LEBANON, Ind. – The decision is the hard part, and it’s coming. It’s always coming. Robert Muse-Myers is a Lebanon senior, one of the fastest cross-country runners in the area, and soon he’ll have a choice to make – but not too soon. He’s running the first mile in 5 minutes, 20 seconds. He’s cruising. His thoughts are happy, for now.
He thinks of his mother, so funny and so welcoming, the way she lights up a room. He thinks of his father, trying so hard to recover from alcoholism. Robby passes the mile marker, and he starts to feel the pain. He could slow down, you know. He doesn’t have to run this fast. Not like a pack of wolves is chasing him.
Though it could be something scarier.
Running that far, that fast – it’s not normal. It hurts. The decision is coming. On Saturday at the IHSAA Noblesville Regional, the decision will come toward the end of the 3.1-mile race.
Quit, Robby. You don’t have to do this.
He doesn’t know who’s talking to him. He never does. But he can hear those words over the screaming in his lungs, and he can feel them over the burning in his legs. His thoughts are not happy, not anymore.
He remembers finding his mom in her bed, not asleep, not alive. Robby touches her arm, and recoils at how cold it is. He compresses her chest down and up, down and up, but it won’t move, not ever again. He can still smell death on his hands. He was in seventh grade.
He remembers the phone call nine months later. Robby’s dad, trying so damn hard to quit drinking, doesn’t have to try anymore. Doctors say it was a heart attack. He’s gone. Robby was in eighth grade.
Quit, Robby. You don’t have to do this.
Two miles down. He doesn’t have to decide. Not yet. Now Robby is thinking of his sisters, how they’ve loved and supported him. He’s thinking of his friends at Lebanon High, how they’ve championed him, voting him class president as a freshman and sophomore, and crowning him Prom King as a junior. He’s thinking of his math teacher, Mr. Adkins, more than a math teacher, a friend who checks on Robby. Just to make sure he’s OK.
He’s thinking of his coach, Shelley West, more than a coach, a beautiful soul who stepped in after his parents died and tried to fill the emotional and financial crevices.
He’s thinking of Jeff and Julie Toole, strangers who scooped him up in the last year. They have five sons, including a sophomore runner named Camren, but now they have six. They’ve taken in Robby, provided for him in ways he never thought possible.
Off in the distance, somewhere he can’t yet see, the finish line is coming and Robert Muse-Myers makes his decision. It’s the same decision he makes each time the pain starts whispering to him, well into a journey that won’t end here.
* * *
He leaves it by the front door. Every year.
That’s Robby. He pulls into Shelley West’s driveway, hops out and rings the doorbell. Then he’s gone. He’s done it for three years now, and still it catches his cross-country coach by surprise when she opens the door to find nobody, just flowers and a card she’ll read on the porch.
Happy Mother’s Day! When my mom died in 2013, I was left without a parent figure and guidance. As I was living in the darkest part of my life, you helped me fight through it. You taught me to get up, even when fatigued. You might not realize it, but you gave sunlight to a rose that was surrounded by concrete.
“He’s just so wise beyond his years,” Shelley West is saying, or trying to say, as the tears start to fall. “I really don’t realize what I’m doing for him, but he makes me see it. How many kids do that? Just a phenomenal young man. The teachers are always bragging on how he’s a leader in the classroom, such a positive role model. Everyone gravitates to him. I tell him he’s my magnet.”
Robby has been team captain since freshman year. On race day when he trots off for a warm-up run, teammates trot in his wake. At some point Robby tries to get away, gather his thoughts for the physical and psychological warfare he’s about to wage on himself, but he can’t. They follow.
“Hey,” West tells his teammates, “let Robby do his own thing for a minute.”
He’ll go off alone, long and lean at 5-9, short brown hair and giant blue eyes and just the spitting image of his father as a boy. Robby will think about his dad, Robert Nelson Myers Jr. – Robby is Robert Nelson Muse-Myers III – and wrestle with life’s random cruelty. His dad and mom never married, fighting but staying together until Sherri Muse kicked him out. By then the Department of Child Services had removed Robby from the home once, but only briefly. When he was 7 or 8, his dad went to rehab in California and resurfaced in Connecticut and later Florida.
“His fatal flaw,” Robby says of his father’s drinking. “He never overcame that.”
Back in Lebanon, Robby’s mom was sick and getting worse. She suffered from multiple sclerosis and Graves’ disease, and medication played tricks on her mind. Normally so upbeat and delightful, she’d get muddled and not recognize her kids. One time she chased an imaginary rabbit with a broom. Another time she confused the family dog, a Labrador mix named Hanson, for a giant rat.
Doctors told Robby and his sisters that the day was coming when Sherri would go to sleep and just … not wake up. That day came Jan. 6, 2013. Robby found her.
“You know in movies, the body’s cold?” he says. “It was cold, cold. Frozen, almost.”
Robby, the second-youngest of seven children, was the one calling 911 and comforting his sisters. One of them, Jacy, took in Robby and their youngest sister Sara, but it wasn’t easy. Jacy was just 21 herself, and she had another sibling to worry about, one in jail. Habitat for Humanity built the family a home, but money was tight. Since he was in middle school, Shelley West and other Lebanon teachers have donated cash and clothes, often anonymously. He calls them “the best mentors and teachers a kid could ask for.” Add he knew it was them.
“She doesn’t know this, but I knew,” he says of Shelley West, and now tears are magnifying those big blue eyes. “She’s always been there, talking to me, getting me whatever I needed. She’s the only one who believed in me from the beginning.”
His dad was living down in Florida when Robby’s mom died. Robert Jr. started coming to Indiana just to eat with Robby, just to talk with him. At first Robby was angry. So angry.
“I had a lot of resentment toward him,” he says. “My mom’s going through this stuff, and you’re not here. I had a lot of anger built up, but when my Mom passed I was like: Hey, I really want to reconnect with my dad. We were getting really close and I was really enjoying him, and then he passed away from a heart attack.”
Essentially raising himself, Robby tried. By God, the kid tried. He was a student who made C’s and D’s, a cross country runner who ran in the middle of the pack – “I was a slacker,” he says – until his parents died. He went looking for motivational speakers and watched them on YouTube. He attended school leadership camps. He signed up for all Advanced Placement classes and began getting A’s and B’s. He was training harder, running faster, a vortex of self-improvement who now has a 3.7 GPA and college teams recruiting him.
“It was just something in me,” he says. “I don’t know what was talking to me, but it was saying: ‘You’re so much better than you think you are. You can do a lot more than this. Just put your head down and go through this.’ When my parents died, it made me put a lot more value on life. If you’re just out there wasting time, then what are you doing?”
But he has not done it alone. He wants that clear. You know that saying, it takes a village to raise a child?
“Lebanon has been my village,” Robby says.
And he wants to give back. After college and a few years on a regular job, he wants to get into local politics. For now he’s on the Lebanon Youth Council, working with Mayor Matt Gentry and the school board to rename Essex Drive, just south of the high school, “Tiger Way.”
“Those kids are all extremely high achievers,” Mayor Gentry says of the Youth Council, “but Robby’s a high achiever within that group. He’s been a great partner to me, and a great leader.”
Imagine: Kid loses both parents within nine months, and this kid, this eighth-grader – this self-described slacker – makes the decision to fight.
“You grow through adversity,” Robby says, “and there’s beauty in the struggle.”
* * *
She was on the deck, reading her Bible. Julie Toole doesn’t know where Robby had been hiding those flowers, but he handed her the bouquet and a hand-written card and then watched her read it.
Happy Mother’s Day. Thank you so much for what you’ve done for me. I can’t put into words a thank you great enough to express my gratitude, but this is a start. Thank you.
Love your new son,
Robby was still living with his sisters, Jacy and Sara, when he met the Toole family last year. It was cross country season, the night before the 2016 sectional, and the team gathered at then-freshman Camren Toole’s house for a big carb dinner. Outside was Robby’s car, a shark-gray 2002 Cadillac DeVille he’d bought for $800 he’d earned working at McDonald’s. The car gave a metallic shriek every time someone opened the passenger door.
Inside, Robby had a problem: His glasses had broken again. When they first fell apart months earlier, Robby grabbed a plastic tag off a shirt and melted it over the broken pieces. But now it came apart again, and Julie Toole was asking Robby if she could get him new glasses. Yes, he finally said, and soon he had two new pair and was wearing contacts for the first time in his life.
“I’m not used to that, because I don’t really come from a background of a lot of money,” Robby says. “She took care of me.”
It continued. Jeff and Julie bought him clothes and noticed how he always wore them when he visited Camren. Come to us for anything you need, they told Robby. He wouldn’t come, so they put money in an account and gave him a card to buy his gas, his deodorant, whatever. When his car insurance lapsed, the Tooles added Robby to their policy. Robby drove his $800 DeVille up their driveway for his insurance card. Julie Toole gestured toward the garage.
Inside was a 2014 Ford Focus, silver with a red bow.
“Now do you now understand,” Julie told him, “that we mean business?”
Robby moved in a few months later. The Tooles had decorated their basement with a bed, furniture, a desk for schoolwork and poster-sized pictures: action photos of Robby, running in races. Julie will get on him, though. She lets him hear it when his room’s a mess, and Robby does chores, same as Camren and his four brothers. Julie also has this thing: You live here, you get a summer job. When Camren became a lifeguard in June at the Lebanon Park Pool, Robby decided to join him. He’s not much of a swimmer, but he worked until he passed the test. He became a lifeguard.
“My boys say: ‘Mom, you treat him just like us,’” Julie says. “Well, yeah. And we’ve already explained to him: You know when you go off to college, you don’t just leave. You still have a bedroom here. This is your home, Robby. You still come home for Thanksgiving break, for Christmas. You’re still part of this family.”
Last month the Tigers had Senior Night, with each senior supposed to escort his parents to the starting line. That presented Robert Muse-Myers, neither of his parents alive, with a choice. So many tough decisions this kid has had to make, and at Senior Night he made his: Shelley West on one arm, Julie Toole on the other.
Last week, Camren Toole was given an assignment in his sophomore English class: Write a paper on something that has changed your life. Well, you know high school boys. They don’t talk much about feelings, certainly not to their parents, and Camren has never said any of this to his mom. But the other day he handed Julie his paper. She read to the end, where Camren had written this:
Robby gave me an entire new perspective on the world. He taught me to not take anything for granted, to help others out whenever I can, and he showed me that every person has a different background. I could not be more thankful for the family that I now have, which consists of me, my parents, and my FIVE brothers.
Julie Toole will be at Noblesville on Saturday. By the time she sees Robby it will be the end of the race, after he has made his decision: Get to the finish line as fast as possible. Family is waiting, including the mother who appeared when he needed one most.