Willmar Ridgewater College Presentation
This presentation was given to a composition class at Ridgewater College on Tuesday, February 20, 2018. A movie of Robert through the years played on the screen behind me. I could hear the soft music he played and occasionally his voice, both as a child and as an adult. I spoke, not because I wanted to, but because I felt I had to. I spent two days, putting my emotions into deep lockdown, and I managed to get through most of it without falling too far apart.
We hope to have a copy of the recording from the day, and when we do, we'll share it here, but for now here is the transcript of what was shared.
I found the event more and more difficult as heads began to lower, and tears began to flow and I met a young woman who, if I understood her correctly, whose dad recently died, also killed by a distracted driver. I held her and hope that she will contact me in the future.
This is what I shared with Robert's movie running behind me:
"Let’s start with this quote from the Tribune article by Janet Moore and Tim Harlow that most of you have already read: “Inattentive driving contributed to more than 86,000 crashes and 74 deaths between 2011 and 2015, according to the State Patrol”.
When you read this statement, you see the numbers. But for me, I see more than numbers. I see and FEEL more than numbers. I see my son and I feel the deepest stab of grieving anyone can imagine, because in that number – the number 74, as in 74 deaths, is my son, our son, our only child, Robert.
His dad and I were married right out of college and took 5 years to settle into our new community and our jobs. We were both educators and professional musicians and the next 5 years after that were what we thought were going to be the toughest of our lives.
We got pregnant and miscarried a dozen times over those 5 years and despite everything the doctors did to try to help, nothing worked and they had no definitive answers as to why my pregnancies all ended abruptly within the first 6-12 weeks. We were told that we would never have a biological child. I often repeated this sentiment: “I wouldn’t wish infertility on my enemy – It's so sad. It hurts. It’s just so painful.”
Long story short, 5 years later (15 years into our marriage) we were pregnant again, and I carried this baby to full term. He
was a miracle and we never forgot that. Our little family of three was perfect and though we thought maybe this was a beginning of multiple pregnancies, that never happened.
But today, this story is only partly about me and my husband. I want today’s story to be mostly about Robert. His birthday was Thursday, April 8th, 1993 in the wee hours of the morning. He was two weeks late and one of the bigger babies in the neonatal unit at 10 pounds, 11 ounces and 23” long. His beautiful deep grey eyes blinked at the brightness of this receiving room and when he cried, his deep throaty voice surprised us all. My husband carried him to the nursery and, on the way, named him after my father, who died when I was 19. His middle name, Joseph, was a nod to his father, Terry Joseph, and his great grandfather, Joe.
We made the decision that I would stay home full-time for at least 2 years and we discovered the challenge of living on one income. The only "extra" money we spent was when we hired a nanny so that Robert could travel with us when we played in our band, Frontpage. We were really never far apart and Robert’s life became the most important and seriously defining piece of our lives. We never, ever forgot the miracle of his birth.
His life was probably a lot like yours.
He grew up in Willmar. He went to preschool and kindergarten, and all through middle and high school with many of the same kids. He went to church with us every Sunday and loved the parks and lakes in the area.
At 5 years old, Robert wanted to begin piano lessons and so we found a teacher that would take him on with the caveat that if he couldn’t sit still for a half an hour then the lessons would have to stop. With the deep desire to learn how to play all the themes from “Star Wars”, Robert sat still for lessons and for practice and quickly began to master the piano.
His musical interests only grew from there as through the schools, he learned cello, stand-up bass, trumpet and French horn. At home, he also taught himself to play the guitar. It seemed easier with each added instrument and as he matured, we discovered that the throaty voice we’d heard early on had matured into a deep and resonant singing voice, so we spent many hours listening to practice (and experimentation) on all the instruments. We attended the orchestra, band and choir concerts and any and every musical opportunity he could find.
And like most kids, he tried lots of sports: t-ball, basketball, track, golf, and soccer, but it wasn’t until we got him in swim lessons and the local swim club that he found that physical niche where he could shine. He was a fish! And he was fast! Early on it looked like some of the school records would be his, but as Robert grew we discovered as issue that truly frightened us all.
Robert was having trouble breathing. He got winded at swim practice. He couldn’t run without breathing heavy anymore, and even the flight of stairs from Floor 1 to 2 at the high school, left him breathless. He’d say to me, “I’m just out of shape, Mom!” and I would reply, “I can’t imagine that’s true considering you swim miles and miles every day.”
Eventually it got so bad, and we had reason to believe it wasn’t just “sports induced asthma”, that we took him to a specialist at Mayo Clinic in Rochester where he was diagnosed with “Pectus Excavatum”. We’d noticed the indentation in his chest as he grew, but we were told it was “simply cosmetic”. It was just the way he looked.
Well, in Robert’s case, that simply wasn’t true. The summer between 8th and 9th grade, we watched Robert grow over 4”. He complained every day of sore muscles, achy legs, painful arms. He always ached and there were mornings when I simply could see that he’d grown over night. The quick growth spurt caused his sternum to invert and as it did, the bones trapped his heart beneath it and as he grew, it pushed deeper into his heart.
Sounds like this could have been where Robert’s story ended, but a harrowing surgery with a 6-month recovery saved his life. Another miracle. This young man seemed to beating all the odds.
Robert graduated with his six best friends in the spring of 2011 and they all had big plans. College all over the state for most, except for one friend from whom the others all drew courage and inspiration. Their friend Troy was born with a rare disease that caused respiratory and digestive issues throughout his life. His “after high school” plans were for a bone marrow transplant at the National Institute of Health in Bethesda, Maryland… then college. And the five boys were all sure that he would join one of them at their college of choice. We were all sure that was how this would work. Surgery, recovery, happily ever after.
But instead, things got complicated when Troy was infected with a Superbug while at NIH. His body couldn’t fight it off and none of the antibiotics helped. Troy died a year after his surgery and I thought I would never see something so sad as the day Troy’s five friends gathered around his casket at the cemetery. We had all prayed for a cure. We all thought the surgery was a cure. Troy had plans. His 5 best friends all had plans. A funeral was not part of the plans.
Robert decided to attend the University of Minnesota because of the seemingly endless musical opportunities. He looked into joining the swim team, and then with straight forward conviction, auditioned for the U of MN Marching Band, the Pride of Minnesota, 325 young musicians on the field at half time, often overlooked by most fans, but the source of joy for many students, parents and families.
The band was time consuming, but Robert lived for music and this felt like music on steroids for him. To start his sophomore year, Robert changed his major from Engineering to Classical Guitar Performance after a guitar class that he took for an elective stirred his desire to teach and perform musically. It was the right choice, and I think we always knew that he’d end up in music, one way or another.
Robert was at college with the financial help of his savings,
scholarships and a financial aid award. He was never afraid to work hard for what he wanted. In fact, in junior high one of his friends, who lived on a farm, was looking for friends to help him “rock pick”. Robert said “sure” and I never imagined that he would make it past the first day, the first week, but he loved it. He loved working with a close friend nearby and he loved being outdoors. That job opportunity led to his permanent summer job on a local vegetable farm. He learned the ins and outs of farming the land. He had the chance to help build a greenhouse. He learned things from his friend’s dad that were hard to learn from your own dad. The camaraderie, mutual respect, and love that grew between Robert, his friend, and his friend’s family was invaluable.
Every summer Robert also helped at the Farmer’s Market and quite quickly he was well known by both other vendors and the customers for his smile and his willingness to help wherever needed.
In the early winter of 2014, Robert met a young woman. He’d known her in the marching band, but a trip to a college football “Bowl” game, brought her into focus. Robert now stood almost 6’6” and his new girlfriend was nearly 6’ tall as well. They made a striking couple.
In the spring of 2014, Robert was trying desperately to catch up on his classes, wanting to graduate on time (in four years), but because of the major change, he was a couple classes short, so he decided to take a couple of classes over the summer term. He still had his campus financial aid job and his Willmar vegetable farm job. And he was helping me with maintenance at the childcare/preschool that I led. He was busy!
We had two weeks before classes started up again, but only a week before he had to report for the leadership team for the U of MN Marching Band Spat Camp. He came home to work – there’s a picture of Robert and I at the Farmer’s Market that day. I went for veggies and sweet corn and made him give me a hug before I left. The vendor in the next booth told us to hold still for a picture, and he headed back to college later that day. I was worried about how hard he had pushed himself over the summer. I knew he was busy and he had a girlfriend, so life was coming at him pretty fast.
Robert needed to come back home on Thursday. He had a motorcycle during the summer that he used mostly to travel from our home to the farm, but he decided several times this summer to also ride it to make the trip to Minneapolis and back and it needed to be brought home and left there during the school year.
I was at work, Robert’s dad was mowing the lawn, and Robert was on Hwy 12 at 9:40am, Thursday, August 14, 2014……………………..
The picture of us at the Farmer’s Market captured the last time I saw my son alive, the last time I heard his voice, the last time he hugged me.
Now my life is simply “before” and “after”
Before Robert was killed and
After Robert was killed.
That day, the young woman who drove distracted crossed the center line in front of the semi-truck that Robert was following. When she looked up, she freaked and yanked her car to the right aiming it at the ditch, which frightened her. She yanked her car again, this time to the left and killed Robert in an instant. He didn’t have a chance. His life is over.
She was charged as a juvenile with a misdemeanor of careless driving. She was placed on probation for one year and ordered to pay our expenses for Robert’s funeral and burial. She had to go to jail for 5 days on the day of his death, one year later. She took us back to court six months after the first sentencing hearing to dispute the restitution payments, saying they were too much of a hardship. My words to the judge that day were, “I have done the math and I know that at the rate she’s paying now, she’ll be done paying the restitution in six years. If I thought that Robert would walk through that door in six years, I’d be good with that. But he won’t. This young woman has no idea what real hardship is.”
Our family was dramatically and unnecessarily changed on August 14, 2014. Every day is a struggle to find a purpose in our lives. We will never understand why this happened – and not the logistical why, the big why. We’d been through so much. We’d survived. We’d promised each other when Robert’s friend Troy died that we would live the promise to never forget him. We would strive to honor Troy every day with our passions and our love. But why this happened, we will never understand.
On August 21, 2014 standing on the grass at the cemetery, right next to Troy’s headstone, we all gathered again. Here we were just two years later and the band of six best friends is now a band of four. The depth of grief we all carry is merely a reflection of the depth of our love. The statistics never reflect these victims – those who die on the same day as their loved one, but still breathe. The courts received hundreds of victim impact statements saying how Robert’s death would impact them. They are also victims, but never counted, often overlooked and eventually forgotten.
Distracted driving kills people. A distracted driver doesn’t intend to hurt or kill someone, but research is proving that distracted driving is actually more dangerous than drunk driving. These crashes shouldn’t be happening. Robert and thousands of people like Robert, should still be here. Statistics show that in the six years following Robert’s death that nearly 20,000 more people across this nation will be killed by distracted drivers – just for perspective, that’s the entire town of Willmar! Gone!
Robert was in that special time of life feeling indestructible, untouchable, even invincible and if you look closely and honestly, you’ll see that in yourselves – you’ve taken risks – you’ve done things you hope your parents and loved ones never find out about. People do things that they look back on later and wonder that they made it out unscathed. We do things without considering the consequences and sometimes we don’t understand the consequences until it’s too late. We all live believing in that invincibility until something like this cuts close to home. The young woman that killed Robert didn’t plan to kill, or even harm anyone, but she ignored what we’ve all heard from the news and seen in print. The data doesn’t lie – sooner or later you or someone you love will be killed by a distracted driver. These are not accidents. These are crashes that could have – should have – never been. Robert didn’t have to die, but he did as a consequence of her decision to do something other than drive.
So, today I’m asking … no, begging you to pledge that when you drive - when you’re in the car with your family or friends, you’ll refuse to drive distracted and you’ll refuse to let your family and friends drive distracted. Driving deserves all of your attention. No one’s brain can safely juggle distractions and the complexities of driving.
It’s a brain thing. It’s not just holding something, it’s the disjointed tasks we think we can handle. But as Maureen Vogel of the National Safety Council said, “If hands were the problem, we would have outlawed manual transmission cars long ago.”
I am a mother without a child and there’s really no justifiable reason that should be so.
Robert deserved to live his dreams, just like you and those you love.
Don’t be a part of the problem.
Don’t risk your life.
Every time you drive, think of Robert.
Take him with you wherever you go.
It’s too late for Robert - too late for us, but not for you.