What draws one person to another? What force binds them despite distance, time, or (in the case of which I speak) death? I don’t mean the transitory adhesive of lust, and I’m not even sure I’m talking about love (although I might be).
Bear with me; I’m figuring this out as I go along.
Robert Adsit looms large in the back-story of my life, and what I remember first about him are his eyes — their kindness and compassion. I carry hardly more than four memories of him, but there is a sense that more lay hidden within me, that a deeper connection was forged between us than can easily be explained by our few (and fleeting) face-to-face encounters.
Robert was 14 years older than me, and my memories of him are those of a child. There’s no reason why our lives should even have crossed. There’s no reason why, having crossed, they should have remained locked to such a degree. And yet, in my mind, they are.
I can’t even say with any assurance that we were friends (not with that age gap), although we were certainly friendly. Robert was my sister’s friend — a circumstance she guarded jealously (was she in love with him? I wonder now) — a classmate at Shenendehowa Central High School and (I believe) her first piano teacher.
Memory Number One is as clear as glass, as if the adult me stands in the shoes of the child me and watches through her eyes. I had to have been four or five years old, certainly no more than that. The old farmhouse my parents had bought and renovated on Plant Road in Clifton Park, NY had small rooms and such an odd layout that for a time our piano (an ugly yet endearing upright that for all I know was in the house when they bought it) resided against the wall in a short and narrow hallway, right above the heat grating. My sister sits on the left side of the bench, Robert on the right, turned slightly toward her in conversation, his hands poised above the keys. Fingers strike ivory — two hands, twenty fingers — working together. I say something (I’ve no memory of what), and Robert turns to shoot me a smile. Beyond his shoulder, sister frowns.
We attended the same church, though Robert’s family was much more involved than mine. His father was, I think, a deacon and his mother taught Sunday School. (She despaired of me, I’m afraid; I asked all the “wrong” questions.)
Memory Number Two is murkier than the first. How old am I? Six? Seven? Younger? Older? At any rate, we are outside on the church lawn after services. The weather is nice. It’s probably Spring, probably Easter (we were, at best, holiday Christians, I’m afraid, at least when it came to attending church). I am standing with my family. Across the way, I see Robert with his father. Tall. Handsome. I know this even as a child. It’s been some time since I’ve seen him — is he back from school perhaps? He sees me looking at him and, without interrupting his father’s conversation, lifts a hand to wave. I wave back and dip my eyes, embarrassed and pleased at his acknowledgment.
Separate planets in the same universe, our orbits widened over time. Robert went off to college, off to New York City, off to become who he was meant to be. Engrossed in the business of being a child, I heard his name mentioned now and again, always with pleasure.
Memory Number Three is murkier still. I’ve no idea when it took place, only that I am still young. Robert is home (for Christmas? For another reason?) and has stopped in to see my parents. He speaks to me directly, asking questions, honestly interested in my answers (an unusual circumstance for me). Shy, as always, I answer, craving more of his attention than is mine by any right.
Robert never missed sending a Christmas card to my folks. Each year the card was looked forward to eagerly. They were beautiful, small works of art from his own hands. No matter how far he went, no matter what was going on in his life, he took those few minutes to remember us with fondness.
Memory Four is the darkest of all. I’m not yet a teenager, but old enough to answer the phone when it rings. It’s Robert on the other end, calling to speak to my folks, to catch up on news. I can’t remember if they were home or not, but I do know that he and I spoke for a time before we either hung up or I handed the phone to my mother.
Many years had passed without contact between us when I heard Robert had died. At the time, I was at a loss to explain the empty, hollow place that opened up inside me at the news. Robert-shaped (brother-shaped), it has remained unfilled to this day. It echoes with those few memories and I am warmed. But I also grieve. I regret deeply our not staying in touch. I regret the opportunities lost, the chance to get to know one another as adults, to share our love of writing and art and music. To laugh together. To cry. Were he alive today, I would find him, take his hand, look into those eyes I remember so well, and thank him.
What comes clear in all of this reminiscing is Robert’s intense interest in everyone. It didn’t matter if you were someone’s annoying kid sister, much too young to be noticed — Robert was curious about you, but never in a mean way. His involvement was genuine — not polite sham or fleeting fad — he truly wanted to know what you thought about things, what you felt. In his eyes, everyone had worth.
And that was his greatest gift to me. Robert was the first person to ever give me a sense of my own worth. That sense would be shaken and sorely tested over time — would even fail — but looking back now I know that it never died entirely because of something he planted in me by sheer dint of giving a damn.
(Postscript: As of this writing (June 2010) my mother is rapidly slipping away into Alzheimer’s. Most days, she does not know where she lives, why she’s there. She often does not know my father or me or my sisters. But when I asked her if she remembered Robert, she nodded. “He died,” she said, with a touch of sadness. Then her eyes brightened and she smiled. “He was the nicest boy in the world,” she said, and fell silent.)