MANATEE -- When an adored couple die unexpectedly at the most vibrant time of their lives, their loved ones often can't believe they are really gone.
The passage of time does little to dull the strange sensation that they will suddenly show up, filling their loved ones' living room with their personalities, says Bradenton's Don Robinson.
Robinson, 56, a former Pittsburgh Pirate pitcher who is now a Bradenton resident, should know.
He's felt that sensation many times over the past year after his 30-year-old son, Brent Robinson, and Brent's wife, Julia Robinson, 29, died in a horrible two-car crash last Christmas Eve in Kentucky.
"I know they are gone, but I keep thinking it can't really be true, that it's impossible this could have happened," Robinson said Friday, nearing the year anniversary of the accident. "I keep thinking they will walk through that front door. But they just don't. They never do."
For all the families in Manatee County who will be missing loved ones this Christmas, who are already girding themselves for that Christmas Eve pain, Don Robinson says he understands the grief.
He understands the gnawing feeling that the world has been turned upside down, that things no longer seem to make sense and that all you feel you are doing is hanging on to a planet spinning out of control.
That feeling came for the first time for him at 9:40 p.m. on Christmas Eve 2012 when a compassionate Manatee County Sheriff's Office deputy, whose name he forgets, knocked on his door in northwest Bradenton's Laurel Park to tell him his son was dead.
"I saw him at my front door and I thought someone was running the neighborhood and they were telling us to stay inside," Robinson said. "I never dreamed it was about Brent. He handled his job very good. He asked me if I had sons. I said, 'Yes, I have two.' He said, 'Is one named Brent?' I said, 'Yes.' He said, 'I'm sorry to say he's been killed in a car accident in Kentucky.' It was pure shock. I was wanting to yell out, 'Wait a minute here. You're talking about the wrong kid!' "
Robinson's wife, Rhonda, later asked the deputy if there were any survivors in the car crash. The deputy said, "No."
"Brent was gone, Julia was gone and Julia's parents, Gary and Patricia Caldwell, were gone," Robinson said.
Robinson breaks down when talking about Julia Robinson.
"Julia was like the daughter my wife never had," Robinson said,
The next 36 hours passed in a fog.
"We first called our friends Judy and (former major leaguer) Mike LaValliere and told them and then we called and Jim Morrison, who also played with me and they came over and Jimmy called my son, Brad, and told him to get home immediately," Robinson said.
Close friends helped Don and Rhonda get through the first days.
As the days and weeks and months passed, Don Robinson continued to eat, breathe and do everything most of us associate with life. But it's a different life, he said. It's got that odd aspect of waiting for something that can never happen, that front door opening.
"His number was 11," Don Robinson says of Brent Robinson, who played baseball at Manatee High School and wanted to follow in his father's baseball footsteps, but, instead -- correctly, his father says -- followed his technological gifts to a wildly successful career in computers.
"For the past 12 months, it is amazing how many times I look at the clock and it's 11:11 or 9:11 or 1:11," Robinson said. "I get up in the middle of the night and it might be 2:11. I can't tell you how many times I look up and it's 7:11."
There are nights and days just thinking about the accident.
David Vanderpool, a 31-year-old, struck the Caldwells car, killing him also, according to Kentucky State Police.
Don Robinson had to know the truth. A Kentucky State Trooper told him in a phone call.
"The state trooper said all of them died instantly," Robinson said. "The man who hit them was way over his legal limit. He was drinking. People had been calling the police because he was swerving in and out of traffic. He had 27 convictions and five DUI charges. They were going up a hill and he was going fast around a corner. He hit the median and his car left the ground and flew into them like a bullet going through the air. It knocked the motor into Gary and Patty and when it flipped over, it smashed onto Brent and Julia in the back seat."
Scott Caldwell, Julia's brother, has spent time since the deaths trying to find a way to change the system so a man like Vanderpool could not have been behind a wheel.
"Mr. Vanderpool was arrested less than a month before he drove intoxicated that night," Caldwell said in an email to the Herald.
"He was on parole at the time of his arrest. The arrest was for driving with no license and no insurance. He did not get placed back in prison even though he violated his parole.
"Shouldn't the owner of the car be in some way criminally liable," Caldwell added. "She has not been. She continually let him 'borrow' the car, even though it had no insurance and his license had been revoked."
Don Robinson hopes Scott Caldwell will make headway in his quest.
As for Don Robinson, when Christmas comes he and Rhonda and their surviving son Brad will walk to a nearby cemetery in northwest Bradenton where Brent and Julia are buried.
"Christmas will be the hardest time," Robinson said. "We were always five and now we will be three."
But something remarkable happened at the cemetery a while ago.
Since the flowers the Robinsons left there kept dying, they replaced them with artificial ones.
A friend, not realizing they were fake, watered them until Don Robinson explained they were artificial.
The site of the water drops on the flowers made Don Robinson laugh.
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7072 or contact him via Twitter at RichardDymond.