Jennifer Stark thought she was meeting with her son’s girlfriend at Tony’s Cafe to catch up – maybe talk about how much they miss Tyler Stark, a 19-year-old Marine stationed in Hawaii.
The Crystal Lake South High School graduate last left the island base to visit home in December for Christmas. He told his mom he wouldn’t be home again until Thanksgiving – almost a year down the road.
Little did she know, Tyler Stark arrived Sunday morning at Tony’s Cafe 30 minutes before she did.
The bright, trim military man was in the back, waiting for the perfect opportunity to surprise his mom.
Meanwhile, 45-year-old Jennifer Stark sat a table with Tyler’s girlfriend, Kelly Splitt, and her mother, Tabitha Splitt, who reserved the table at Tony’s Cafe two weeks earlier.
She ordered a Sante Fe omelet and did what people who play catch-up do.
“How do you like your new job?” Jennifer Stark asked Kelly Splitt, who loves her new job. “That’s good, that’s good.”
The conversation got cut short when Tyler Stark walked into the restaurant and sat down at the table.
Jennifer Stark’s jaw dropped, and her eyes widened. She laughed at the silliness of her son’s surprise appearance.
Her laughs soon turned to tears as she and Tyler hugged.
Kelly Splitt and her mother knew about Tyler Stark’s return for two weeks. Kelly’s father picked him up from the airport Saturday night.
“We wanted to make it a little bit of a surprise,” Tabitha Splitt said.
“He pulled it off,” Jennifer Stark said. “I was totally surprised because he said he wouldn’t be able to come home until November.”
The toughest part about having an only son in the military is the distance, Jennifer Stark said.
Tyler Stark graduated from South last year. When he decided to join the military, it came as a shock to his mother.
“We were talking about different colleges that he wanted to go to,” she said. “I didn’t want to be the mom to be like, ‘Oh, no. You can’t join.’ ”
Jennifer Stark said a big part of her son’s decision to join the Marines was seeing an opportunity to see the world beyond Crystal Lake.
Tyler Stark will be in Crystal Lake for the next week until he travels the 4,200 miles back to his base in Kaneohe Bay.
The plan is simple, he said: “Spend time with friends and family.”
After Jennifer Stark regained her composure, Tony’s Cafe owner John Zimka walked up to the table.
“He got you,” Zimka said, a hand on her shoulder.
“Yes, he did,” the mother said, sitting next to her only son once again.