I remember when I first met Robbie. I was 9 years old. We were approximately the same age. We met at church.
My very first memory of him is one of laughter. Because that’s what we did when we first met. We laughed. We laughed hard. We laughed in the middle of a church service.
It was the kind of crippling laughter that makes you lose control of all muscular function. The kind of laughter that causes drool to leak from the corners of your mouth.
It was nuclear laughter. We laughed so hard we could not breath. Couldn’t speak.
The adults in the pews kept telling us to “Hush,” or “Show some respect,” or “Would you two shut up?”
But you know how it works. The more they told us to stop, the harder we laughed. We laughed until we nearly peed our little church trousers.
To this day, I cannot remember laughing any harder than I did with Robbie Conrad.
He came from a good family. His parents ran the prison ministry. They were meek people. I remember Robbie and his dad liked professional wrestling. They knew all the wrestlers’ names. They knew all the moves.
I also remember that Robbie and his dad seemed to have a pretty good relationship, something I never had with my old man. He and his dad seemed to actually like each other. Whereas, sometimes I wasn’t sure how my father felt about me.
A little over a year after we first met, my father died. My father died by suicide, and my father tried to kill my mother, too. So it made for juicy gossip. My family made the newspaper. We became a walking stigma.
When your father dies the way mine did, your boyhood friends don’t know how to deal with it. So they don’t. Your friends just cut you off. You become a nonentity.
My Little League team dropped off the planet. The kids at school scooted away from me in the cafeteria like I had small pox. Children on the bus whispered among themselves when I was nearby, then suppressed giggles.
Even my close friends disappeared.
The week after my father died, I called my friend Gary; his mother said he wasn’t home. So I called my buddy Brent; “He’s busy at the moment,” his mother said. I dialed Chadley’s number; “Sorry,” said his mother, “Chadley just stepped out.”
On the Sunday following my father’s end, my mother took me to church. I didn’t want to go. I was prepared to be blackballed by my church friends, too. I was ready to be ignored.
But that didn’t happen. I wasn’t invisible.
Robbie Conrad marched right up to me. He was unafraid. There was nothing awkward in his gait. Nothing uncomfortable in him.
He removed something shiny from his pocket.
“I got you something,” he said.
I was shellshocked.
“You got ME something?” I said.
He gave it to me. It was as keychain. One of those personalized fobs, with my name printed on it.
I held that keychain like I was holding the Cup of Christ itself. In that moment, the tin trinket was the most precious thing I had ever held. The keychain meant that someone was thinking of me. Someone cared about me. Someone remembered me.
Then Robbie embraced me.
“I’m here for you,” he said. “Anything you need. I’m your friend. I’m not going anywhere.”
He brought laughter into my life during the darkest period of my existence. I remember his cheerful voice. I remember sleepovers at his house, and singing with the radio. I remember watching professional wrestling until the wee hours. I remember spying on his sister and her friends during our moments of boyhood curiosity.
I remember too much.
We lost touch over the years. I emailed him a few times. But not as often as I should have.
Today, Robbie’s sister told me that he passed away. He had been struggling with cancer for eight years, and he finally came to the end of his earthly battle.
And as I write this, there is a keychain lying on my desk. I’ve had this thing since I was a child. When I look at it, somehow I know something. I know something within the pit of my soul. The same way I know that tomorrow the sun will come up. The same way I know that God looks out for orphans and fools like me.
I know, without doubt, that the angels have never laughed as hard as they are laughing now.