Robert Fuller Garner IV graduated from Auburn University in 2006 with a degree in civil engineering. He quickly landed a job with a firm in Birmingham and had his whole life ahead of him.
But somehow, this tall, handsome and gregarious young man lost his way.
“He became addicted to alcohol,” said his mother, Ann Garner, formerly of Anniston and now a resident of Auburn.
Rob surrounded himself with friends and family, people he loved and cherished and who felt the same way about him. As his drinking grew steadily worse, everyone felt helpless. No one knew what to do, and conventional wisdom said that nothing would work anyway — not until Rob, himself, asked for help.
He was 26 years old when he admitted he had a problem and willingly entered into rehab. “He spent six weeks at one of the finest facilities in the country,” his mother said. “And was reported to be a model patient.”
In the days following his discharge, at a time when Ann felt hopeful for her son’s future, he relapsed. “I received a call telling me to come right away,” she said.
Arriving at Rob’s place, Ann discovered several bottles of vodka hidden in various spots. She didn’t know how much her son had consumed, but she knew he needed to get back into rehab right away.
Everything was different that time. “Rob was anything but a model patient,” his mother recalled. “He was embarrassed, defiant and rebellious.”
It was during that second rehab stay that Rob met a young woman, Cathy (not her real name), who was battling her own addiction. Cathy’s mother, who was struggling at the time, refused to let Cathy come home after her rehab was completed. So Rob brought her to Anniston, to his own home and to his own mother.
“Rob told me she was anorexic and indeed, she was,” Ann remembered. “When I hugged her, I could feel her bones.”
Desperate for a place to live, Cathy called her grandparents in South Carolina. They agreed to let her stay with them, and Rob offered to drive her.
Ann had a bad feeling about it — “a terrible sense of dread” — and instead of walking Rob to the car to say goodbye, she remained in the foyer and began to cry.
Rob stepped back inside because he had forgotten something, and when he spotted his mother, he, too, became emotional.
“He asked me, ‘What’s wrong, Mom?’ but it was all I could do to just hold him and beg him to be careful,” she said.
It was the last time Ann ever saw her son.
In South Carolina, Cathy acquired some heroin and Rob, curious about it, tried it for himself — but he didn’t feel anything from it.
He actually sat down with Cathy’s grandfather afterwards to talk about chores for the next day. They were going to winterize the mountain cabin, chop wood, that sort of thing. “Rob loved being outside,” Ann said. “It would’ve been the perfect day for him.”
Later that night, he fell asleep, and by the next morning “he was in the arms of our Lord,” Ann said. “He closed his eyes and awoke in the place where we all hope to find eternal rest.”
An autopsy revealed the cause of death to be respiratory failure due to a lethal dose of heroin (for a non-user). No alcohol or other substances were present in his system.
Ann admits it would be easy to blame Cathy for Rob’s death. “She was the last person to see him alive, and by her own admission, she supplied the heroin,” she said. “But the reality is that Rob was on a destructive path before he ever met Cathy.”
In the 10 years since Rob’s death, Ann has learned to take comfort knowing her son is free of pain and guilt and anguish and has finally found the peace and comfort for which he was always searching. She willingly shares his tragic story with others in the hope that his death might save someone’s life.
That sentiment is a genuine tribute to her son, because despite his battle with addiction, Rob had a sweet and loving spirit and a sincere desire to help other people. That is why, each year on the anniversary of his death — Nov. 1 — Ann asks all of his family and friends to keep her son’s spirit alive by performing random acts of kindness.
And each year, in the days that follow, she hears the heartwarming stories of loving acts done in her son’s memory — everything from donating blood to over-tipping a waitress to spending quality time with the elderly.
“Those are all wonderful things that happen when we reach out and help others,” Ann said. “And I just know Rob is smiling over each one.”
Donna Barton’s column appears every Sunday. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.