Meeting Robert's Family - Our First "Reunion"
The Navy Reserves decided to send me to Norfolk, VA for a Commanding Officer's conference Dec 6-7,1997, so I saw this as an excellent opportunity to finally meet Robert's family for the first time. They lived about four hours away from Norfolk, so I had always told Fran (Robert's wife) that if I were ever sent to Norfolk on Navy business, we'd be sure to meet somewhere halfway between the two cities.
Now was the time! When Fran found out we'd finally be able to meet, she was ecstatic! I told her that after Saturday's drill was completed at 5pm, I'd hop in my rental car and head north to Richmond, VA! Fran used to live in Richmond, so she'd pick the restaurant. We made plans to meet at 7pm. I told her I could potentially be there as early as 6:30, so she said then they'd be there waiting at 6pm !
Fran selected The Tobacco Company restaurant as our meeting place. She described it as an interesting place with atmosphere. It was on an old cobblestone road at 12th and Cary Street. I found maps at my favorite Internet map sites and was highly anticipating the day. Her son Stuart also emailed me his personalized directions, but regretfully he explained that he had to attend a company Christmas party at Panthers Stadium in Carolina.
Since I used to be a boy scout (motto "Be Prepared"), I felt I had everything in order with maps and cell phone/restaurant phone numbers in hand in case anything went wrong on the way. I ran an imagined storyboard through my head about our first meeting so many times that I was convinced that it was exactly how we'd meet.
The day arrived, Saturday December 6th. It seemed like it would never come, but today was the day. I went to my Navy drill and listened to a bunch of speakers in a dimly lit room. I was drowning myself in coffee to "be attentive!" The leaders of this conference moved the meeting to the Officer's Club to begin a round table discussion. Obviously my mind was elsewhere. This portion was to last until 5pm. At 5:01, I bailed out!
I sped up to my room and changed into Green Bay Packers garb. I imagined that she'd recognize me by that, if she didn't recognize my face. I'm a HUGE Packers fan and we often talked football. I rushed out to that blue compact Ford rental and took off for Richmond up Interstate 64. The Internet maps said it would take me 86 minutes; I'm glad I didn't see a cop!
The trip started out as a bright sunny late afternoon with the sun over the Norfolk-based carriers and other ships, as seen from the long bridge-tunnel to Hampton, VA. Knowing that I'd probably lose radio reception, I brought some tapes. When it did finally go out after I left the Norfolk reception area, I threw in an old Led Zeppelin tape. The day gradually worked its way into darkness.
I arrived in Richmond to see the city skyline outlined in white Christmas lights. Beautiful. It was a welcome site as I knew that I was within minutes of meeting my "family" I never met. I thought about it as here was the place where Robert had his bone marrow transplant. Richmond, VA was that city "out east" that they flew my marrow to in that little red playmate cooler. I had often wondered, for more than a year, where this place was and if I'd get there to meet Robert. (I had guessed 1000 miles away, possibly in the Carolinas- as I discovered later, my intuition was very close.)
It was to this destination that Fran had driven 3 hours one-way so many times for Robert to receive treatment in the later stages of BMT recovery. Every time they returned from the appointments and treatments, he was still cancer free! Everyone was so convinced that Robert's recovery was a resounding success that they asked him to be a spokesman for the NMDP.
As I got into the heart of town, I became slightly lost a couple of times, but quickly found my way when I saw the hotel specified in Stuart's directions. I found the restaurant across the street; as soon as I could find a parking place we'd FINALLY meet!
Two blocks away. I jumped out of the car and briskly rushed to the restaurant (forgetting the disposable camera I just bought for the occasion). I was sure they'd be waiting at the bar. I yanked open the door, adjusted my Superbowl Champion cap, and headed inside.
Nobody recognized me.
OK, I was up to me to recognize them. I walked into bar area a few times, then around the restaurant, then in the bar again. I tried hard to recall the photos she sent me after we first learned each other's identity. I couldn't have forgotten what Fran looked like! There was no doubt I'd recognize that southern "twang" in her voice calling out my name!
It must've looked like I was stalking someone as I kept wandering the place. I felt a little silly dressed like I was going to a Packers game in such a nice place. The place did have quite a lot of character. It was a remodeled 3 story warehouse with a huge ornate Christmas tree inside. Classy. I asked the hostess if she saw them on the waiting list. No. They must not have arrived yet. I began to worry. They had a three hour drive - thinking back, I could've called her cell phone to make sure that all was OK.
After 10 minutes of aimless roaming, I stood right at the door, on the right side near the coat rack, opposite the bar. When they came in, I'd know it.
Fran walked in first.
"FRAN?" She was looking left, into the bar area for about 5 seconds scanning the place before I called out her name in this questioning tone. Why I said it like that, I don't know. I was absolutely positive it was her! She was a lovely lady in a long red leather coat. We greeted each other, then Pat, and I shook hands with Mike, Robert's younger brother. Words cannot fully describe the scene. We were both choked up a little. Fran recognized my voice instantly.
We were both surprised as to how this first few seconds played out. It was quite different than what we had imagined it would be, but no less rewarding! It was exactly 7pm. It turns out they had a bit of trouble finding the restaurant too!
We grabbed a bar table and added our party name to the waiting list. We chatted about everything and took pictures. There was plenty of time to talk since we waited an hour and a half for a table. Looking back, the wait wasn't all that bad (aside from a few hunger pains) because it extended our time together! Fran told me the Medical College of Virginia, where Robert was transplanted, was just down the street. I made a mental note to swing by the place on the way out of town.
When we arrived at our 2nd floor table, I pulled a small blue velvet gift box from my pocket and handed it to Fran. I told her "These are not diamonds." and she laughed. They were a pair of my Chief's anchors from the Navy. I don't think she understood the significance at first. After I explained that they were Navy Chief anchors, it started coming together -- you see, my code name for myself was "Chief" in the letters we had to pass though our BMT centers.
At the time of the transplant I was a Navy Chief - only becoming an officer in June of '97. Robert and his family knew of me as "Chief" for about 13 months because the NMDP coordinator would not let Robert know my first name, though I could know his (long story). Robert had called himself "Bubba" for me to him, but I knew he was Robert since transplant day April 11, 1997. It was a bit strange to hear all references to him at dinner as "Bobby" since I had "Robert" ingrained in my head from day one.
The photo album they intended on bringing was left on the counter at home. Mike went to car and checked everywhere for it, but it wasn't there. Fran thought Mike brought it, and Mike thought Fran brought it. That's OK. We didn't have pictures to go by, so we worked off memories. Fran said: "Robert (her oldest son) says thank you." That touched me deeply.
The prime rib was delicious and no room was spared for the dessert buffet. Too bad 'cause it looked so tempting on the way to our table. I think after an hour and a half wait for a table, a cockroach would've looked tasty at that point! :) We signed the wine bottle cork as a sort of tradition, and Pat added the place and date. The people at the neighboring table gave us their wine cork which said "Drink Naked" on it. The wine's name was Naked Mountain wine. We signed both corks.
The evening was winding down by 11pm, and we both had long trips back ahead of us. We took a few more pictures outside of the restaurant and vowed to meet again.
It was a fantastic evening that we'll never forget. We had waited too long, and there was such a long period of hidden identities that the significance of our first meeting is very hard to explain unless you actually were to experience it. Other donors have expressed to me the joy of meeting their recipients and family. Unfortunately, Robert (Bobby) couldn't be there with us. I knew, though, that he was smiling down on us from above. I felt his presence on the drive home.