The last time I met with Anthony Robinson, in June 2011, we sat in the shade of a huge oak tree at his home in Brooksville and talked about death. His death.
His words stuck with me: "I tell everyone, 'If I die tomorrow, don't be sad. I've had all these years.' ''
He had fought most of his life to survive, first as a fifth-grader at Lacoochee Elementary School when doctors diagnosed him with acute myeloid leukemia. Teachers loved the boy who even after awful, energy-sapping treatments would make it to class, put his head on his desk and do math problems without complaint.
The drugs he took damaged his heart, and three years later, on the day before his 14th birthday, he lay unconscious in a Gainesville hospital with machines helping him breathe. His mom, Joanne Bloodsworth, took a pencil and wrote a short obituary. "It would take a miracle for him to survive,'' she recalled.
On what seemed would be Anthony's last day, another child drowned. Doctors put his heart in Anthony's chest. He went on to graduate from Pasco High School, which is the first time we met. Later he excelled as a counselor for troubled teens. He impressed others with his humble attitude and quick smile. How he managed that smile was a mystery to me as we met that day in Brooksville.
Only 16 percent of heart transplant patients live 20 years or more, and Anthony was on his 23rd. He had taken good care of his heart, exercising and avoiding smoke. But antirejection drugs had ruined his kidneys. When doctors fitted him for a stomach catheter for dialysis treatments, they noticed a lump in his throat. He had thyroid cancer.
The diagnosis knocked him off the kidney transplant list. And since he could no longer work, he relied on Social Security. He got behind in his car payments. One day, a man came to take it away. Anthony had to rely on friends to get him to medical appointments in Gainesville and Tampa.
Even then, he kept a cheerful demeanor.
"I can't blame them for taking the car back,'' he said. "I couldn't make the payments.''
A few Samaritans sent Anthony some money after I wrote about him. He struggled, but he also celebrated. He called recently to say he was cancer-free and back on the list for kidneys. He didn't mention any heart problems, but his fiancee of 10 years, Tangela Forbes, said later he had developed blockages. He passed out a few months back at the Brooksville Walmart.
Last week he scraped together some money to buy a Christmas gift for his mother. He had an appointment with transplant doctors in Tampa, close to her home. When she came to the door, he held out a satin blue robe and, typically, greeted her with that big smile. She thought he looked tired.
At the doctor's office Wednesday, he collapsed. The heart that had saved him all those years ago stopped beating.
His old principal at Lacoochee Elementary, Renee Sedlack, sent me a note that night. "My heart is broken for those of us who loved him,'' she wrote. "He had a remarkable spirit and determination even as a young boy.''
Anthony Robinson, raised by a single mom in the projects of Pasco County's poorest community, lived 38 years, much longer than many others could predict. His condition limited what he could accomplish, but it gave him wisdom that earned him respect both in life and in death.
I'm reminded of his parting comments that day we sat beneath the oak tree. "Live your life to the fullest,'' he advised, "every day like it's the last.''