Brian McTear is haunted by the time he almost met his best friend, the person he came to call his "soul mate," Bobby Wolter.
It happened in the meat section of the Thriftway in Fishtown, up on Aramingo. Brian never uttered a word to Bobby about that day, but he finally wrote a confessional on his blog in August:
I knew it was you, because you were dressed in the same clothes as your Myspace photo at the time . . . and you had on an Urban Outfitters shirt (. . . which I figure only an Urban Outfitters employee would be caught dead in, right?).
Pretty sure you were in front of the steak options, because I was on the other side of an island filled with hams. When I looked over and realized it was you, I froze up.
Brian McTear and Bobby Wolter - both young guys working the indie music scene on the suddenly trendy streets of Fishtown, living just blocks from each other - frequented the same bars, grocery stores, and shops.
Yet because of a medical twist of fate, a quirk of the deadly lung disease they shared, even a chance encounter in a supermarket could have been catastrophic.
Still, to this day, Brian remains troubled that he didn't say something to Bobby.
I've imagined it a million times, how it probably should have gone . . . I say 'Bobby?' And you turn around, as nice and open and honest as I've since known you to be. But maybe you're thinking, WHO'S THIS???? And I say, 'It's me, Brian McTear!' Then we talk across the ham island for as long as we can before our groceries go bad."
Even without that meeting-that-never-was, Brian and Bobby's friendship bloomed in great part because of their other connection: cystic fibrosis, a genetic disease that kills most sufferers by their late 30s.
But for all that they shared, there was one important difference between them, the life-and-death reason they were not supposed to meet. Bobby was infected with a bacteria, B. cepacia, that is highly contagious and dangerous to others with cystic fibrosis. Brian was not.
So instead, they sealed their friendship in soul-searching e-mails that for five years bounced around cyberspace just to travel from one corner of Fishtown to another.
In each other, they found the rare person who could understand their complicated and ultimately star-crossed lives.
In the face of unavoidable sorrow, Brian and Bobby created in Philadelphia a remarkable story of brotherly love, lifting up not just each other but eventually also those who would read their e-mails and be inspired.
In 2004, Marianne Ferrin, a nurse practitioner at Penn Presbyterian Medical Center, noticed that two of her patients were musicians. So she asked Bobby if he wanted to write to Brian. He said sure.
Ferrin likes intoducing her cystic fibrosis patients, who, because of the infection risk - even a cold can make them seriously ill - do not have traditional support groups where they gather together. For those with B. cepacia, which resists antibiotics, meeting others with CF is out of the question.
Bobby and Brian quickly discovered how much more they shared. Both grew up in Chester County, where their fathers worked in homebuilding. They'd spent their teens playing the drums in garage bands before setting out for city streets at the first opportunity, to make music.
By 2004, Brian was 31 and a producer who had worked with local favorites Matt Pond PA and the Capitol Years and built a small studio, Miner Street Recordings, with his girlfriend, Amy Morrissey.
The former Latin major at West Chester University was riding the indie-rock wave with music he describes as "dirty, scrappy . . . more artsy."
Bobby, then 23, was part of a singer-songwriter set that Brian describes with a laugh as "boring." Fresh out of the University of the Arts, he played with bands such as the Weeds and Love Syndicate.
His laid-back musical style mirrored his personality, which friends and family universally describe as "sweet."
Bobby was an active kid growing up in Malvern, a swimmer even, and wasn't diagnosed with cystic fibrosis until age 12.
As a teen, at Conestoga High School, he was often hospitalized with lung infections, staying weeks to give antibiotics a chance to work. CF sufferers have a genetic mutation that causes a buildup of mucus in the lungs, making it easy for bacteria to grow.
Brian, though diagnosed at age 2, had few respiratory problems growing up and was never hospitalized. He thinks that helped him avoid B. cepacia since he rarely had contact with other children with CF except his sister, who also has the disease.
An ice hockey player at the private Hill School, he didn't see himself as a CF sufferer. "That's not going to be me. I don't want that. I'm healthy," he felt.
But Bobby was different. Here was someone as passionate about music as himself.
In his first e-mail, Bobby wrote:
i play in a few local bands around town such as the Weeds, the Adrian Mowry band and Redford. i was surprised to find out that you had cf, even though someone had mentioned . . . "some philly producer" having cf.
my case is pretty mild. i don't have any digestive problems, but i take anti-biotics all the time . . . how are you doing? do you wish they would pass the no-smoking ban in philly too?. . .
Brian was eager to talk music.
So what instrument do you play? When will your bands have websites? . . . I see that the Weeds have played the Unitarian Church. That is a tough show to get for a Philadelphian!
. . . You should come by and see my studio some day.
Those early e-mails segued between the musical and the medical. In early 2005, Bobby wrote:
things are pretty good for me, although i got sick the first week of january and had to go into the hospital to get IV meds. . . . how do you manage to stay alright financially when you get sick? it's something that i don't quite have the hang of yet. music-wise i'm pretty busy and have a bunch of cool shows coming up.
Bobby looked up to the older Brian, who managed to stay healthy while forging a successful music career, which included a foundation for aspiring musicians, Weathervane Music.
"When he talked about Brian, he couldn't say enough about what a great person he was," recalled Bobby's mother, Barbara Brown, a fitness instructor and computer consultant. "At one point he said, 'I wish I could be more like him.' I said 'Bobby, you're great the way you are.' "
For his part, Brian was completely taken with how nice Bobby was, and how, he, too, was living life on his own terms, despite being ill.
Their only human link, other than nurse Ferrin, was Devin Greenwood, who played with Bobby in the Weeds and had also produced an album at Brian's Miner Street studio.
While close to both, Greenwood was careful to keep them separate. If he invited one to a party at his house, the other couldn't come. But they'd had a three-way phone conversation.
"It was the first time I ever talked to them together and I was good friends with both of them. It was a trip," he said.
In 2007, when the Weeds wanted to record at Brian's studio, it seemed that Bobby and Brian might finally cross paths, if not sit down for that coveted heart-to-heart.
By now, they'd come to relish having someone who understood both the joy of playing to a packed house and the agony of gasping for breath in the middle of the night.
But could they really make an album together? Would they take turns working in the studio? What if Devin hugged Bobby then shook Brian's hand? Could Bobby safely play Brian's drums?
Brian wanted to give it a try.
"If there was a way to figure out how to make it happen I would definitely do whatever it took," he said.
But "Bobby knew the seriousness of what he had - he was, 'No, I can't do that,' " Greenwood recalled.
Like an evolving rock band, the rhythms of their e-mails changed. At first they were like staccato bursts of cyber energy, followed by months of silence. As health problems cropped up, conversations became longer and deeper.
In 2007, Brian, who'd begun suffering joint pain that made it hard at times to sit or even breathe, was hospitalized for five days for a bowel obstruction.
"It was really awful," he recalled, but it helped him appreciate that what Bobby went through "was 10 times worse."
Bobby didn't always let on how ill he had become. His strain of B. cepacia was the most lethal of 12 types, resistant to antibiotics and growing in his lungs.
"His lungs were like a wildfire kept contained," his mother said. "Any little infection is like a match thrown on it and he'd get a flare-up."
Twice a day, for 30 minutes, he wore a therapy vest to break up mucus. Three times a day, he spent an hour inhaling medication. He was on oxygen most of the time. In May 2008 his parents thought they would lose him.
Now, the friends were writing less about their rock-band dramas and more about big-picture stuff - Jungian philosophy, religion.
And what happens to you when you die.
That fall, Bobby asked Brian if he'd read Many Lives, Many Masters "about past lives and reincarnation [that] touches on a lot of theories on wisdom and answering the eternal question, 'Why?' "
Brian, in turn, recommended The Seth Material, which has "a lot of past, future and concurrent life conversation . . . fun stuff."
Bobby's closest friend, Chris Luxton, who'd played in bands with him at Conestoga High, said Bobby was freer with Brian on the computer than with his other friends.
"He could be more candid and less reserved because it was like, 'I won't have to answer for this tomorrow.' He could go a little crazy."
Brian, too, craved their conversations.
"He'd write to me from the hospital. I would write him back. I just felt the need to invest in this relationship."
In November 2008, Brian wrote:
We should get together some time. I'll make sure not to give you my cudies. . . . We don't have to shake hands, hug or nothin. . . . Just get together SOME way . . . Outside? In a Park? I don't know. . . .
Bobby played his last gig with the Weeds in April and spent the next few months in and out of the hospital. He also broke up with his longtime live-in girlfriend, which compounded his suffering.
While friends and family witnessed Bobby's decline, in e-mails he seemed upbeat, if a bit more introspective.
"He wouldn't let himself become depressed," Brian said. "I was shielded from . . . him kind of coming apart."
Their conversations went public when they made a blog of their e-mails, brianandbobbyspeak.com. And they hatched a plan to produce videos for people with CF, stamped with their own brand of optimism.
Bobby was energized by the idea that their friendship might inspire others to forge connections. He talked about a five-year plan, a 10-year plan, despite having "in the back of our minds that there's this median age we reach and that's it," Brian said.
In July, Bobby sent Brian a favorite poem, "A Walk" by Rainer Maria Rilke, writing:
It's the epitome of what I believe life is all about: the journey. the last line, 'what we feel is the wind in our faces' really hit home in a literal sense oddly enough.
Bobby was hopeful enough to imagine a romantic future.
Until the day I come across something that is too big and too strong for me, there is nothing I can't achieve. my dream is to walk the streets of Paris with the person I love. . . .
That month, Bobby moved home to Malvern and the two began videoconferencing - the first time they'd gotten to read emotions in each other's face. Like a pair of high school kids, they yakked and giggled into the night.
"I got to hear his voice and got to see him smile and hear him laugh," Brian said. "I got to see the whole Bobby and he got to see the whole me."
On Aug. 4, Bobby e-mailed Brian that his 9-year-old brother had read something about CF and misunderstood the part about life expectancy, thinking it was the disease that went away in one's 30s:
He truly believes this and is so excited for that day that obviously I am not going to shatter any illusions he has . . .
I've looked over the cliff a few times and I don't exactly remember or could make out what I saw, but I love THIS life . . . the nights where everything came together and we connected with each other, the audience, ourselves, that is truly something I hope everyone in this world gets to experience at least once in their life. . . . THAT is the reason I don't want to die. I don't want to stop connecting to people. I don't want to be able to not have that feeling anymore.
All I can really conclude from this, Bobby, is that we are confronted with our mortality in ways that make our capacity for love and friendship even greater than the average person. And at the same time, this heightened appreciation for life, beauty, love and friendship is itself a blessing.
Brian tried to explain mortality in terms of energy, in terms of a video game:
Dead or alive in this universe, we're still playing the game from somewhere off the physical system. . . . then whoever is playing the Bobby Wolter game and whoever is playing the Brian McTear game, . . . Those dudes are friends eternally without time no matter what!
In the middle of the night, Aug. 18, Brian cracked Bobby up with details of his small bowel obstruction, likening it to "one of those wacky Japanese game shows where everyone is scrambling around frantically as the clock is ticking before some giant crazy explosion of cake batter shoots all over the audience.
"Bobby was laughing so hard he had to keep pulling his oxygen tube away from his face to wipe the tears."
Four days later, Brian's phone rang. It was Bobby's father, Kurt Wolter.
The end had come with stunning quickness. Just an hour before, Bobby was eating pizza and watching the Phillies with his younger brother. Then he was back in his room calling for help, coughing up blood.
"He knew, he knew," his father said. "He said 'Dad, this is major. I'm dying.' "
Despite their frank conversations about the inevitable, the news stunned Brian. Bobby had always pulled through and both believed there would be new lifesaving treatments.
With Bobby's death, Brian lost "the most important relationship of my life," he said. "He was a dear, sweet person. He really, really, really was. But I don't feel as sad for myself as I feel really lucky."
He is thinking about producing the videos. And the blog is having an impact on CF patients across the country.
"As soon as we put the blog up we were getting thanks from people," Brian said.
And this Saturday, Bobby's friends and local bands are holding a fund-raiser to benefit cystic fibrosis research.
Brian admits he is a man transformed from that day five years ago when Bobby's first e-mail showed up on his computer screen. He no longer runs from his disease and others who have it.
The day after Bobby died, Brian posted one more e-mail to him on the blog, confessing to the supermarket sighting. He had never told Bobby because he didn't want his friend to think he feared his germs, that he was "dirty," which wasn't the case.
Then Brian admitted something else.
Nearly every time I wrote to you or responded to your emails, I would actually finish without thought or pretense by saying, "I love you Bobby, - B". I'd read back the message ('cause they were all good reading, actually, right?), but when I got to the . . . ending, of course, I'd quick hit the back-space bar. It was such an adolescent reaction on my part. Didn't want to come across too "touchy-feely", I guess.
E-Mails and More
To read Bobby and Brian's e-mails, watch a performance video, and learn about Saturday's fund-raiser,
go to http://go.philly.com/ brianandbobby.