John and I met on a blind date in 1991. We met at the MARTA station in Atlanta in order to travel to the Amy Grant Heart in Motion tour. Back then we didn't have mobile phones or Internet. So if we wanted to plan anything we did it over the land line.
John was dating at the time and the guy he wanted to take to the concert didn't want to go since she was a Christian singer. Funny thing is John didn't even know that Amy Grant was brought up in a religious home or sang Christian music. All he heard of her was the “Baby Baby”song that played on the local pop station. He won two tickets and needed a date. It just so happens (or was it fate) that I had recently been kicked out of my home for coming out of the closet and Christian therapy didn't change me. I had been brought up in an Independent Fundamental Baptist home. My birth father was a minister.
I had just moved to Atlanta with literally the clothes on my back and the car I drove to the city in. And if it weren't for the gay couple that gave me a sofa to sleep on I would have slept in my car that first night.
The guy John was dating was a friend with the couple that gave me a place to stay. And he knew how much I enjoyed Amy Grant's music so he told John he had the perfect person for him to go with. John and I spoke briefly on the phone and made plans to meet up at the MARTA station. However, we forgot some very important details; what we looked like, what we were going to wear that night and where to exactly meet in the train station. I didn't realize until I got to the station that these details were left out. In fact, it was the first time I had been to the Five Points and did not realize how busy or how large it was. I was a bit scared with all the people around and being new to the area (I came from a small town - McDonough, GA). How was I going to find John and make my date?
But I decided to go to the train we were supposed to take and hope for the best. As I neared the platform I saw a crowd of people. Lots and lots of people were gathered all around. And in the center of them all I saw a guy that stood out (not in height) in the crowd. There was something about him that drew me to him; something that felt familiar. I walked up and asked if he was John and he responded by saying, "Rob?" And I said, “Yes!”
We had a great time that night and although we didn't become an official item until 1995 (after my tour in Germany). I always knew in my heart he was the one. I just needed time to find myself and come to full acceptance of who I was as a gay man.
Even though my parents had disowned me, my grandmother Opal Gardiner missed me dearly and we kept in touch privately. My family did not allow me to see her. But that never stopped her from loving me. In 1995, I received a call from John. He had found me through my grandmother. She told him I was at Travis AFB, Fairfield, CA. He told me he wanted to get married. I was so excited for him and yet sad because I loved him. I told him I was happy for him and I hoped he would invite me to the wedding. And then he said, "No Rob...I want to marry you." I remember saying rather loudly, "You want to marry me?" And then realized I was in a military office. It was my Master Sergeant that picked up the phone and told me I had a call. So he knew the other caller was a guy! He just rolled his eyes and smiled. I told John we could not speak then but that I would call him later that night. I wrote down his number. We spoke after work and then a few weeks later he moved out to California with me.
I didn't know that we couldn't get married. The whole "gays can't marry" thing was all news to me. After all, I had just come out and then joined the USAF and moved overseas. But that didn't matter to us. We were mates for life. From 1995 - 2012 we were together. 17 years I will always hold dear to my heart. My time with John changed my life forever. In 2005 we officially married in Toronto, Canada. Yet when we returned to the United States of America we were told by the border agent that we had to say we were single on the entry forms to come into the United States. I remember that feeling to this day. A border patrol agent could just negate our relationship and our marriage because that was the law of the United States.
In 2012 John passed away while having a stint put into his heart. His artery burst during the procedure and then his lungs collapsed. They were unable to get his blood to go back into his heart. For some strange reason his heart clotted and there was nothing they could do.
2012 was the beginning of a good year; we began writing together again. It was short lived, however, when he died on March 7, 2012. That is the day I thought my world had come to an end. I felt like my body was split into two pieces and my heart filled with pressure about to explode. Just one hour before he died, I had spoken with him and said he would be back to normal in no time just like “Hercules, Hercules, Hercules!” (The Nutty Professor). But he wasn't - at least not in this life. He was gone.
Nothing can prepare you for that kind of loss. No one can say anything to make it better. On March 9, I got a call from the medical examiner in Minnesota who cleared his body to be released. And once again I felt the negating of our relationship when the medical examiner told me that he needed the number and name of the next of kin. I was his next of kin! Just not legally in the United States. Fortunately, I had written up his Medical Power of Attorney to release his remains to me upon his death. After pointing that out to the medical examiner, he agreed it was legal to release John to me. But he still had to have the legal next of kin. Talk about pouring salt into a wound. But at least I was getting my babes body back.
The next week John was cremated. Waiting was hell. I knew where he was laying but I couldn't go get him or just sit with his body. He was only 2 miles away, yet it could have been 1,000 miles. All I could do each of those nights was stand on the porch and look in the direction of the Cremation Society and wish I could sit with him and guard over his body. As I was getting ready for his cremation, it hit me like a ton of bricks that my babe had worn his cremation clothes to the hospital the day he died. I cried. Did he know? He was like that. All I had left to get ready was his Harry Potter book, 3 sticks of incense and the 2 letters I wrote to him.
There was no memorial service. He didn't want one and I made sure all of his wishes were followed. When it was time for his body to be put into the oven, I did it myself (along with the Cremation Society rep) and pressed the button. I had to make sure it was done right and I just didn't trust anyone to do it properly. My last words to him before the fire began was “Go with Thor"; a reference from our book.
The rest of 2012 and part of 2013 was a roller coaster - I was in and out of the hospital for depression and anxiety. I felt like I had one foot in this world and one in the next; there was no balance. Grief does that to you. Yet I knew that I had to return to the land of the living. And I had great friends to support me through this process.
I attended classes and met weekly with a Minneapolis Veteran's Affairs (VA) therapist. Mindfulness and radical acceptance are two key skills that help me daily. Another one that I really dislike but do it anyway doing the opposite of how I feel (example: don't feel like hanging with friends - do it anyway - it will energize you). And when I forget my routine or have a bad day, I have an app (Google Keep) that reminds me what I need to do and what I need to do NEXT (watch Rabbit Hole with Nicole Kidman). It is all about learning to walk through life again, asking for help, following a plan and keeping a checklist nearby!
2014 was an excellent year at work --- my final year there after almost 14 years. Was the best project I ran in my life. And now 2015 starts new...a new beginning again. One step at a time. Not always easy but the days can be bearable over time I'm learning. I still miss John every day of my life. He touched my life in such a beautiful way I have to remember to be thankful for who he was and the love he shared with me. And today I figured I would reach out and try to find a community that could understand in some way. I had bottled up so much for the last several months, and thinking on what the VA had taught me I figured I should reach out and not get stuck in that hole of despair and sorrow again. And that is how I ended up here today.
Thank you for allowing me to share and I'm sorry you had to be here yourself.
What a beautiful story, Robert. I loved hearing about how you met John and your journey to find each other. I lost my partner of 27 years last October, and I can certainly relate to how completely lost one can feel when we lose a spouse. It is like taking away a part of ourselves. I've recently heard about the concept of "grief brain" and it is helping me to normalize my own inner processes. Thank you for sharing.