Robert Erik Fuller was my high school boyfriend. He was my first boyfriend, my first love, and my first, you know, first. He was kind, thoughtful and funny. He was respectful to me, our friends and both our families. He loved the Georgia Bulldogs and the Atlanta Falcons. He taught me how to water ski, how to drive a stick-shift, how to take public transportation. He taught me how to make scrambled eggs with cheese, and I think about him every single time I make them – probably somewhere around 4.5 million times since that first lesson. We listened to REM’s Life’s Rich Pageant, on cassette tape, until both our copies wore out, and we had to buy new ones. He nursed me through wisdom teeth one summer, and teenage chicken pox the next. We packed my car for college through tears, both of us knowing what was coming. Months later, when I broke up with him because it was surely the right thing to do, he kept on loving me. Months after that, when he tried to talk some sense into me after following me and my parents across state lines, I kept on loving him. I was 18 when my father died, and it was Robert I called, and it was Robert who came. In my senior year of college, he hosted me and all of my girlfriends at his parents’ house at the beach. He was the perfect host, and we realized we had finally found the perfect relationship - as friends. Over the years, we stayed in touch and talked often, consoling each other through breakups and applauding each other when things were going our way. He came to visit me in New York in the late 90’s, and we had dinner at the top of the Twin Towers at Windows on the World. Years later, when those towers fell, we talked about how awful the attacks were and how strange it was that a part of our shared history could just be erased. In an instant.
Sometime after that, we lost touch. I got married; he got a new phone.
And then, while I was visiting Atlanta in 2007, we were suddenly face to face. I was at a restaurant on the edge of Piedmont Park, and my 3 year-old needed the bathroom, as three year-olds often do. I walked with him, carrying my one year-old baby, when my toddler fell and started to cry. As I crouched down to help him up, I heard a familiar voice say, “Hey.” And there he was. My first words to Robert after five some-odd years? “Will you hold my baby?” And like every request I had ever made of him, he granted it, without hesitation.
That day, he met my kids, he met my husband, and we had drinks with my best friend, her husband and her daughter. Our lives had come full circle, and we never fell out of touch again. We would talk every few months or so, and then, when he finally, FINALLY got a smartphone, we would text. We texted on birthdays, holidays, big game days for The University of Georgia. And when the Falcons were in the Superbowl this year, we texted first with elation, and then distress, and then disbelief, and then, finally, with sad acceptance.
Somewhere in that exchange, Robert wrote, “Glad you’re writing again.” He followed my blog. This blog. After all this time, he was still in my corner.
That was our last conversation. Robert died, unexpectedly, at age 48, three weeks ago. His sister found my number in his phone. Her message said, “I hope this is the right Patti.” It was. Unbearably, it was. And once again, I found our shared history wiped away in one terrible, awful instant.
It’s been almost 30 years since I was his girlfriend, and a decade since we were with each other in person. I am not his sister, his mother or his wife. Their pain is something I can’t even begin to fathom. And yet, I hurt. A lot. Songs that used to make me bust out singing, now only make me burst out crying. When my 11 year-old started in on REM’s Superman the other night, I almost had to leave the room.
So to you, Robert, I want to thank you for being my everything for so long, and thank you for setting the bar so damn high. The way we felt about each other was the measure by which I've judged every relationship I’ve had since. Most failed miserably in comparison. But most importantly, I will miss our friendship. I’ll miss our laughter, I’ll miss our shorthand, I’ll miss having a co-rememberer. I’ll miss the person who knew me so well and yet, somehow, still wanted to be my friend anyway.
And, to Robert’s wife, if you ever read this, I am so terribly, terribly sorry for your loss. I don’t know if you’ve ever even heard of me, but something tells me that you will recognize the boy I describe as the man you married. And know that my heart goes out to you and to everyone who loved him.
I don’t have any real wisdom to share. Loss is just something you have to go through, something you have to be in before you can get out. But here is one thing I do know, maybe the only thing I truly know: tell the people you love that you love them. All the time. Even if they tell you to stop or ask you to give it a fucking rest. Make sure everyone you love knows how much you love them, every single minute of every single day. Love is the only thing that matters because it is the only thing that lasts. It lasts longer than cassette tapes, relationships, or towers. Longer than bodies, longer than memories.
And it never, ever, ever dies.