Mourning for Robert

by Brian Clarey

What do you do when someone you love dies? That’s the question we’ve all been answering since my brother-in-law met his fate on a waterfront highway more than a week ago. And we’ve found that the first thing to do is get our heads around the situation.

It’s hard to accept that someone so vibrant, someone who burned so brightly, no longer walks among us. It’s hard to accept that this person who stood so reliably by us is not there anymore. Something like that takes a few days. At least. And so we walked around in a collective stupor, consoled ourselves with what few happy thoughts we could conjure, pooled our grief to make it more bearable.

Still there were details to attend to — his apartment, full of his things, each saturated with his memory, his scent. His family, which included a cadre of ex-wives, girlfriends, daughters, stepdaughters and grandchildren, would need closure. And then there was the matter of his short but eventful life, which would need to be honored in an appropriate fashion.

I became concerned with what Robert would have wanted as we tied up the loose ends of his existence. He would have wanted us to be together. He would want us to remember him. He would have wanted a tribute.

That’s why, on Thursday morning, I set out alone for Elizabeth City, where Robert’s cremains awaited. It would have taken a week or so to get them through the mail, we were told, and it didn’t take 30 seconds for me to make my move. The least I can do, I thought, is to bring my boy home. It was an impulse decision, one of which I think Robert would have approved.

Still, though… strange. Strange to sign a piece of paper and be handed your friend’s last worldly remains in a small shopping bag. Strange how heavy it was. Strange to sit on the banks of the Pasquotank River, storm surge sending tannic water lapping over the seawall and a light rain falling, while hugging a box and crying. Strange to drive 250 miles with Robert’s cremated body strapped into the shotgun seat, headed west about an hour ahead of the flooding, talking to him in a soothing voice most of the time.

Strange how much better it made me feel.

Strange, too, is what we did with him when he got here — at least some people seemed to think so. On Friday we held the first ever Robert Striano Memorial Bar Crawl, packing him into a backpack and taking him on a tour of some of his favorite watering holes. The circuit went from Old Town to Nate’s Place to Spring Garden Pizza, over to the corner of Walker and Elam for drop-ins at Walker’s and Wahoo’s, and then a final blitz through the Westerwood Tavern, which was his favorite. Perhaps two dozen of his closest friends took part in this tribute, which was well received in all the places we went. And every single one of us agreed that Robert would have loved it.

My wife and I, though we’re not sure completely why, agreed that it, too, made us feel better about losing someone we loved so suddenly.

And then came Monday, when 200 or so of us gathered in Alumni Hall at UNCG for a proper memorial.

You can tell a lot about a person by who — if anyone — bothers to show at his funeral. Robert’s tribute included dozens of family members, some of whom flew in from across the country to be here. His brother Ron, in from Portland, Ore., looks so much like him that he got double-takes all afternoon. There were friends from the bar, former and current roommates, work colleagues from every job he ever held, including staffers at UNCG, where he had worked for the last few years. When the time came for speechifying, the chairs had run out and mourners were four deep at the back of the room.

Photos of his life flickered on a big screen. His favorite songs seeped through small speakers. Tears. Laughter. Coors Light. All of that.

When a loved one dies, we are saddened, of course. We mourn for the departed, and for all those left behind in his absence. We mourn for what was and could have been, and we mourn for ourselves, who are each ultimately destined for the same fate.

But death is also a celebration of a life lived, and all its trappings.

It’s a celebration of the person we lost, the love he created, the differences he made with the limitations he had.

Robert’s memorial service and the events leading up to it, sad though they were, also reminded us that he has been released from this world with all it suffering and pain. His problems are behind him. He is finally free.

In the end, Robert’s untimely passing became a party. And that’s exactly what he would have wanted.