Robert Sinclair Craven
April 19, 1977 - June 10, 1997
The Survivor's Club - Getting On
by Brenda Sutton
My son is dead. My son is dead. Robert is dead. No matter how many times I say it or think it, the words never sound real. How could he be dead?
He's just barely twenty years old. Robert Craven's hard life has finally turned around and everything is going his way. He has two, count ‘em, two lovely young women fighting over him. In a week he’ll be leaving for Navy boot camp in Great Lakes, Michigan. Advanced Computer Technician Specialist, one of the hardest courses the Navy offers, is his waiting as his future career. He’s whipped the A.C.T. and tested for an $80,000 scholarship. Robert’s turned from an aimless, sullen dropout into a reasoning young man who figured out what he wants, striding up the hill instead of sliding down. I’m so proud of him: of his reconciliation with his unbending father, of the way he knocked out the four remaining classes to win his high school diploma, of how he diffused another raging argument with his stepfather by taking responsibility for his own error. He’s becoming the man I’d always known he could be. How can he be dead?
June 10th, 1997. Robert bolted out of the house, late for a meeting at the Navy recruiting office. As always, he took his bike. He was really
proud that he could make it from our house to the recruiters in only twenty minutes. Robert was supposed to have gone into the Navy a couple
of weeks earlier. The night we dropped him off at the Castlegate Hotel prior to pre-enlistment physical he’d gotten bored. To fight the
boredom he'd done 160 sit-ups. The next morning during his physical when they asked him to touch his toes, he got a back cramp. Bad luck.
Back home he came for another night, then off to the Castlegate again. This time he got through the entire exam. Then the military liaison
asked him flat out, "Have you ever had any instance of psychiatric treatment?" And Robert wouldn’t lie for an easy in. He told the liaison how,
when he was twelve years old, his father and stepmother committed him to a mental institution for six weeks. The boy was unhappy, angry,
unmanageable, broken. Fix the boy, they'd said. Reality was, the relationship was broken, and the relationship was never fixed. The boy came
out the same as he’d gone in. Except that he came back to me instead.
Because of that short unhappy time, the Navy put the brakes on Robert’s enlistment again. They needed to get either the Dartmouth Hospital records or a Navy psychiatrist to review Robert and say he was sane. Trouble was, Dartmouth closed down several years ago, and all the records were housed in a storage facility. The earliest the Navy could get a psychiatrist to Atlanta was June 16th. So Robert backpedaled, attended recruiter meetings, worried that everything he’d been planning was falling apart.
That was how I’d left him that morning he flew off, late for a meeting. When he got to the recruiters he got the good news, the paperwork from Dartmouth arrived. Everything was cool. He’d be leaving for boot camp the following Monday. He raced his bike back from the recruiters, stopping at a friend's house to borrow a computer game. Then he headed for home.
Robert stopped at the CVS Drug Store a little more than a mile from home. It was a scorching day and he probably wanted a soda to cool the heat of the long ride. Coming out of the parking lot, he started to cross the road, not seeing the pickup truck or gauging its speed. The truck hit him, throwing Robert over the cab and onto the median of the road. The back of his unprotected head struck the concrete. And he died. Severe trauma. That's what the police report said. "Mr. Craven was not wearing a helmet." That was the last line of the newspaper article.
Oddly enough, I recall hearing about the accident over the radio traffic news at work. I remember driving the long way home to avoid the snarled roads. When I walked in the door, my husband Bill was on the phone with the police. He held out one arm and drew me in saying there’d been a bad bike accident on Sandy Plains Road. Robert’s friend Adam had called saying he recognized what he thought was Robert’s bike. Bill had been to the scene. It wasn’t pretty. A lot of blood. The bike was smashed. The truck was smashed. And the police couldn’t tell us where the person who’d been injured had been taken unless we could positively identify him as our son. But that morning Bill and I had both gone to work long before Robert had gotten up. We didn’t know what he was wearing.
No, he wasn't wearing a helmet. He had one. We bought it the same day we got the bike. A shiny black helmet, Robert's favorite color. He might have worn it once or twice, but he didn't like it. Made his hair look funny. Just the week before the accident, I'd asked him again to wear it. I was concerned about all the hours he was logging on the bike. It wasn't that I was worried about his riding skills - he was a good biker. But the traffic in our area has increased since the roads were widened, and the drivers are insane. Lane switching, talking on the phone, no signals, road-ragers. I was worried about them, and I told Robert so. Know what he said to me? "Don't worry, Mom. I'm not going to die. I've got too much to do." I've given his helmet to his sister Meri. She'll be biking all over college next year. She'll wear it. Not because I tell her to. Because she understands that little thing could have saved her brother's life.
Even if he'd worn the helmet, Robert would still have ended up in the hospital. Broken bones and one hell of a headache. But the impact wouldn't have killed him. We'd have chalked it up to one more delay in getting into the Navy. I've beaten myself up pretty badly over that stupid helmet. I should have been more insistent. I should have made sure he wore it. I should have… survivors do that. Blame themselves. Think that if only they'd done this or that, it would have been different. That kind of thinking can make you crazy. I try not to dwell on it, but I still find myself shouting through closed car windows at every biker that I see riding without one, "Do your mother a favor! Get a helmet!"
It's been a year now since Robert died; a hard year since I found myself in the Survivor's Club. There are no meetings, no activities, though the dues are steep. I've met a lot of members. Found myself counseling a new one just the other day; a friend of mine whose husband died from brain cancer. I told her that, difficult as it seems at the moment, she was still lucky. She got to say goodbye, a long hard parting, but any farewell is better than no farewell.
There's so much unfinished business when someone is taken out in a blink. I understand that there really isn't anyway that you can completely prepare yourself for someone to die. But to have them with you one moment and then just - gone. All the things you meant to say but didn't become a huge stone over your heart that presses down hard every time you think of them. I think of Robert so often, and I feel that weight a lot. You get used to it. You go on.
Going on - it's what Survivors do. I believe it's the most important service we offer to other members of this awful club. Losing someone to death hurts so deeply that, initially, you think you'll never be able to live with the pain. And then you meet a Survivor. And another, and another. Often they're folks you thought you knew quite well, but you didn't know they'd lost a loved one. Like you. And here they are walking, talking, working, playing, laughing. How are they laughing? You see them getting on, and it gives great hope. You, too, may get to walk, talk, work, play, laugh again - without the wrenching pain you feel constantly now.
It took a while, a good long while before I could talk about Robert without tearing up. But I can. Not right at this exact moment; there are fresh hot tears because I'm concentrating on that terrible time. But you develop a talent for seeing through tears. Or you develop new driving skills that don't require actually seeing where you're going. You say a lot of quick prayers for the fools driving around you. It's all reflexes and tissues.
My God, we went though cases of tissues. Thanks to a considerate friend, another Survivor, we had boxes in every room, in every car, in every purse and pocket. And not that cheap kind that makes your nose feel like you blew it on sandpaper. He made sure we had the soft kind, bless his heart. Survivors have an insight for little things that mean a lot.
You don't have to be related to the deceased to be a Survivor. After the funeral, some of Robert's friends nearly became fixtures at our house. Others disappeared. Now, a year later, his friends are returning. No warning. The doorbell rings and there's another young person on our front porch. They come in, sit down, tell us where their lives are. Just keeping in touch. I see them growing, maturing, changing. I wish… I wonder how Robert would be now. What changes would he have made this year if he'd lived?
No matter how much you might want time to freeze or run backwards when someone dies, everything changes. I see our family portrait, and I know we should get another one taken this summer. The other kids have grown; they don’t look like that anymore. And I always hated my pose in that photo. Still, I hesitate. I don't know if I'm ready to take a family photo without Robert in it.
There's a lot I'm not ready for yet. Everyone deals with Death differently, or so I've discovered. Some bottle it all up. Some flow over like broken down dams. Some change everything that might remind them of their loss. Some, like me, hoard every little thing.
I'm still not strong enough to get rid of Robert's things. Bill pushed me hard after the funeral to give away Robert's possessions to his friends, things we'd never use. I did -- some -- but I couldn't part with much. I let his brother Aaron have his pick of video games, tapes, CD's. Aaron's only fourteen. During this year, though, he's grown taller than Robert; he's got bigger feet, too. So Robert's pants and shoes really should go to the Goodwill. I'm pretty sure that someday I'll find the strength to part with most of it. But not yet. Not now.
We're planning to go through Robert's boxes this summer, if not to dispose of his things, at least to sort through it. He'd packed everything away in preparation for going into the Navy, so nearly all of his belongings have been out of sight. I kept some things out. Pictures, blown glass statues he loved, his swords - he was very fond of role-playing. The rest of it… well, I'll do my best. And Bill and I will probably have another fight over what he sees as junk that I can't part with. Not yet. Not now.
Death rearranges you forever, changes your perspectives. Dumb drivers, who used to be merely irritating, show themselves for the careless potential killers they may become. You're daughter is a few minutes late returning from the bowling alley and the mind drives you places, imagines her in horrific situations until she comes through the door again. It's easier to say yes. It's harder to watch the evening news. You cringe at the sound of sirens, at the sight of flashing lights by fender benders. You learn who your friends are, and how much sleep you can do without. You appreciate the pictures you took, and you invest in disposable cameras more often. You become a Seasoned Survivor, not just one of the walking wounded.
This June 10th, one year to the day, I was awakened as always by music from my clock radio. But the song was from Robert. I Love You, Always, Forever. It was his favorite. He played it all the time. We played it at his funeral. And here it was, pouring out of the radio. I started to cry. Sang the words. I love you, always, forever, near and far, closer together, everyday I will be with you, everything I will do for you. I don't believe in coincidences. Robert was just checking in. Seeing if I was okay. I'm not, but I'm better than I was. That song wound through my head for the rest of the difficult day, made me smile through the tears. I love you, always, forever…
My son is gone. I miss him more than these meager words can say. I'm crying as I type, cold tears running down my cheeks, plopping on my chest, dampening my shirt. I'll find a tissue, blow my nose, get on with living. Surviving.