6:00 am. The time when the sound of a ringing phone carries a foreboding tone and jolts you out of a restless sleep. As I lay there trying to sort out in my mind if I was dreaming or if the phone was actually ringing I felt this tremendous dread. I pulled the covers over my head, hoping it would stop. It did stop for a while. Then a few minutes later it started ringing again and somehow it sounded even more urgent. No! This can’t be happening! I cried to myself. I knew in my heart and in my soul that once I got up to answer that call my life was never going to be the same again.
Drawing the covers closer and barely breathing I heard the phone ring for the third time in ten minutes. I finally got the courage to slip out of the covers, stand on my feet and walk down the hall to my husband’s office to pick up the phone. By the time I got there, the ringing had stopped again. There were no messages so I pushed the button to see who the insistent caller was. As soon as the number popped up, I started to tremble; it was my brother and sister-in-law’s home number in North Carolina. My son, Robbie was there visiting. A wave of fear engulfed me as my trembling hands pushed the call back button and I heard the voice of my sister-in-law, Kim answer. Struggling to control my emotions and my breath, my voice cracked as I tried to sound calm. Hi Kim, it’s Nancy. Were you trying to call us? Is everything all right?
Nancy, Robbie’s gone! I heard her cry out.
What do you mean he’s gone? Where did he go? I asked, trying to deny what I knew deep inside.
He’s dead. Robbie died! My body and mind went numb. I could hear someone screaming a painful, haunting scream. In an instant, my husband, Rob, was in the room with a look of fear on his face. Then I realized that the mournful scream was coming from me!
That day is a blur, but I do know that in a matter of minutes we were surrounded by friends and family offering their love and support. The news spread quickly, and soon other friends and family members who lived farther away were calling to say they were on their way to be with us.
Our next-door neighbours, Jim and Kathie Foster, were the first people to come to our aid. For the past twenty years, they had been like family to us and to our kids. As we all hugged each other Jim asked, Does Jaclyn know yet?
Oh my God! I sobbed as I looked at Rob, How are we going to tell our daughter? Jim volunteered to drive to the condo that Robbie shared with his sister and bring her back to the house. Neither my husband nor I at that point were capable of driving and we certainly didn’t want to deliver this kind of news to Robbie’s sister over the phone.
Although Jaclyn was the eldest of our children by almost two years, she always referred to Robbie as her ˜little big brother’ mainly because of the difference in their sizes she a mere 5’2 and Robbie an athletic 6’2”but also because she had always looked up to him. Jaclyn was an extreme preemie at birth, weighing in at 1 pound 11 ounces, and growing up she’d had to overcome many obstacles and challenges. It had seemed natural to Robbie to take on the role of big brother, watching over his little sister, protecting her, defending her and including her as much as possible in his social life. Jaclyn adored her brother and having to tell her that her best friend was suddenly gone was going to be heart wrenching for her and us.
The front door opened and Jim guided Jaclyn inside. She was so frightened that she needed help taking each step. When she saw Rob and me sitting on the sofa she ran over and hugged us tightly. With tears streaming down her face she cried, I thought something awful happened to you or dad. Mr. Foster wouldn’t tell me anything. He just said you needed to see me right away. Are you guys okay? What is going on?
We held Jaclyn close to keep her as calm as possible and then sat down together. We got a call from your aunt Kim early this morning and something happened to Robbie last night.
Is Robbie hurt? Jaclyn immediately shouted.
No, honey. I replied softly, We don’t know exactly what happened but¦ Robbie passed away during the night. Your uncle found him sitting in a chair in the den first thing this morning. That’s all we know right now. I said not even believing the words that were coming out of my mouth. The look in Jaclyn’s eyes said it all: she was in shock. After crying together and more hugs our friends stepped in to help and surrounded Jaclyn with their love and hugs.
As more people arrived to comfort and console us, I found myself becoming more and more detached, as if I was watching everything unfold in slow motion from outside my body. My head felt strange; dizzy and dreamlike, as if I couldn’t quite get my bearings. I was aware of moving from room to room, trying to smile and be gracious, intent on acknowledging everyone and thanking them for their support. Then suddenly I didn’t know where I was; everything stopped and went blank”not that I actually passed out, it was more like I just checked out for a while. The next thing I realized was that someone was handing me a paper bag to breathe into and the Fire Department and Paramedics were standing and kneeling all around me. The Paramedics were wonderful and suggested that the best place for me was home, surrounded by my loved ones, not in a hospital. My husband and I agreed and I rested on the couch.
It’s very hard to think straight when you are in shock, and I was truly in shock. But I knew one thing for certain: I needed to see my son. As Rob sat next to me on the couch, I looked into his eyes with tears streaming down my cheeks. Please! I begged while clutching on to his arm, You have to bring Robbie home. I have to be able to say ˜goodbye’. Please bring him home. I know Robbie always said he wanted to be cremated and we will honor his wishes, but I need some time with my son first.
In times of serious trouble, I’ve always looked to Rob to be my knight, to save the day. He is my anchor, and he uses his love and intelligence to keep me grounded and walking in the right direction. But he, too was having to work very hard to keep it together. I knew he was going to have to dig deep to find the strength to be able to navigate us both through the tough decisions that needed to be handled right away. Now, almost selfishly, I was asking him to make these unbelievable gut-wrenching arrangements to bring his son’s body home. Rob understood and gave me a hug. Don’t worry, I will take care of it. He reassured me.
As Rob walked out of the room his dear friend, Jim Maestri, looked at him and asked, What can I do? Jim has been Rob’s best friend for over 40 years. He and his wife, Cindy, were the first people we had called that morning, and they’d immediately jumped into their car and driven 60 miles to be at our sides to offer their love and help.
Nancy wants me to bring Robbie home and I told her I would, but I don’t know how I’m going to do that. Rob told him. We have to make funeral and memorial arrangements¦and talk to the airlines¦and.¦ Rob’s voice trailed off as the magnitude of what needed to be done hit him.
Cindy and I will handle everything. We will make all the phone calls and arrangements, and if there is a decision that should be made by you, then we will ask you. That’s why we are here. Jim immediately responded, giving Rob a big hug.
It’s during times like these that you realize how blessed you are to have such loving friends and family in your life. Jim and Cindy certainly exemplified that love. They coordinated everything, from dealing with two different funeral parlors to making the flight arrangements, to arranging for the cremation and picking out the urn. They even went over to Robbie’s condo and picked out his suit. Rob and I were too emotionally paralyzed to make those decisions. Our hearts will forever hold our dear friends in gratitude.
All this happened on a Tuesday and by Wednesday everyone who was coming from out of town or out of state to support us had arrived. Since I couldn’t expect them to fly back again a week or so later to attend Robbie’s memorial service, we decided to hold the service as soon as possible. Once again, Jim and Cindy stepped in, and with the help of my friend Kathy, made all the arrangements for the service to take place on January 23rd, just four days after Robbie’s passing.
Then it hit me: Robbie’s birthday was January 21st, just two days before the service was scheduled. With everything happening so fast, I had forgotten about that. I had never missed being with my son on his birthday, and now I had to face the fact that, for the first time, we wouldn’t be together to celebrate. Rob, tomorrow is Robbie’s birthday. I said with tears welling up in my eyes.
As Rob raised his eyes to meet mine, I saw that tears were glistening in his eyes, too. I know. What should we do? He whispered.
After some careful thought, Rob and I decided that it would be good for us to be with Robbie’s friends on that day. So we let them all know that we would be at Robbie’s favorite pub the evening of his birthday, and invited them to join us for hugs and to raise a glass or two in Robbie’s honor.
The response was overwhelming! Robbie’s friends came from far and wide to join us. They, too, were trying to make sense of the sudden death of their vibrant, healthy friend. Rob and I found ourselves trying to comfort them just as much as they were attempting to console and comfort us. We encouraged them all to share stories about their experiences with our son. Some stories were classics, some stories we had never heard before, and some maybe Robbie wouldn’t have wanted his mom to know. But they all made us laugh, and somehow, in sharing those stories, we all felt a little closer to Robbie that night, as if he were right there laughing with us through the tears. Rob and I couldn’t have made it through that first birthday without the hugs, love, and compassion of his amazing friends.
On Saturday morning, I awoke with a heaviness in my heart that I had never felt before. It was the day of my son’s memorial – my son’s memorial! Those words were not registering. It was as if I was still experiencing a horrible nightmare. Someone! Please wake me up from this nightmare! But there was no waking up. This was real and the logical part of my brain was telling me to get up; I had work to do”important work.
I walked quietly and slowly down the stairs. Rob was seated at the breakfast table with some of our family. How are you doing? They all asked me at once.
How am I doing? I’m doing terrible! I wanted to scream. Instead, I softly said, Okay.
After trying to put something in my stomach, I grabbed my coffee cup and quietly whispered to Rob, I’m going up to our room. Please don’t let anyone disturb me. I’m going to write Robbie’s eulogy.
You want to deliver his eulogy? Rob whispered back with concern and tears forming in his eyes.
Yes, Robbie would want me to, I told him softly. It’s very important that I let everyone know that it is okay to celebrate his life; that it’s okay to laugh and smile when we remember him and talk about him. Robbie would insist on that. Rob nodded his understanding.
As I got up from the table, Rob stood up with me. I will keep everyone down here. You take all the time you need, he said. Feeling Rob’s eyes on me as I climbed the stairs, I turned around and gave him a little smile as if to say, I’ll be alright. He smiled back lovingly, but I knew his burden was just as heavy as mine and that he was worried about my emotional wellbeing.
I closed our bedroom door behind me, and sat on the edge of the bed. The emotion and the immensity of what I needed to do almost overwhelmed me. Nancy, you have got to pull it together! You have to do this for Robbie, I told myself. Then I caught sight of Robbie’s picture and sighed. OK Robbie, I said out loud. I need your help and your wonderful sense of humor. I can’t do this without you. I put the pen onto the paper, and the words started pouring out.
How many people are you expecting? the pastor asked as we sat in the back office of the church before the service began.
I don’t know, maybe 100. We didn’t give everyone much notice because we were trying to accommodate our friends and family who came in early from out of town. I said quietly.
The pastor gave a small smile and then escorted us to our seats. As I turned and looked back to see who was there, I let out an audible gasp. The church was full! The church could seat 500 and there wasn’t an empty seat or place to stand. I learned later that there were dozens of people out in the parking lot who couldn’t even get inside the church. I’d had no idea that our son had touched the lives of so many during his short time on Earth.
When it was time to deliver the eulogy, I walked up to the podium with Rob at my side and looked out into the crowd. Then, for a few brief moments, my mind flew back in time. I remembered standing at this exact spot before with Robbie when he was a little boy on the day of his baptism. I also remembered standing at the podium with him in his Boy Scout uniform as he was awarded the God and Country Medal and when he earned the rank of Eagle Scout. Now, here I was at that same podium about to deliver his eulogy. Don’t cry Nancy. I said to myself. You can and must do this for Robbie.
Everyone’s eyes locked onto me. Taking a deep breath to steady myself, I smiled a little smile, unfolded my speech with trembling hands, and started to read the words that Robbie and I had written together just hours before. As I spoke, I could hear people softly sobbing, and I could feel the sadness hanging in the air above us. Then I got to this part:
Yesterday, I was able to say a private goodbye to my son. When I walked into the funeral parlor and approached the casket, I noticed that there was something in Robbie’s hands. I asked the Funeral Director, What is he holding?
I don’t know, he said. We found it in his jacket pocket and assumed you wanted us to put it in his hands. Thinking that it looked like a tape recorder, and wondering if there were any messages on it from Robbie, I handed it to my husband.
Were there any messages on the recorder? I asked Rob, a little later when I joined him in the lobby.
Rob looked at me and gently said, No, honey. It wasn’t a tape recorder.
I was confused. What is it? I asked.
It’s a Breathalyzer!
I paused and looked up. For a brief moment, there was complete silence, and then suddenly the entire church (including me) burst into laughter. Robbie was known to enjoy his cocktails, but he was a responsible drinker and would never drive if he were over the legal limit. He had bought the Breathalyzer as a joke.
Everyone felt the energy in the church shift. The heaviness of just a moment earlier had instantly evaporated into a palpable lightness. From that moment on, everyone knew that it was okay to laugh, it was okay to smile, and it was okay to celebrate Robbie’s life.
When I finished the eulogy I knew that with Robbie’s help, I had successfully set the tone for his friends and family who, eager to share their favorite stories of their times with him, wanted their turn at the podium. As one story after another was told, Robbie’s zest for life, his remarkable compassion for his friends and family, and his intelligent humor came into sharp focus for us all. After the service was over many people came up to us to say that they had never experienced a memorial service like that before.
Robbie wrote that eulogy through me, of this, I am certain. My grief and shock made it difficult to think straight but when I asked Robbie to help, the words just flowed. He knew what had to be done, not just to help me, but also to help everyone he loved by letting them know that life should be celebrated. He wanted us to remember his whole life; not just focus on his final hour.
A few days later, after everyone had returned to their homes, Rob and I were left alone in the quiet of our grief and thoughts for the first time. With no one to distract us, we started to feel the full weight of the pain of our loss. Rob looked at me with tears in his eyes as he put his arms around me and said, You know, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison all died at the age of 27, too. Now, they have a drummer. Robbie had loved music and had played the drums. Looking into each other’s eyes, we smiled and hugged each other very tightly as if holding on would make everything all right again.
Rob had no idea of the awful premonition that I had carried inside me since our son was a toddler. I’d always had a knowing”a strong feeling, if you will”that I would lose Robbie when he was around 27. Afraid that if I spoke it aloud it would come true, I had pushed my secret fear to the very deepest part of my being. Why 27? Somehow it was based on my brother, Craig’s passing. Craig had died of asthma on December 22, 1963, two months before his 13th birthday. I had always had this dreadful feeling that Robbie was only going to live to be twice the age of my brother. That is why, when I heard the telephone ring at 6:00 a.m. that fateful morning, I knew Robbie was gone.