BEGIN WITH THIS: A FADING photograph of a tall, gentle-looking teen-age boy squinting at the camera, all arms and legs, his hands stuffed awkwardly into the pockets of his down parka. Written on the back of the photograph is the notation, "Robbie -- Xmas Day, 1977."
I can still remember looking through the lens as I snapped the picture, teasing Robbie about how hard it was to get all of his 6-foot frame into the photo. And I can still remember how cold it was that day, how my bare fingers stuck to the metal camera parts.
But no matter how hard I try, I can't remember having any premonition of what was to come. Over the years I've searched both my memory and the face in the picture for a clue or sign that would indicate this was to be Robbie's last photograph.
Looking back, I can see it was not easy to search out clues that would lead to the boy inside Robbie. For most of his 17 years, Robbie successfully shielded that boy: from his parents, kind and intelligent people who cared deeply about him; from his younger sister, the one to find him only minutes (but still too late) after the gun went off; from his teachers and his friends; from a world that would lose, after so short a time, all its power to hold Robbie or sustain him.
Looking back now, I can see that none of us ever really knew Robbie.
Tomorrow is Robbie's birthday. Had he lived, he would be 30 years old. Robbie, 30! How impossible that seems! But there it is, a notation marked in my date book -- as it has been for the last 13 years -- "Robbie's birthday."
He was 7 years old when I first met him. Quiet. Blond. Even then he wore thick glasses, which magnified his eyes and gave him a bookish, serious look.
I shared a close friendship with Robbie's mother, and from time to time, I acted as a Saturday afternoon baby sitter for him. It was on one such occasion that Robbie, in a rare, unguarded moment, allowed me to connect with what lay beneath the facade of his personality.
We began this particular afternoon, Robbie and I, in the usual pattern: Robbie listened. I talked. And talked. Compulsively. I think I talked so much because I felt a sense of urgency about breaking through this 7-year-old boy's distance and passivity. And although I never understood why, I often had the wish to apologize to Robbie.
We were out in the car doing errands that day when a snowstorm began. Cars were sliding all over the streets; kids in heavy snowsuits were sledding; the radio was blaring out long lists of cancellations and closings. It was as though a holiday was being declared, a holiday from the daily routine of ordinary life. And suddenly Robbie and I were gripped with the excitement that city people often experience in a snowstorm.
Impulsively, I suggested we stop the car and have a snowball battle. Robbie looked puzzled but agreed. For the next hour, we battled it out in a snow-filled park, with no holds barred. For me it was as though the years had dropped away and I was a child again. As for Robbie -- well, I saw a side of Robbie emerge that I had never seen before and, sadly, never saw again. There was a playfulness, a jauntiness about him that was wonderful.
Exhausted, we finally retreated to the car and sang songs all the way home. To Robbie's delight, I joined him in a rousing chorus of "Rubber Duckie, I Love You." He was surprised that I knew the words. And then Robbie began talking. And in a reversal of roles I listened. I was exhilarated and confident that we had established the beginning of a friendship.
But when I saw Robbie again, he had closed just as mysteriously as he had opened. We never again spoke of our adventure on that snowy afternoon.
Over the years I watched him grow into his adolescence. Unfailingly polite, Robbie always answered my questions about how things were going with a quick smile and a nod of his head. I took his word for it, that things were OK. What else could I do? But for years after his death I thought of a million things I could have done. And should have done.
Now on the eve of Robbie's 30th birthday, I try to picture the man he would be. But try as I might, I can neither imagine the man he might be or remember the adolescent he was. Instead, I am drawn back to the clear, sweet image of a laughing, 7-year-old boy hurling himself into a snowbank and then throwing caution to the wind in an uninhibited performance of "Rubber Duckie, I Love You."
That's how I will always remember Robbie: Forever young.