.J. to a larger hospital, but something — the weather, or the landing situation, they can’t remember which now — stopped them. A.J. was stuck, and the hospital was running out of blood.
“They could not fix him internally,” Andrew Istvan said. “His insides were badly…It was just tough to see this big, strapping young man who we had seen the day before, just tough.”
On June 12, 2005, A.J.’s heart stopped, and it did not restart.
“You do go into shock, and I remember the moment I did,” Diana Istvan said. “You don’t know how you are going to survive. I didn’t know how I was going to do another day, or another hour, or another heartbeat without him.”
The Istvans fell into a stupor, “shaking on the inside” and wrestling with their God.
“Everything about that accident was a fluke. You just go on and on and on with all the things that could have gone right that went wrong,” Diana Istvan said. “And you think, ‘Well, Lord, if every single thing that could have gone right went wrong, then I guess you intended for this.”
This what his parents have taken comfort in: They believe that God saw something terrible in their son’s future that he wanted to spare him, and that it is now their lot to learn to how survive without their son.
For A.J.’s sister, peace has been harder to come by. After the accident, she lost herself in a fog. The intensity of her grief has become tempered with acceptance over the years, but there are still times when she thinks of the whole stretch of life before her, and sees the big brother who will not be there to share it.
When Kimberly was scared of the dark as a kid, she didn’t go to her parents. She went to her brother, and he let her sleep on his trundle-bed, even if she annoyed him all day. And when she brought a boyfriend home for the first time, it was A.J. who acted the part of the terrifying protector.
“I wondered if my dad was going to give [my boyfriend] a hard time, but my dad couldn’t have been nicer. So I was like, it is going to be all good,” Kimberly said. “And then the gun happened.”
It was not all good: A.J. came home, sat himself down beside them, and proceeded to methodically clean his gun, looking up occasionally to flash a smile at her boyfriend.
That protective instinct didn’t always turn out too well for A.J., either. One day, while attending Hillsdale College, A.J. saw a woman crash her car, but when he ran to help her, he accidentally tore off her car door.
“And the woman was perfectly fine, she just gave him this look like: ‘You weirdo, what are you doing with my car door?’ She just got up and walked into the Dow Center, totally ignoring him,” Lecturer in Spanish Amanda Stechshulte said. “After he told the story, he called over to the barista and said ‘a white mocha please,’ and we all burst out laughing because it was a not-so-manly drink after this big manly story.”
A.J. planned to follow that protective instinct by enlisting in the Army or the Air Force Special Forces.
“I have realized that my calling is to serve in the military,” A.J. wrote in an email to Coppock. “With all that is going on in the world, I have felt like I am not doing my part as a young man to help make the world a safer and better place.”
But now, after the accident, the world is an emptier place for the Istvans. A.J.’s bear-hugs, his wry jokes, the light in his eyes, and the joy he gave them — all that is no more. They try to follow the advice of a friend, and find distractions.
“And so we work, we’re busy in the church, but at the end of the day, A.J. still isn’t here. It is sometimes hard to wait to get to heaven because we want to be with him,” Diana Istvan said. “They say that when you bury a child, you bury your future. And I think that’s true. All that might have been will not be. A marriage, a daughter-in-law, grandchildren, what he would have done with his life, the joy he would have brought us just by being here — that’s something we have to live without now.”
The Istvans live surrounded by memories now — every day, whether they are driving, playing golf, or passing restaurants, something brings A.J. back to them.
“Something will come up during the day, and we recollect and say: ‘Remember when…’ because something triggers it,” Andrew Istvan said. “It’s bittersweet. You are glad that you have those memories, that you got to spend time and do things together, but you miss the person. We wish we had more, he could life longer.”
The Istvans wanted to help other young people create new connections and new memories, and so with the help of A.J.’s friend Quinn Kiriluk, they donated A.J.’s Café.
“I know that today, twelve years after his homegoing, A.J. would be thrilled at the way people are studying together, laughing together, meeting in the café,” Diana Istvan said. “It seemed exactly like what we wanted to do in memory of A.J.— something that he he would have loved himself.”
Sometimes the Istvans just come and sit and watch people mingling in the café named after their son and take it all in. On the wall, A.J.’s picture smiles down at them. A decade has passed since his death, but his portrait is not yet darkened by age.
“On his headstone, it says ‘We’ll see him in the morning,’” Andrew Istvan said. “So we will. Because this life goes by quickly, very quickly.”