Today I gave my brother’s eulogy. I’ve included the text I spoke from below and the video of the entire service. (My part starts at about the 18:45 mark.) It’s been an exhausting, yet wondrous, day.
Bob was full of surprises. I had given up hope of another sibling just around the time my parents announced a baby on the way. Around the dining room table that night, we laughed and talked and cried with joy. Though we didn’t ask at the time, my parents had been as surprised as we were. Mom asked me to share this from her journal:
Sept. 25, 1991
Another marker on the road to baby: sonogram today. We saw the little guy yawn, saw his hand up above his head, saw his heart beat at 139 beats a minute, saw all four chambers and his kidneys, his diaphram, his stomach. I am not sure I saw, but the technician pointed out his fingernails—we saw his nose, his mouth, his beautiful hand, even a tiny foot.
We need to get busy—shellac the bassinet, paint Doug’s room, paint the changing table, buy a car seat, a back pack, a front pack! We need to buy diapers, a few basic clothes, hunt up the snow suit—or get a new one.
We need to choose a name!
Robert Christopher? Norman, Leif, Joel, James, Michael, Joshua, Jacob, Charles Robin?, Gregory.
This, I think, goes to show: Mom’s first instincts are best.
Another surprise when he was born: Dad expected me to call all the relatives with details. I didn’t know it at the time, but 10 lbs. 4.8 oz must have surprised many of them; Robert Kristoffer was a large baby. But he was little to us boys. We nicknamed him Bob because Robert seemed too formal and Roberto didn’t fit him. Soon we were learning valuable fatherhood skills: changing diapers, holding the head steady, rocking to sleep, and giving a crying infant to Mom. In a way, Bob had 4 father-figures, not just one.
But soon we left the house to start our own lives; every four years like clockwork. And Bob became something of an only child. I do not think those years were so difficult since he was loved deeply and richly by Mom and Dad. Each summer and Christmas we brothers caught up with his growth. Faults and failings were part of his growing pains. One summer he ate nothing but white things: rice, bread, pasta. But he surprised us with new passions and talents: fencing, airsoft, board games, card games, video games, reading, football, rowing, Scouting, the outdoors, the environment, guitar, a capella, mission trips, South Africa, girls. This Christmas, my wife and I knew that Stephanie had become part of our family; only the formalities were missing. The baby of the family became a man and I hardly noticed until too late.
For every story about Bob you have heard this week, my parents were co-authors. God had given them a final chance to perfect the craft of parenting, and they excelled. We saw in their relationship with Bob a model of how to raise a Godly man prepared to leave and become a father himself. I thought at times that they had spoiled the boy… and I was wrong.
My own son surprises us often too. But it was no shock to learn that he loved Bob the best of his uncles. With a rich legacy of fathering, Bob himself cared for Joshua and always had time for him. He loved my children and Dave’s children and Doug’s children. He taught them how to light fires and put them out, to carry a loaded pack and set up a tent, to read stories and to wrestle, to work hard and to play harder. Bob demonstrated patience with my children that I often lack.
Just as we were not prepared for his birth, death took us by surprise. Who can doubt that it had a purpose? Who can deny that this life, this boy, this man was given to us for a reason? Bob’s life offers wisdom:
Remember your Creator before the silver cord is loosed,
Or the golden bowl is broken,
Or the pitcher shattered at the fountain,
Or the wheel broken at the well.
Then the dust will return to the earth as it was,
And the spirit will return to God who gave it.
I will not accept that Bob’s life was a tragedy. Good Friday had tragic consequences this year, but it will only become a tragedy if our sorrow fails to bring us to the creator of the places and people Bob loved so well. By all means, let us cry rivers for a lost child. But let us also tap into the wellspring of life that flowed through him.
Yesterday was largely dedicated to visiting Mary Washington, Bob’s university. He had finished enough of his classwork that my parents will receive his degree in a couple of weeks. I keep thinking that the precise timing was pretty good, actually, as this is the last week of classes. So most students were still on campus, but they are certain to be dispersing soon.
I’d never been to Bob’s school. I could see many of the attractions: There’s a sense of tradition without being overly traditional. A creek runs through the campus’ lovingly manicured lawns. Music and art and learning permeate as do fun and games. Bob and his friends spent many evenings in the Underground, which is half coffeehouse and half foodcourt. It’s close enough to home, but not so close that dorm living would seem wasteful. And it’s small enough that a person could know most of the school.
The university from the president and dean to his closest friends gathered at Ball Circle for moment of silence. A couple hundred students wrote notes and prayers on balloons that they released into the air. Wind caught them up and carried many into nearby trees. Popping balloons, sudden and surprising as firecrackers at New Years, cut through the tension. My dad called out, “They aren’t ready to leave.” But most drifted off to biodegrade (these were special ordered for the purpose) across the nearby countryside. A group chanted and shouted Bob’s name. Hugs and tears and condolences and quiet conversations ensued.
In the evening, his a cappella group, One Note Stand, performed their concert as planned. Before each number, one or two members told stories about their time with Bob. None of the stories were forced, each was different, and Bob would have blushed and smiled in appreciation. They presented us with his senior gift: a bucket full of fun (and somewhat bewildering) items and remembrances. The One Note hat was given to his girlfriend, Stephanie. The student government president and university president eulogized my brother. His rowing team presenting my parents with his blanket and a teammate spoke. Finally the cox from his freshman boat and his roommate reminisced about their time with their fast friend. (Bob had many people who considered him their best friend. Somehow, it seems Bob felt the same about each one.)
Michael Wang, his roommate of threeish years, was especially moving in his words, spoken from the heart, and seasoned with a certain grief and joy. Our family will treasure the portrait he painted for us. He became, in his goodness and flaws, a real person with us if only for a few minutes. My brother, Doug, had nothing left to add to the evening except our sincere thanks.
But the person who truly stole the show was Bob himself. Almost from the moment I heard the news, I wondered who would take his senior solo. Who would sing Bill Withers’ Ain’t No Sunshine? The simple, obvious and weighty answer: nobody. Or, if you are like me, a phantom voice that might have been Bob’s. In my imagination, he got through his solo, but not without some tears.
It turns out that coming home has been at least as much joyous reunion as somber remembrance. As you might expect, guilt worms it’s way into even this. How can we be happy when there’s a hole in the family? We rationalize Bob’s empty seat by supposing that he’s somewhere else and will turn up after dinner or whatever. I’m sleeping in his bedroom and I found myself looking at his books and CDs. Bizarrely, I worried that if I moved anything he might notice my snooping. All of us who flew in this week expected Bob would meet us at the airport.
Even before last week, we had commented on the unusual number of people we knew who had died in the last year. In every case, I have no problem supposing that we might meet them in heaven. But not Bob. Maybe this will change when we see the body and bury it. But I suspect that when someone was as close as a brother (even 18-years younger) will be harder to internalize as dead that people who were less a constant in our own lives.
People sometimes assume Christians believe in the face of rational thinking. For some, that may be true. But I find that my gut instinct is to disbelieve and only by reviewing rationally what I have discovered to be true do I believe. A simple experiment proves it for me. When I look at this picture, my instinct says that when I fly home tonight, Bob will meet me at the airport as he often did.
But the rational, logical, controlled portion of my mind tells me that he won’t be there. I live maybe 90% of my life the same as any agnostic. It’s only when I make a special effort that I am confronted with the truth. It isn’t that I haven’t thought about the evidence that I believe. Rather, it’s because I haven’t internalized the evidence enough that I often doubt.
I have no answers for my son today. I’ll be leaving for Virginia for at least a week and my biggest worry is that he needs a father’s embrace right now. He loves his uncle and I don’t think he really believes Bob is gone. Most of the time, I don’t either.
Today was a better day. For one thing, I started rereading A Grief Observed, which reminded me that every mourning is as individual as every relationship. Somehow, that helps for the present, though I see danger in the future. For another, it helps to sing familiar words with caring friends who know that comfort often consists in a hug. And I had something productive to do: write Bob’s obituary.
I found it to be a lot like writing a Christmas letter: hit the high points and keep it short. My wife and parents edited mostly by expanding on points I tersely outlined. One aspect my wife added was that he enjoyed many family road trips, a caravan to Zion National Park. It seems a shame to not tell about that summer while I recall it.
My parents and Bob drove their Tahoe from Virginia to Idaho via Minnesota. I don’t know if they stopped at Mt. Rushmore, but the odds are good they did—it was a tradition. Meanwhile, Joy, Joshua, and I took our Tahoe from Burbank to San Francisco to Crater Lake to meet at the family cabin in McCall. We did the usual things: boating, fishing, reading, cooking on the beach, playing games until late, and so on.
The highlight was an overnight backpacking trip to a Upper Hazard Lake high in the Rockies. It’s a short hike, but it wasn’t easy for my son or mom. Even so, we had great fishing and enjoyed a comfortable camp at the lake’s drainage. In the morning, we had fish, hash browns, oatmeal, and coffee cooked on the campfire. Bob carried some extra weight for those who couldn’t and proved an expert outdoorsman.
One of my Tahoe’s tires got punctured on the way down the mountain. Thankfully, we had a full-sized spare to get us to Boise, but my dad wanted to drive with us to make sure we didn’t get stuck somewhere. We stopped and had a picnic somewhere along the Payette River. Joshua by this time had come to adore Bob, who was extremely patient with him. (This never changed by the way; Bob loved my son.) I recall doing a lot of car swapping so that they could spend time together.
As we left Idaho, we could not bear to part ways, so we caravaned to Salt Lake City. Along the way, I looked into my rearview mirror and wondered if Bob was having car trouble; he was slowing down. Meanwhile, in his Tahoe, they wondered if there was some emergency, since we seemed in a real hurry. When we compared notes at the Lake Bonneville rest area, the answer became clear: my speedometer was broken.
In the morning, we had Liege-style Belgian waffles at Bruges. Again, we didn’t want to split up quite yet, so we decided to travel together to Zion National Park. Zion Canyon was formed by the Virgin river cutting away sandstone in dramatic narrow cliffs. During the day, all six of us hiked toward the top of the canyon on a path that followed the river. When the path ends, most people enjoy the cool water on hot summer days. But the adventurous may continue though a section called The Narrows. It is so narrow, in fact, that travelers must hike in the river itself.
My parents opted to stay with Joshua playing on the sandbar. But Joy, Bob, and I pressed on. Fighting upstream as the Virgin River flows stronger between steep cliffs is strenuous. It’s important to have a pole or staff to steady yourself and maintain balance. Many people turn back after a bend or two. But we persisted. Bob was strong and determined. In the end, he outlasted us and went a little bit further as we rested. Finally we turned back and learned that keeping balance was just as strenuous going downstream as up. Bob was not phased.
And yet, his body failed him in the end. Life is fragile and all bodies break down one way or another. Today, I looked toward the one hope we can lean on: that Jesus really did lead the way toward Zion where we will have new, resurrection bodies.
Yesterday, my brother Bob died.
We found out right after our Good Friday service, which is the sort of thing that tests your faith. It was a shock in the sense that Bob was a 22-year-old man who did not engage in the sorts of activities that endanger the lives of so many men that age. He died shortly after a seizure of the type he’d experienced (and took medication for) since high school. As my wife relayed my mom’s message, the shock faded into dull regret and sharpened into grief. It’s one thing to nod with the pastor explaining why the death of one man is good despite appearances and quite another to accept the death of a brother whose life seemed to lay primarily in the future.
I repeat, for my own benefit, that Bob was a man. To me, he will always be a boy.
This photo was taken of him at my wedding when he was ten—the same age as my oldest son. We don’t have many photos of him from that day since the photographer didn’t know until later that he was my brother and not a cousin. Even to me, 18 years older than him, Bob seemed like a stranger that my parents brought into their house. When he answered the phone after his voice dropped, I always mistook him for my brother Dave. His steady approach to the world reminded me of no other than my brother Doug. As I write this, the guilt gnaws at me; I wish I’d gotten to know him better.
Was it good that Bob died when he did? By no means! Death is an evil we all face; death is never right or fair. Most of us are familiar with the verse that Bob is standing in front of in that photo. It ends with the sweet promise of everlasting life. Even so, I am angry with God that he took Bob from us. I am already dreading the days and weeks and months to come when dark thoughts and feelings will sneak our lives and steal bits of our memories of Bob. I worry that pain will overwhelm some of us who knew him.
And yet, deep down, at the core of my being, I know that light will not entirely vanish from the world. After we follow Bob through the shadowy valley, we will find him not resting, but rejoicing over a full life well lived. If you knew Bob, do not seek out the darkness—it will come. Rather find the shafts of light. For myself, I will remember the backpacking trips we took together, the game nights and jokes, his accomplishments as a he grew, and the day I learned that I had another brother whose name is Robert.
Even on the darkest of days, dawn comes in the morning.
The other morning after Joy fed her, I snuggled with Kathryn and allowed myself to be charmed once again by her smiles. As she looked up to me with total trust I thought, “I will not let you marry anyone who does not love you more than I do.” My little girl will grow up and become a woman of her own, God willing, but that doesn’t mean I won’t do everything in my power to guard her heart. Obviously I want my sons to marry women as wonderful as my own wife. But I want to protect my daughter. She is my princess.
I grew up in a house full of boys, so I know how we operate. The male of the species needs to be put in a position to succeed. Being overprotective, especially before they learn to make their own mistakes, will produce devastating consequences. After a fall, you gotta learn to stand up, dust yourself off, and try again. This goes for boys and girls, of course. But there are some mistakes you don’t want children to make at all, ever. And this is how boys differ from girls.
Most likely, you’ll think I’m old-fashioned (or worse), but some things are more devastating to girl than boys. Failed romantic relationships are just one of those things.
I actually wrote this months ago and didn’t want to finish it. I figured the work I need to do to justify this view of humanity would require research and careful logical argument. But each time I look at my daughter, I know that no argument can ever convey my feelings for her and my desires for her future. There’s just nothing more to write.