“Well I’m not the kind to live in the past,
The years run too short and the days too fast.
The things you lean on are the things that don’t last,
Well, it’s just now and then my line gets cast into these time passages,
There’s something back here that you left behind,
Oh time passages…”
–Al Stewart, “Time Passages”, 1978
What you left behind was all that was precious to you—your family, friends, memories and possibilities—and you left us to live and navigate the ensuing years without you. The big 3-0, your 30th birthday, is just another sad reminder of what might have been.
When you lose a child, especially in the gruesome, dark way that we did, every day thereafter becomes a war with your own mind. Looking at our situation objectively as we sit today, Mom and I are so blessed. We have two wonderful, loving sons still here on earth who bring us so much joy every day, and we each have jobs that we enjoy. We have friends, family, and a precious greyhound that you never met. And so we have these blessings that we can count, but we also have a son whose battered body is in a grave about thirty minutes from our home.
Controlling the mind is everything. I have needed to be mentally and emotionally strong enough to keep it focused on the blessings and away from the horror of what you did. You can imagine, Jeff, how difficult that can be, especially on certain dates—your birthday, your death date, and even on random days when I just can’t help myself. On those days, in the words of Al Stewart, my line gets cast into those time passages. I imagine the extent of your pain and loneliness as you drove to the bridge, and I have to physically snap myself out of it by punching a wall, doing some push-ups or jumping up from my desk at work.
For the most part, I’m able to stay squarely focused on all the good stuff. And I have to say, we had a lot of fun in 2016. Experiencing Villanova’s run to a most unlikely national championship in your beloved March Madness tournament was incredibly fun, and of course I know you directed it all from Heaven. I was so sure of it that I wrote a blog post about it in the days following Kris Jenkins’ buzzer beating shot. And with Brett’s graduation occurring less than two months later, it was an amazing time for us.
Then, in August, we finally took the family trip to Greece that we had always talked about. And while it was too late for you and surreal for us that you weren’t there, it was a vacation we’ll always treasure. Every time the slightest sad thought about you not being with us tried to creep in, I took one look at mom and your brothers and I beat it back. We carried you in our hearts as we biked through Athens, walked up the Acropolis to the Parthenon, and enjoyed the beaches and restaurants of Mykonos.
When we got back, I sat in the massage chair in your room one night and told you all about it. I often sit in that chair, both to loosen up my back and to talk to you.
If it was up to me, Jeff, I’d leave it intact for as long as we live in this house. When I’ve gone in there over these years, I’ve felt like you came back to life as I stared at your posters, your bulletin board with your ticket collection, the stack of Middlebury Campus newspapers with all the articles you wrote, your NBA standings board and everything else.
However, it’s not solely up to me, and this topic is a case study for how two soul mates can feel completely differently about the same sensitive issue relating to their deceased son. As the recent years rolled by, Mom increasingly felt it was morbid to leave your room untouched. And since she indulged me on this for six years, I agreed last year that it was time to take it down. My only request was that we do it gradually.
But then, I was walking in midtown on a recent Thursday morning when I received the following text from Mom, referring to Gram who was at our house at the time:
This had come totally out of the blue, and I freaked. NOBODY can touch your stuff but me. I know where every single item in your room is—every Middlebury Campus newspaper containing your articles, every trophy, every shot glass from your favorite places, every EVERYTHING—and if Gram put these things where I couldn’t locate them later, I would go ballistic. This is MY domain, and as irrational as it is, I get nervous when anyone goes in your room, even Mom, and even if it’s just to move an old phone charger of yours.
I started to hyperventilate. I frantically texted Mom to tell Gram not to touch a thing until I got home.
I texted again to tell her that it wasn’t right to do this to me. Still no response.
I tried again to no avail, and at that point I called Gram’s cell phone. She picked up, and I told her not to touch a thing in that room. Clearly shaken, she assured me that she hadn’t and wouldn’t. Crisis averted.
I stood in the middle of a crowded sidewalk, placed my hands on my knees, and allowed my breathing to gradually return to a more normal pace. The thought of Gram moving your personal items into storage bins without me there had elicited feelings inside me that I had only felt once before—the day you went missing. The man you described in your suicide note as “the rock of the family” had just had a full-blown panic attack in the middle of midtown Manhattan.
Don’t worry, I’m still a rock. But I’m human with vulnerabilities too.
Jeff, I think I subconsciously believed, deep down, that if we left your room exactly as it was, you might have actually come home again some day. I never saw your destroyed body after it happened, mostly because I was afraid I wouldn’t survive the sight, but also partially because if I didn’t see you, I could pretend that it wasn’t really you in that casket.
Mom later explained that she was in the supermarket with limited service at the time I was texting her. When she stepped out of the store, one frantic text after another popped up on her phone. She thought my reaction bordered on psychotic, and she later explained that with much of your furniture gone and the things that were on it now scattered on your floor, she had been feeling extremely upset that your room looked so sloppy and uncared for. Whether it’s your grave or your room, your amazing mother will never stop taking care of you.
Over the next few days after this harrowing incident, Mom involved me in the effort to organize your room. I put all the things I was worried about losing in bins of my choosing, and I stacked them in their new spot. Nothing will ever be lost. I know where everything is and feel in control again.
Mom and I came together, as partners do, to take care of each other’s needs. For Mom, it was organization, and for me, it was preservation, and neither of us would ever throw out things that had a direct connection to you.
I’ve written in great detail in prior posts about how Mom selflessly sought to protect me from the pain that awaited on the day you jumped. It should therefore come as no surprise to either of us that, six years later, she did the very same thing when it came to easing the pain I felt when the time had finally come to tackle your room.
As Drew was preparing to move out last fall into his new apartment, Mom told me that she’d asked Drew if he’d like to take some of the furniture from your room to his new place and that he had said yes. I was overcome with emotion over the poignancy of that. Your furniture would not only stay within our family, but it would go to your younger brother who adored you and saw this as a way to maintain his own connection to you.
But even more striking to me is the fact that your mother, this most elegant woman, had come up with a perfect, elegant solution to a terribly difficult situation, i.e. how to gradually dismantle our dead son’s room in the least painful way possible for all concerned. As a result, a part of you, both spiritually and physically in the form of your furniture, will live on in Drew’s new place.
There are no words, Jeff, to describe what he has meant to me since you left. He was in college when it happened, but thankfully we still had Brett home. But when Drew finished in 2013 and Brett went back to Villanova a few months later, I feared that he would soon move out. I prayed that he would live at home for the foreseeable future while he started out on his career.
Having him home, even if I didn’t see him all that much given his crazy schedule, was incredibly healing for me. And without a word on the topic spoken between us during that time, I know he sensed it.
So he stayed.
Being the kind, loving son that he is, he stayed. The two of us went to the NBA all-star weekend in Los Angeles just three months after you died. We watched sports on TV together, we went to Knicks games together and we played tennis together whenever I could grab some of his time.
The fact of the matter, Jeff, is that he lived at home way longer than he needed to, and in the ultimate display of selfishness, I let him do it. I didn’t tell him that I’d be ok and that it was alright for him to go. Because of the desperate situation that you put us in, I let my own selfish needs take priority over what was right for my son. I am so ashamed of myself for that. It’s just that my relationship with each of you is so close that I cherish the times when we’re together. And now that Drew has moved, for just two more weeks, I still have…
Another amazing son. It has been awesome having him home since Villanova’s graduation, and during football season, I planned my Sundays around watching as many Giants games with him as possible. In January, we had a great time going together to the ‘Nova-St. Johns game at the Garden, which has become a special annual outing for the two of us.
And of course, in my last post, I wrote about how raucous and fun it was listening to and observing Brett through the election cycle, which culminated with an outcome that none of us saw coming. Jeff, there is something I need to share with you regarding that outcome…
For a sunny guy, I have been harboring a very dark thought.
I can’t stop thinking about the fact that Trump crossed the 270 electoral vote threshold on the same date on which you jumped off a bridge.
I just can’t get that parallel out of my mind. I can only hope and pray that the date that devastated our family will not also be the date that began the devastation of our country.
The eerie similarities grow deeper. Exactly six years earlier, on November 9th, 2010, when it was clear you would not be coming home, I wrapped Brett up in a hug, with his head resting on my left shoulder, and told him we would get through this tragedy by sticking together forever.
Six years to the day later, on November 9th, 2016, Brett and I sat in the family room at around 12:30am, staring blankly at the TV screen as the electoral vote tally relentlessly continued to fall in Trump’s column. Brett had to take the 5:30am train to work that day, and with confused eyes he looked over to me and asked if I thought he should go to sleep, i.e. was there any way that Hillary could pull out all the remaining states she needed? I told him he should go to sleep.
I stood up when he did, because I knew where he was headed. I opened my arms and as I wrapped him up on yet another November 9th, he placed his head in the same crevice on my left shoulder once again and asked me if everything was going to be ok. My response was similar to what it was six years earlier. It will be ok, because we will stick together and treat all people the right way, with kindness and compassion.
Your room looks bare without the furniture there now, and we’ve continued to go through and store your belongings. This has resulted in a couple of wonderful new “finds”. I found a couple of editions of the Greeley Tribune in which you wrote sports articles in high school, and I’ve so enjoyed reading these early writings which preceded your Middlebury Campus gems.
Then I came across a small wooden box, which contains what is essentially a diary that you kept in high school—individual folded pieces of paper with letters to yourself, that expressed your thoughts about the day and the future. Yes, I’ve started to read them, and your expressions of wonderment and excitement about the future are obviously bittersweet.
Thanks to your beautiful mother’s elegant solution, I am at peace with moving forward to convert your room into a guest room. I’m sure you understand that this is something we must do.
I have no idea what this year has in store (maybe you can direct another Final Four run for Villanova?), but one certainty is that the war to control my mind will continue.
I will not win the battle every single day, and given the extreme nature of what you did, that is to be expected. But the blessings I have—especially Mom, Drew and Brett—are so overwhelmingly special that I will always win the war.
With mental and physical strength, as well as countless blessings, I’m ready, willing and able to soak up all of life’s joys, and to contend with its challenges, in 2017. I know that is what you would want for me and for all of us.
Wishing you a peaceful 30th birthday, Jeff. Thank you for making me a father for the first time and for giving me 23 1/2 years that enriched my life in ways that will stay with me forever. I still feel the closeness of our relationship every day, and I thank God for that.
Sending all my love,
“Nothing worthwhile in this country has ever happened unless somebody, somewhere is willing to hope. Somebody is willing to stand up. Somebody who is willing to stand up when they are told, ‘No you can’t ‘, and instead they say, ‘Yes We Can’.”
–Barack Obama, February 12, 2008
When I saw the card in the mail, it seemed so right and natural that for a brief moment, I was back in 2008, and I instinctively put it aside to give to Jeff when I next saw him. But as had been the case in similar situations when I’d allowed myself to drift from the real world over these past six years, reality struck back quickly, reminding me once more that if I ever see Jeff again, it will be in a very different place. And It will be too late to give him the card.
Yet here it was, a voting card addressed to Jeff as if he was still here, because with an extremely consequential election on the horizon, how could he not be? His booming voice from eight years ago, passionately explaining why Barack Obama needed to prevail over John McCain, still echoes throughout Middlebury’s campus, in many bars in Westchester County and Manhattan, and Lord knows, in every room of our home. Thankfully, I can hear him as clearly today as I did back then. Such was the passion with which he spoke and campaigned on Obama’s behalf. In 2012, I actually believed that Obama, without Jeff on earth to fight for him, would have no chance against Mitt Romney.
Despite Donald Trump’s deep concerns about dead people voting, there’s something very wrong about the fact that election officials don’t accept absentee ballots from Heaven, for if they did, Jeff would surely find a way to get it here. His unwavering support for Obama would clearly have extended to Hillary Clinton as the keeper of the President’s legacy. But irrespective of the fact that the Westchester Board of Elections still believes he’s here and continues to send him voting information cards, the harsh truth is that politics is yet another passion that Jeff left behind when he made his tragic choice. The depth of his despair on November 9th, 2010 was so great that Barack Obama’s re-election two years in the future was the furthest thing from Jeff’s mind.
Jeff was three weeks shy of 21 when the young candidate out of Chicago uttered the words quoted at the beginning of this post, but it was more than the pithy catch phrase at the end that had him captivated from the start. Jeff was on his way to graduating magna cum laude from Middlebury, and he placed a high value on intelligence, especially when it came to choosing a candidate to back as the leader of the free world. Obama had it, and Jeff viewed him as a welcome contrast to the President of the prior eight years.
Whether Obama had what it took to actually govern effectively remained to be seen, but Jeff was willing to take a flyer on that. The man was intelligent, articulate , a respected Senator and a devoted family man, and if that wasn’t enough, Obama was passionate about hoops too. Done deal. Jeff resolved to dedicate the next nine months of his life to convincing every single person in his inner and outer circles that it was crucial that Barack Obama be elected President. And when Jeff latched onto a cause, you knew it was going to be a wild ride. This email to me, which signified the beginning of his crusade, made that perfectly clear:
As an admirer of McCain back then, I couldn’t resist taking every opportunity that summer, when the race appeared to be close, to send Jeff little barbs about how Obama was blowing his opportunity to beat a Republican Party in disarray. I sent him an article in which Republican strategist Ed Rollins was quoted as saying that Joe Biden was a terrible VP choice for the Dems and that Hillary should have been chosen instead. Jeff blew that argument out of the water in his response to me, but he did acknowledge that the race was tight.
When the polls showed that the contest remained close through early September, Jeff began to ruminate over what he considered to be the potentially dire implications of an Obama loss.
However, just a week later, the tide began to turn Obama’s way, and by the time the calendar turned to October, I conceded to Jeff that he could probably relax and start planning the election night parties at Middlebury.
Starting a month before Election Day, Jeff and Elon Rubin, this blog’s creator, began the countdown to victory.
And then, history was made on a night that contained little suspense. It was clear from early that evening that Obama was in control, and at exactly 11 pm Eastern time, when the polls closed in many western states, the first election in which Jeff cast a vote was called for the first African American President-elect. It took Jeff only three minutes to email me with his victory message.
Of all all the emails and texts that I’ve shared over the past six years, this one brings to the fore the widest range of powerful emotions. I feel in my bones Jeff’s sense of triumph and satisfaction that he had fought for a winning cause. I shed tears of happiness that the candidate and his message had so inspired him and sparked a fire within him that was on a par with his passion for the underdogs of March Madness. And staring at this email brings a longing for the closeness of our relationship that prompted him to email me just three minutes after the election had been called.
But the most overwhelming emotion of all is profound sadness. Neither of us knew in Jeff’s glorious moment that almost exactly two years later, with the euphoria of Obama’s victory long past, he would completely lose the spirit of “Yes We Can” and succumb to a hopeless feeling that was the antithesis of Obama’s vision for the nation. That dreadful feeling was also in direct contrast to the outlook that Jeff publicly expressed on Facebook in the days after the election, as he basked in the afterglow of victory.
And isn’t that the greatest tragedy of all? Jeff WAS in for a great eight years and beyond, not necessarily because of what the new President was going to do, but rather because Jeff had it all going for him. He was armed with every attribute one could ever ask for to forge a successful future, but in the final analysis, he failed what I believe to be the true test of intelligence.
In John Holt’s book “How Children Fail”, he defined intelligence in a way that has always resonated with me. Holt wrote:
“By intelligence, we mean a style of life, a way of behaving in various situations, and particularly in new, strange, and perplexing situations. The true test of intelligence is not how much we know how to do, but how we behave when we don’t know what to do.
The intelligent person, young or old, meeting a new situation or problem, opens himself up to it; he tries to take in with mind and senses everything about it; he thinks about it, instead of about himself or what it might cause to happen to him; he grapples with it boldly, imaginatively, resourcefully, and if not confidently, at least hopefully; if he fails to master it, he looks without shame or fear at his mistakes and learns from them. This is intelligence.”
Jeff wanted to celebrate intelligence, but when faced with the first real difficult situation of his life, namely not knowing what to do after abruptly walking out on his first full time job, he did the polar opposite of what Holt lists above. He didn’t grapple with it boldly or even hopefully. He thought about himself and what the situation might cause to happen to him. He felt shame and fear after his setback, and instead of learning from it, his distorted mind concluded that his future was bleak. And then he let the worst happen by succumbing.
How terribly unfair it is of me, though, to even suggest that Jeff’s end had anything remotely to do with not acting intelligently. He was a brilliant man who was the victim of a cataclysmic chemical reaction inside his body and mind to misprescribed medication that left him defenseless. I had just hoped that intelligence and inner strength would be enough to overwhelm the destructive power of the meds. But Jeff just couldn’t find that reserve of strength that we all have inside us. He tried for two months. It is not for me to judge whether he could have tried even harder.
The text messages arrive each day without fail, the level of excitement contained within them rising as Election Day nears. Some report the latest projected electoral vote count, while others share the egregious happenings on the campaign trail. He is certain now that his candidate will win, and after over a year of loudly and passionately articulating how crucial it is that this result come to pass, he is ready to celebrate.
His booming voice at the dinner table so dominates our animated conversations about the election that the familiarity of it all overwhelms me. As I drifted again into my alternate reality on this particular night, I heard his heavy, thundering feet running down the stairs to tell me the latest breaking news. I prepared to tell Jeff to take it easy because while I love his passion, he was making the house shake again.
But I could only stare as the 6′ muscular figure in the Middlebury t-shirt emerged from the dark hallway into the family room pumping his fists in jubilation and bellowing “Arizona is now a toss-up! It’s gonna be a landslide!”
Having regained my senses, I was clear again that it wasn’t 2008, and while they are built the same, talk the same and have the same passions, that was not Jeff standing before me.
It was Brett, wearing Jeff’s college t-shirt and shadow-boxing in front of the TV as he watched CNN’s John King excitedly talk about the electoral map.
Just six months older than Jeff was in October 2008, Brett has matured into a young man who is strikingly similar to his oldest brother. His recently found passion for politics has taken us on a 15 month election campaign ride that’s been eerily and beautifully similar to the one Jeff took us on eight years ago. Brett’s commitment to his candidate and his opposition to her opponent is on a par with Jeff’s commitment to Obama, and the way they each expressed that support through emails, texts and verbal onslaughts is identical. As Brett said to me one night this past summer, “We’re basically the same person…except for…”
He left it there, knowing full well that no further explanation was needed.
Drew, who had swung by to pick up some stuff before heading to his apartment, walked into the family room and observed his fist-flailing, fast-talking little brother rail against Donald Trump. Drew is a more low key Hillary supporter who is much less willing than Brett, Carey and I to overlook Hillary’s baggage, and he’s been disgusted by the venom in the campaign for a long time. Nonetheless, his chill demeanor stands in sharp contrast to that of his vociferous brothers. He took one look at me and instantly knew what I was thinking. He broke into a broad smile, walked over and wrapped me in a hug. Without a word spoken, the hug shared our mutual thought:
Six years after making the horrific decision to end his life, Jeff still lives. He lives through the amazing memories he created for us all. He lives through our nation’s political process, through March Madness, through his love of the Knicks, Yankees, Giants, great food and great beer, and through his brilliant writing on his Talkin’ Sports blog and in his school newspapers.
And yes, he lives through his youngest brother, who has proudly taken on his bold and hilarious persona.
Lastly, Jeff will always live through our exiting President, who served as the catalyst for some of the most exciting times of his life. Barack Obama has served our country with exceptional dignity and grace over eight scandal-free years, he’s a great guy, and Jeff couldn’t have chosen a better role model to support with such high energy.
I’m sad to see Obama go, but I will always be deeply grateful to the man who infused my son with so much life just two years before his tragic and unnecessary death.