Though Christian Stilwell was in the audience for his high school's production of "Les Miserables" on April 14, you could just as easily find him on any number of stages.
Described by loved ones as a natural leader, the 17-year-old was junior class president and a music student at Dundee-Crown High School in Carpentersville. He was active in his church and had performed in 20 Christian Youth Theater productions.
So it was fitting that, after his stunning death a few days later, Stilwell would again be center stage. In front of a banner bearing his name in big red letters, surrounded by words like talented, humble and kind, the "Les Miserables" cast joined members of Christian Youth Theater of McHenry County to sing the musical's finale in Stilwell's memory.
Stilwell died in his sleep in his Algonquin home the night after attending the school musical. His mother, Denise Velazquez Stilwell, found him unresponsive when she went to wake him on April 15.
The death of someone so young and seemingly healthy, aside from the migraine headaches he suffered, shocked friends and loved ones, well more than 1,000 of whom attended Stilwell's funeral at Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington.
"He was really happy all the time," said friend Sophie Murk, 15, of Huntley. "Every time I would see him, he treated me like I was really special to him. … He did that with everyone."
Sophie, who had been in theater with Stilwell since she was 9, was preparing to join him in Christian Youth Theater's "Godspell." Instead, Sophie and the rest of the cast sang "All Good Gifts" from the show at his funeral.
"There are people who go through life just focusing on what they want and their dreams. … He focused on everyone else while he focused on his dreams, and he had huge dreams for himself," Sophie said.
Stilwell, who had made some college visits over spring break, aspired to be an event planner, his mother said.
"It would have been great to see what he would have done," she said.
After weeks of waiting for the results of final tests to determine how Stilwell died, his family learned that he had suffered a seizure in his sleep, caused by a cystic lesion on the right side of his brain that had gone undetected.
McHenry County Deputy Coroner Kim Bostic said there was no way of knowing Stilwell had the lesion, when it developed or what caused it. And because no one ever knew he had it, there was no way to prevent his death.
Velazquez Stilwell said she had taken her son to many doctors' appointments over the years for his migraines. But, she said, the doctors never indicated they were anything more than typical migraines for a teenage boy. She said that, "like any kid," her son fell off bikes and had his share of bumps and bruises. But there was never any injury serious enough to require an ambulance or trip to the doctor.
Dr. Lawrence Robbins is a neurologist who runs an adolescent headache center in Northbrook. Though he did not treat Stilwell, nor had he been familiar with his case, Robbins said the migraines and the lesion could quite possibly been unrelated.
"Sometimes what happens is people can have migraines and then be that 1 out of 10,000 people who also have a serious medical issue such as a tumor," Robbins said.
Because Stilwell, who was born in Paraguay, was adopted when he was a baby, his parents' knowledge of his medical history is limited.
But had his mother known he had the brain lesion, she said she's not sure if she would have raised her son any differently.
"It would have been hard to keep him from doing anything," she said. "He wasn't a person who was just going to sit out on life. That wasn't him."
Stilwell, who also had a brother, Luke, 13, was working to put together a leadership conference for Dundee-Crown students called "Build a Bridge." His mother said he was inspired by a similar program he attended at the University of California at Los Angeles last year called "People to People."
Velazquez Stilwell said he already had speakers lined up and was scouting locations in Lake Geneva where he could hold the conference at a reasonable price for students. His friends have vowed to finish the project for him.
The family has set up the Christian Stilwell Scholarship, which will be awarded to two members of the Dundee-Crown High class of 2012, with whom Stilwell would have graduated. The family also plans to donate funds to establish an annual scholarship to a Christian Youth Theater graduate. Funds can be donated at Harris Bank locations.
Stillwell's father, Larry Stilwell, said the fund has already collected more than $15,000, a testament to the impact his son made in his short life.
"Anytime we went out, he would run into someone he knew," his father said. "When he was little he had an uncanny ability to relate to adults. I think he was just able to connect with people and encourage people."
Velazquez Stilwell said she has found comfort in her Christian beliefs.
"It was God's will," she said of her son's unexpected death. "He went to sleep and woke up in the arms of Jesus."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times