Remembering My Brother Robert

I learned that yesterday was Siblings Day and that made me think of Robert. Robert was my younger brother, third child and second boy among four siblings. We grew up in suburban New Jersey, in the orbit of New York City, in the 1960s. When we were kids we played board games together, drank too much soda, and stayed up way too late in the Summer watching old movies on a black and white TV.

All four of us kids were smart in school, but Robert was scary intelligent. He was top of his class for four years in High School, then went on to Notre Dame University. Later he got a Masters in English from Columbia.

During and after college, he spent a lot of time in Europe, especially Germany. A High School friend of mine, who was in the military, ran into Robert in a Beer Garden in Bavaria. What are the odds? Years later, Robert visited me in Atlanta and gave me a fragment of painted concrete that he said “might have been” part of the Berlin Wall. I still have it.

Robert settled in New York City, and while attending Columbia got an internship at the Village Voice. He started writing theater reviews and before long the Voice was running them. Later, he founded a newsletter on the AIDS epidemic, and in 1989 was named the Voice’s editor in charge of AIDS coverage.

I knew Robert was HIV positive, and in the autumn of 1993, he called me long distance and told me he had contracted a related condition that proved terminal “in most cases.” I asked if there was anything I could do, and he asked me to be an executor of his will, to make sure his partner was able to keep their apartment. I flew up to New York to visit him and deal with the legal stuff.

The day I was to leave, we talked about his condition and the chances of survival. He said, “You know, I might get better. But think of how embarrassing it will be after causing all this excitement.”

On my way out the door I hugged him and said, “Get better. Risk the embarrassment.”

He laughed.

Five months later he died, at the age of 37.

I know he was only one of many, many wonderful people who died too early because of AIDs. He documented the epidemic in his writings and helped shape public awareness and policy. The saddest part for me is how his life was cut off, unfinished, and thinking about what other contributions he might have made.

5 thoughts on “Remembering My Brother Robert”

  1. I knew your brother when we were both students at Notre Dame. We both lived on the 4th floor of Grace Hall the year that he was a senior and I was a sophomore. One of my favorite memories of my time there was when I had to stay on campus during spring break to catch up on reading Melville’s unabridged Moby-Dick for an English paper I was writing. He was one of the few others who stayed in the dorm that week; while we had been friendly before, my then-girlfriend and I spent a lot of time hanging out with him, just talking about life and enjoying the quiet, and I look back on that time with great affection. We lost touch after he graduated, but while I was in law school at Stanford in the early ’80s, I was happy and pleased to come across his byline in the Village Voice while I was wasting time in the Vrooman Room of the law library, where the recreational reading material was kept.

    I was thinking today about Bob (that’s what we called him) as I was looking at some old papers, so I Googled him and came across your blog. I lost my own younger brother to AIDS in 1994, so I can empathize with the feelings you write about here. Thank you for sharing your story.

    1. Hi, Don,
      Thanks for your comment. It’s nice to hear from someone who knew Bob. That’s what we always called him in the family too.

  2. Hello, Jack.

    I’m one of your brother Bob’s broken-hearted college friends, Judy from Innsbruck and the Great Books Program at ND.

    I teach college writing and told one of my students about Bob this week, in terms of his courage, brilliance and wit.

    If there is any way to raise his profile I’d love to help.

    (Are you still in Atlanta? I went to Emory for grad school – Bob made me a better reader. I loved him, and feel lucky to have known him.)

    1. Hi, Judy.
      Sorry for the slow response. (I need to check this site more often.)
      Thanks for your comment. It’s so nice that you remember Bob so kindly. He was mentioned in a New Yorker article by Tom Mallon end of 2022:
      I know because a fact checker got in touch with me on a few points.
      Where do you teach writing? What years were you at Emory?
      I am retired now and living in Florida, but I lived in Georgia 1978 – 2013. Used to drive by Emory a lot.
      Best wishes,
      – Jack

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