A Birthday Letter To Jeff, And A Call For Kindness

2 Mar

“Look around, be a part
Feel for the winter
But don’t have a cold heart”

  -Little River Band, “Lady”, 1978

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Dear Jeff,

You wouldn’t believe how much time I spend thinking about how you’d look today at age 32. In the last photo we have of you from August 2010, you still have those boyish good looks, but I dream of what you’d look like as a full-fledged man. It’s a useless exercise, though, because I just can’t picture it. Both your brothers are older than you ever were, so at least I’ve seen them grow into men.

In 2010, you were the man in the middle, your arms draped around the brothers you loved so much. In 2019, there is a huge gap in the middle, a lonely space where you should have still been standing.

 

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Life is hard, Jeff, and for many, it can seem like a series of punches to the gut that test whether they can absorb the blows and pull themselves off the canvas to fight another day. I’ll always remember the slogan of Dwyane Wade’s 2006 Converse commercial campaign, “Fall seven times, stand up eight”, with the eighth time signifying finally achieving success after getting up from each of the first seven failures or setbacks.

Wouldn’t it be great if everyone had that much resilience, but as you discovered, not everyone is wired that way. For you, the punches you took, both big and small, had a cumulative effect. Each instance in which you were treated coldly, callously or with a lack of empathy took another chunk out of you. You just didn’t have the ability to easily shrug things off.

I’ll never forget the Friday in 2004, the last night of Greeley varsity basketball tryouts in your senior year of high school, when you called to tell us that you and Alex had been cut from the team.  In your senior year.  It was unprecedented. Seniors don’t get cut when they’ve been in the program for the first three years of high school, especially someone like you who was the MVP of the JV team in 10th grade and who made the varsity team easily as a junior. Your lifelong passion had been stripped away from you in your last year. You were devastated.

I left Coach Fernandes a voicemail the next day suggesting that a more empathetic approach would have been to take the seniors on the team, even if he didn’t intend to play them. At least they’d still have the comraderie and be rewarded for their commitment to the program for the prior three years. I said that what he did was mean-spirited, callous, and unnecessary. He didn’t return the call.

I often stare at the framed photos in the kitchen of Greeley’s Senior Night for Drew and Brett respectively, when parents join their kids on the court for a pre-game photo before the last home game. Coach Fernandes coldly and callously robbed you of a similar moment. Unfortunately they don’t have a “Junior Night”.

 

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I told you that this was an example of how unfair life can be, and that you just had to move on, focus on your college applications and look forward to playing in your college intramural league. My words were of little consolation.

Three years later, in the summer of 2007, you were the victim of a random act of violence when you were on the train home with Elon after a night out in the city, and some guy with anger in his eyes got on at 125th Street, then started shouting and pointing at you. As you recounted, he walked right up to you, punched you in the eye and quickly bolted. Blood spurted from above your eyebrow.

You called us from St. Barnabas hospital in the Bronx, where the ambulance had taken you to get stitched up. It was the after midnight phone call that every parent dreads – the one that comes when one or more of your kids have been out partying – but thankfully it was your voice on the other end of the phone. And even though you wore quite a shiner for the next few weeks, you still flashed that amazing smile. Back then, nothing could take away that smile.

 

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All I could do was remind you that you always had to have your guard up in life, both literally and figuratively, because the world can be pretty damn cold at times.

These incidents were rough, but you moved forward. The final straw for you, though, came another three years later, in July 2010 when we were sitting at Mom’s cousin Vivian’s wake in Queens. She had died way too young, a cancer victim in her 40s, and you had told your bosses that you couldn’t work that night because you’d be at a relative’s wake. You had been working 12 to 18 hour days at that point, and surely these pompous young lawyers would cut you some slack to attend a family member’s wake.

But that was a pipe dream, and your blackberry started buzzing relentlessly in the middle of the wake. At first you ignored it, but the buzzing didn’t stop and so you had to look. They didn’t give a crap about the wake. You were the lead paralegal on the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy case, and they wanted you back in the office. Not early the following morning. Immediately.

When I walked out with you and hugged you before you got into the back seat of the car that they sent to the funeral home, I looked into your eyes and saw pain. Deep pain, unlike anything I had ever seen before. I told you to stay strong and that this would pass, but it was clear you didn’t believe it.

The cold lawyers had broken you. They had made it clear that they considered your life to be irrelevant, and as a result, you inferred both that your life was meaningless and that there was no longer any reason to have faith in the humanity of others.

I’m a businessman. I know that commerce needs to get done and that sometimes there are real deadlines that require extraordinary effort to meet them. But there are limits and times when common sense needs to prevail. Your bosses crossed the line.

Was it really necessary for these people to drag you out of a wake? Instead, why couldn’t they have said that they understood you couldn’t work that night but that they needed you to come in really early the next morning? How about showing a little kindness, a little empathy for your situation?

A couple weeks later, after you continued to work brutally long days and nights, I texted you asking if you were ok. Your response will haunt me for the rest of my life.

 

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I never knew that pain could pour out of texted words like that. I told you to go home immediately and get some sleep. A few days later, you simply walked out on the job without saying a word to anyone, and you never went back. Three months after that, you were gone.

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“I know you wanna leave me, but I refuse to let you go.

If I have to beg, plead for your sympathy,

I don’t mind, ‘cause you mean that much to me

Ain’t too proud to beg, and you know it…”

      -The Temptations, “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg”, 1966

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I certainly wasn’t too proud to beg when things looked dire toward the end. When your child’s life is on the line, you try every tactic you can think of to turn the tide.

Including begging.

I may not have gotten down on my knees, Jeff, but you remember damn well how I pleaded with you to wash those horrific suicidal thoughts from your mind. I laid out for you in great detail what the consequences would be if you acted on your thoughts – the destruction of our family, the deep emotional scars you’d leave on your brothers that would cripple them, and the fact that I’d have no choice but to immediately sell our house because we wouldn’t be able to bear living there without you and walking past your empty room every day.

The fact that none of these things came to pass doesn’t mean that I lied to you. It means that I underestimated the incredible inner strength that we possess as individuals and as a family unit. Even with that strength, we each carry deep emotional scars and burdens that we must cope with every minute of every day.

I have always believed in the power of random acts of kindness and empathy. Holding doors for people rather than barging in first, smiling at the person behind the counter at a store when you pay, sitting down with someone eating alone in a school cafetera, or whatever.

I will also always believe that you were deeply hurt by random acts of callousness like the ones described above.

I obviously can’t say with certainty that you’d be here today to celebrate your 32nd birthday if your lawyer bosses had displayed some common decency by asking you to come in early the next morning rather than demanding you leave Vivian’s wake that night.

But the tragic thing is that I can’t say with certainty that you wouldn’t be here either.

I saw the pain in your eyes that night, and if they had acted with empathy, this could have easily gone in a different direction.

And so I hope that bosses, teachers, coaches, the “cool” kids in schools who delight in ostracizing others (like the ones who did that to you at Greeley-they know who they are), and people everywhere think hard about how they treat people on a daily basis. Not everyone has thick skin, and for those like you who were more vulnerable, the consequences of being on the receiving end of callous treatment can be dire.

Happy 32nd birthday, my son. We will never stop celebrating the day that you arrived and took us on an incredible 23 1/2 year ride. And I hope you haven’t stopped celebrating and enjoying March Madness in Heaven, as it’s only a few weeks away. Villanova is a huge underdog this year, and maybe your brother’s school will pull off a great early round upset, the type that you lived for.

And I’m praying that for the past 8+ years, you have had the peace and tranquility that somehow escaped you in your last months on earth.

Love you forever,

Dad

Nine Years Later, I’m Not Ashamed To Cry

9 Nov

“It’s getting to the point where I’m no fun anymore.

I am sorry.

Sometimes it hurts, so badly I must cry out loud.”

     — Crosby, Stills & Nash, “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes”, 1969

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I had walked the same route at Gedney Park with our greyhound, Dobi, hundreds of times without incident over the nine years since Jeff died, and so I had no reason to think our walk on this past September 28th would feel different. But as I passed behind the outfield fences of the three baseball fields that were full of young kids in their uniforms, young coaches instructing them, and parents in the bleachers, I was suddenly overcome with emotion. There was no warning. First, I felt a lump in my throat, followed immediately by the tears.

I closed my eyes, primarily to conceal the tears from people walking near me, but when I did, I kept them closed. Because there they were, as clear as this beautiful fall day. Brett, Drew and Jeff in their uniforms, literally as if it was yesterday

 

 

I choked up further as I stared at the thirty-something year old coaches hitting grounders and fly balls to the kids. I mean, wasn’t it just last week that I was them? I only coached one T-Ball team, but I coached years of rec basketball teams for all three of my boys. I cherished those years, and it was hard to fathom how distant a memory they now were. But thankfully I have photos like this, in which Jeff was right below my chin, to keep the memories fresh.

 

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It slowly became clear to me what was happening.

I don’t know why it happened on this day as opposed to any other, but for the first time in my life, I had been hit in the face by the poignancy of the inexorable march of time. I looked down at Dobi, who was about to turn 11 in a few days. With the average life span of a greyhound being 10 1/2 to 12, I had a vision of time racing toward the upper end of that range. That hurt.

The whole experience was overwhelming, and I needed an outlet. Carey was in Southampton for the weekend with her oldest Colgate friends, and so I turned to Facebook:

 

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The post clearly struck a nerve, and the reaction was swift. There were comments from people my age, who expressed similar feelings. And there were others from young parents thanking me for the reminder to savor the moment in the midst of all the chaos of raising young kids. The concept of time passing too quickly resonates with so many, and on this day, I had been attacked by feelings of both yearning for the past and of being stunned by how quickly those days had come and gone.

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Does anybody really know what time it is?

Does anybody really care about time?

If so, I can’t imagine why,

We’ve all got time enough to cry.”

— Chicago, ”Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?”, 1970

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Each of us, at some point in our life, has to confront and deal emotionally with the inexorable march of time.

Jeff was just not able to come to grips with it after he walked out on his first job. From that point on, time was his worst enemy, as he feared that with each passing day, he was “falling behind” his friends and peers who seemed to him to be moving forward on some sort of track.

However irrational his thinking was, he felt that he was starting from scratch and could not recover. For him, the passage of time brought only increasing amounts of pressure. And once misprescribed anti-depressants entered the equation, his fears were magnified and suicidal thoughts began. It was absolutely tragic to witness.

Carey and I tried desperately to disavow him of his irrational thoughts by explaining that for a 23 year old, time was his greatest friend, and he just needed to refrain from creating artificial deadlines and comparing his situation to those of his friends.

But the medication had taken hold, and even after he stopped taking it, it was too late. Fear of the future had overwhelmed Jeff, and as a result, we lost our precious son.

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My day of reckoning with the relentless march of time came on September 28th at Gedney Park, and it stopped me in my tracks.

In the weeks since then, I have made peace with it and even come to embrace it. While I will always sorely miss the days gone by on those sun-drenched baseball and soccer fields and in the basketball court bleachers, I know in my heart that by participating as both a coach and just a dad in the stands, I formed special bonds with my boys that have only strengthened with time. And to this day, Drew plays year-round in men’s basketball leagues, and Brett plays in men’s softball leagues with the same Chappaqua friends that he played little league with all those years ago. The investment of time back then has helped enrich their lives now.

And though I’m no longer there to watch them, I still text to ask all about their games and how they did. There are some things that time will never change.

I’ve also found my own way of slowing time down. I mentally compartmentalize each day by picturing it as it’s own unique box, and I try to stay within its boundaries. I try to fill each day’s box with productivity at work, love for my family and friends, and to the extent I can, kindness to others. By focusing on each day in this way, without spending time obsessing about the future, I feel that time slows down, and my connections in the present are stronger and more meaningful.

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In the song “Unchained Melody”, The Righteous Brothers crooned:

And time can do so much.”

It can.

But I long ago gave up on the notion that it heals all wounds. There are simply some wounds that are just too deep and devastating to ever completely heal. In the blink of an eye, nine years have passed since we last saw our firstborn son.

Nine years today.

Nine years since we last held him, talked to him, and pleaded with him to wipe those suicidal thoughts from his mind. From the day he died, I’ve been desperate to keep Jeff’s memory alive. And so I started to blog on Kleinsaucer which, thanks to its creator Elon Rubin, has turned out to be a savior for me. And since my desperation has not lessened, I continue to blog, and I suppose that a year from now, I’ll be writing about my incredulity that a decade has passed. The inexorable march roars forward.

This is where the passage of time is brutal – it creates more and more distance from the last time Jeff walked the earth to the present. And the world has suffered from not having his passion and his kindness all these years. Will time result in people forgetting who he was and what he stood for? I pray that it won’t, but I understand that it might.

Visiting Jeff’s grave, as we did this past Sunday, really hammers home how many years have passed. What once were small shrubs on either side of his headstone are now large evergreens that tower over it and conceal its edges. And we found last week that time had literally ravaged one of Jeff’s trophies that had stood there for so many years – the legs of the basketball player who had stood atop the trophy had been sawed off from his body, presumably by the cumulative effects of inclement weather.

 

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The fact that the only way to visit Jeff is to go to his grave is but one reason why I can’t help but cry – sometimes out loud when I’m alone with Dobi in the park, and sometimes quietly in the privacy of my office. I also cry because I imagine the extreme pain Jeff felt, and I cry because I flat out miss him.

The catastrophic nature of what happened still haunts me, and I’m sure it always will.

But even nine years out, I’m not ashamed to shed some tears, and for those of you who knew Jeff, I hope you won’t be either.

                                — Rich Klein

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How Can We Know Everything Our Kids Need To Live? – A Father’s Day Reflection, Part 9

16 Jun

“What’s your name?

Who’s Your Daddy?

Is he rich like me?

Has he taken any time…

To show you what you need to live?”

— The Zombies, “Time Of The Season”, 1968

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By the time Jeff was applying to colleges, I had done all the basic parental stuff that you do to get your son prepared to go off on his own for the first time. I had had the sex talk, taught him how to drive, warned him ad nauseam about the perils of drugs, alcohol and the nascent internet, tried to instill in him the importance of a strong work ethic, and on and on.

But how can a parent think of everything that their child needs to live, to avoid danger, and to thrive? I always felt that I was going to miss something crucial that I should have taught him or spoken to him about.

I was downright paranoid about it, so with that fear in mind, I told each of my boys to come to me with anything that was ever on their minds and that I would give them my honest advice. And I pleaded with them then, as I do to this day, to never hide anything from Carey and me, because we would unconditionally support them no matter how bad the situation might be.

Jeff loved Colgate, Carey’s and my alma mater, and he enthusiastically applied, which thrilled the two of us. Their essay question was:

”What is one thing you would bring with you to Colgate? Why?”

When Jeff showed us a draft of his answer to get our reaction, I thought he was yanking my chain. It had to be a joke. He began:

”As a young child, most things came fairly easily to me. By first grade, I was reading advanced chapter books and could figure out arithmetical facts in a flash. I was equally gifted at sports, especially basketball. It was almost as if I were the perfect kid…

Well, not quite. Throughout my life, I have always struggled with tasks requiring manual dexterity. In plain English, I’m not good with my hands.”

Jeff went on to write that he would bring Robosapien, a “humanoid robot” introduced by the WowWee company in 2004 and written about in the New York Times, to Colgate, so that it could tie knots for him and sew buttons on his shirts. And he concluded:

”I’d make sure it knows how to perform every manual task that I have so futilely struggled with over the course of my life. It would be the key to my surviving college, manually dexterously speaking.”

I told Jeff not to send it. This was their primary essay requirement on the application. This wasn’t a joke. Moreover, I didn’t want them to think Jeff was taking this lightly given his legacy status. That was my strong advice. But Carey and Jeff disagreed, and the majority ruled.

Jeff sent the essay about Robosapien to Colgate.

 

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”Jeff – Your essay did a masterful job allowing us to get a greater sense of who you are as an individual and I am honored to welcome a humorous and caring young man like yourself to the Class of 2009!”

– Gary L. Ross, Colgate Dean of Admission, handwritten note to Jeff on his acceptance letter, 3/30/05

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I was 44 years old and theoretically a man of experience and some wisdom when Jeff was offered admission to Colgate, and yet I couldn’t have been further off in my counsel to him. Thankfully, my botched attempt to give sound advice did no harm in this case.  No harm, no foul.

But I remember thinking at the time that one day the stakes may be greater, and my advice might be crucial in helping one of my kids achieve a good outcome or avoid a really bad one. And what if I was wrong then? Parents need to be right a very high percentage of the time, and they need to be right 100% of the time in critical moments. And you have to get out in front of it all by anticipating everything that could ever go wrong.

With that line of thinking, the paranoia returns. The reality is that it’s always there. Even now, with 28 and 24 year old sons, I never stop thinking about what I should be doing for them or to protect them. When do they need their first colonoscopy, their annual skin exam? What am I forgetting to tell them or warn them about? It’s even worse now after having lost one. Yes, they’re adults living their own lives, but still.

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“Paranoia strikes deep.

Into your life it will creep.

It starts when you’re always afraid…”

– Buffalo Springfield, “For What It’s Worth”, 1966

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In the summer of 1996, I was on top of the world. At age 36, I had an amazing wife and three beautiful sons, and we were celebrating summer’s end in the Hamptons in late August. There was nothing obvious to be paranoid about as the five of us headed to the beach for a picnic at sunset. It was a perfect evening.

To this day, if you ask me why I allowed two year old Brett to walk around and play in the sand between our blanket and the ocean, I will have nothing more to offer than a blank stare. When I turned to my left that night, in between bites of a sandwich, I saw the wave coming, but it was too late.

The wave crashed near where Brett was playing, and as it continued its surge, Brett was caught in the undertow, and he slid toward the Atlantic Ocean.  The rest was a blur. I jumped up, sprinted, and dove to the spot at the water’s edge to which he was headed, in order to block his entry into the ocean. The receding wave with Brett in it hit me in the chest, and I held onto little Brett for dear life until the water had passed.

Back on the sand, as Brett coughed up water, I was heaving with panic. I was shaken to my core and mortified by my negligence. I hadn’t fully scoped out the situation and considered all the risks, including whether we were too close to the ocean. Being a parent is an enormous responsibility, and at that moment, I felt inadequate, embarrassed and not up to the task.

Even today, the thoughts of what could have happened on that evening 23 years ago haunt me. I didn’t give my son the protection that he needed to live. But thanks to a well-timed lunge to save him, we lived to experience many moments like this together over the last two decades…

 

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I came home on a Saturday afternoon in November of 2009 and found Jeff on his knees on the family room floor, with a stack of flat cardboard boxes at his side. He was literally wrestling with one of them, trying unsuccessfully to put it together into a useful box.

But Robosapien was nowhere to be found.

It was just me and Jeff. Father and son.

Jeff was a paralegal at a major New York law firm, and for better or worse, he needed to know how to do this as part of his job. Case documents were stored in boxes and the paralegals had to build them.

I got on my knees next to him, and showed him step by step how to put that sucker together and then told him to do one himself. He got about half way there. But the third time was the charm. He gave me a fist bump and a smile. It was a nice win in the battle with manual dexterity.

This position was a first job and not meant to be a long-term one. But nonetheless, at that moment, I felt like I gave him a little of what he needed to “live” in the paralegal world – a small measure of redemption for me after the bad advice about Robosapien five years earlier.

Nine months later, Jeff walked out on that job without a word to anyone, and the battle to save his life began.

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I had no idea that taking antidepressants could actually cause certain people to begin to have suicidal thoughts. I couldn’t imagine anything more counterintuitive. But how did a 50 year old guy like me let his son start an antidepressant regimen when a simple google search would have turned up clear warnings regarding the drug being prescribed:

 

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On August 31st, 2010, a recommended local psychiatrist suggested that Jeff start taking the above antidepressant to “take the edge off” after having walked out on the job under difficult circumstances. It sounded reasonable to me, especially since we knew plenty of people who took similar meds and were doing fine. So I went with the guy’s professional advice.

But eight days after taking his first pill, Jeff expressed suicidal thoughts, and two months after that, he was gone.

I never did the google search, or any due diligence at all, for that matter.

Where was the paranoia then? Where was basic intellectual curiosity about what my troubled son was getting himself into? How could a devoted father, which I absolutely was and still am, drop the ball in so blatant a way? And when things turned south, how could I go to work instead of taking him away to a beach to clear his head?

These are questions without answers.

All I can offer is another blank stare.

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My age didn’t matter. Whether I was 36, 44 or 50, the deep flaws were evident at every stage. My track record as a father is littered with careless and egregious mistakes, flawed advice and missed opportunities. One mistake nearly cost my two year old his life, and others surely contributed to the loss of Jeff.

How can we, as parents, know everything our kids need to live? The obvious answer is that we can’t.  I think all we can really do is to be present, be involved, be loving and supportive, guide them and teach them as best we can.

I was and did all those things, and that’s why it’s so difficult to reconcile in my mind how and why I failed to exercise basic caution and common sense in crucial situations. Trying to think of every possible thing that can go wrong in every situation is an exhausting way to go through life, but as a parent, I think that’s just part of the job. The world has too many minefields.

At the gym with Brett last weekend, I told him how I still agonize over what would have happened had I not blocked him from sliding into the ocean that night. He replied that I would have simply gone into the moonlit water, found him, and carried him out. I felt heartened by his matter-of-fact expression of unconditional support.

Shortly after , I received a beautiful text from Drew.

 

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What knocks my socks off is that, even after everything that has happened over the years, my boys’ confidence in me hasn’t wavered. That is the greatest gift of all and is why Father’s Day remains a blessed day, and I remain a blessed man.

                                             — Rich Klein

My Precious Wife: The Mother That Kept On Giving

12 May

“In the first years of Jeffrey’s life, he kicked, he screamed, but Carey was happy nonetheless. Carey’s life seemed to be going just as planned. She could not stop giving. She turned out to be the greatest Mother on the face of the earth.”

 Brett Klein, “The Mother That Kept On Giving”, ~2007

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The door was locked, the fan was on, and the handwritten pages of my masters thesis were strewn all over the sink and the toilet tank. The bathroom was small but about what you’d expect in a New York City one bedroom apartment in 1987. And the fan didn’t do much to mute the screams coming from the living room.

But going to the library was not an option. Not when my newborn son was screaming and wailing for something like 18 hours of each 24 hour day and my weary, amazing wife was running on fumes while rocking Jeffrey, pushing him in the baby swing and otherwise doing everything possible to comfort her firstborn.

Carey and I were certain that this was not normal, but the pediatrician assured us that Jeff was just “a pain in the ass”.  Maybe so, but all we knew was that this was not the way we envisioned the early weeks and months of parenthood.  I fell in love with Carey all over again as I watched her hold Jeff, bounce up and down on her toes, sway side to side, and sing softly into his ears, for hours on end, stopping only to breastfeed him in between.

Eventually Jeff would cry himself to sleep and Carey would delicately place him in the bassinet, praying he would lay peacefully for a few hours. Day in and day out, she gave every ounce of energy and optimism she had inside her, despite the extremely trying circumstances. And when Jeff did ultimately fall asleep at some point each night,  Carey would finally come to bed, her tears falling quietly onto the sheets.

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“Carey’s life was filled with happiness and she gave to each one of her boys all she had, all of her love, her encouragement…If I gave all of the examples of when she gave to us, this would be 70 pages.”

— Brett Klein, “The Mother That Kept On Giving”
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The firstborn son who cried so hard during his first few months is long gone now.

Slowly but surely, I’ve been going through his room, packing up the treasures and disposing of the non-essentials. The signs of Carey’s efforts to save him are everywhere. She is an inspirational force of nature, and she did everything humanly possible to pump Jeff up during his darkest moments.

I found on his book shelf the book she implored him to read in the fall of 2010.

 

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And I recently found in his desk a card she gave him that was full of inspiration and hope.

 

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Up until Jeff’s last moments, Carey was there for him, pulling out all the stops to literally try to push Jeff away from death and back toward life. I wholeheartedly believe that her relentless efforts to save Jeff and the unconditional love that she gave to him every day bought us two extra months with him that we would not have otherwise had. He first expressed suicidal thoughts on September 8th, and he hung in there until November 9th. I credit Carey for our having those last two months with him, which as difficult as they were, I wouldn’t have traded for anything.

People like Carey, who are relentless, selfless givers have the ability to actually feel the joy and pain experienced by the people they care about the most. That is the clearest illustration of their giving nature. Jeff felt that so intensely from Carey that he expressed those very sentiments to her in his suicide note to our family. He wrote:

Mom- you understood me the best and stood by me every step of the way. My pain was your greatest agony; my happiness was your greatest joy.”

And so it was. Even in his final moments, Jeff was lucid enough to understand exactly how special his mother was to him and to all of us.  She held and consoled him as a screaming infant for hours and days on end, she reveled in his mostly joyous 23 1/2 years that followed, and she was there to hold him again and root him on during his last two months. Carey didn’t hold anything back, giving her all to Jeff, Drew and Brett every single day.

All mothers should be celebrated today, and we will celebrate Carey, a woman who not only gives continuously to her sons and to me, but also to our community where she has been an EMT for the past 12 years. She has helped save lives in that role, and although none of us could save Jeff, there is no question that she extended his life.

Happy Mother’s Day, sweetheart. You are the mother that kept on – and keeps on – giving. And we love and appreciate you more than you will ever know.

— Rich Klein

Eight Years Later, The Journey Enters A New Phase

9 Nov

“I just want to celebrate another day of livin’

I just want to celebrate another day of life

I put my faith in the people

But the people let me down

So I turned the other way

And I carry on, anyhow”

— Rare Earth, “I Just Want To Celebrate”, 1971

_______________________________________________________________________________________________

What a night it could have been. A truly special celebration. I had just turned 50, our 25th wedding anniversary was less than two weeks away, and Carey and I had resolved to finally plan the trip to Prague that we had always talked about. We couldn’t go that August for our anniversary because Jeff was in deep distress over his job that had become a living hell of 18 hour days, and we knew we couldn’t leave him. But by October, this would pass and he’d be back to normal. We’d go then.

But I didn’t find out until that Friday afternoon on August 13, 2010, before our planned night in the city, that Jeff, after briefly going to work the day before on my birthday, spent most of the day in Bryant Park explaining to his oldest friend, Andrew Becker, why he had just walked out on his job without saying a word to anyone and why he would never go back.

Despite the news, Carey came in to meet me anyway, but it was not to celebrate. It was to console each other and try to figure out how to help Jeff.  We agreed to find him the best therapist to talk him through this.

“We’ll go to Prague someday,” Carey said.

But we didn’t know that the seemingly very qualified psychiatrist we chose for Jeff was nothing more than a med-happy quack who would proceed to take the life out of him, one pill at a time.

Less than three months later, Jeff was dead.

From that day on, just getting to the next day was our collective family goal. There was no longer any planning for the future. The future was a mist.  Our lives and our family unit had been shattered, and we were in survival mode. One day at a time. That is when we truly learned the critical importance of living in the moment and executing well each day in the present.  Had Jeff done that and not obsessed over his future, he could have toughed it out with our help and made it through the storm.

__________________________________________________________________________________________

You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”

— Steve Jobs, former CEO, Apple, Inc.

_____________________________________________________________________________________________

As Carey and I sat on the train from Vienna to Prague staring at the beautiful countryside two months ago, I thought about that night eight years earlier when Prague had been taken off the table and the future consisted only of the next hour, or maybe the next day. And yet here we were, not through any long-term planning but rather through putting the proverbial one foot in front of the other each day and trusting that the dots would connect to get us here someday. They did, and we felt blessed.

When tragedy strikes, life becomes all about very short term goals. After Jeff died, I simply tried to figure out if, how and when I could go back to work. For Carey, just getting out of bed each day to care for herself and the rest of us was a win. Jeff left us right before Greeley varsity basketball tryouts, and Brett just focused on making the team. And Drew, who had to endure this nightmare while away at college, thought only about making it through finals so he could have a month at home to mourn with the rest of us over Christmas break.

The fact of the matter is that it shouldn’t take a tragedy to convince people to adopt this approach to life. If more people lived in the moment, rather than agonizing over the future and creating artificial deadlines for achieving or doing things, anxiety levels would come down significantly across the population. In her 2007 book “Dear Jesus”, Sarah Young explained it perfectly when she wrote:

”If you try to carry tomorrow’s trouble today, you will stagger under the load and eventually fall flat. You must discipline yourself to live within the boundaries of today.”

To be clear, I believe that having a broad vision of what you’d like your future to look like and setting goals in that context is important and healthy. I’ve seen too many people, though, including Jeff, try to live in the future – figuratively speaking – by obsessing over it, setting artificial deadlines, and in doing so, sacrificing the beauty and importance of the present. Jeff did that, and it did a lot more than make him stagger under that self-imposed pressure. It completely destroyed him.

_____________________________________________________________________________________________

”Twenty years now,

Where’d they go?

Twenty years,

I don’t know.

I sit and I wonder sometimes

Where they’ve gone

And sometimes late at night,

When I’m bathed in the firelight

The moon comes callin’ a ghostly white,

And I recall

I recall”

Bob Seger, “Like A Rock”, 1986

__________________________________________________________________________________________________

It’s time to prepare to downsize from our home of the past twenty years. The raging emotions that this process elicits are exhausting.

This house was the scene of some of our most precious family times – Christmas mornings, family dinners, birthdays, sports watching, and just hanging together. It was also the home of Jeff’s most joyously raucous moments, where we watched the Yankees win multiple World Series championships together and the Giants win the Super Bowl in 2008. And it is the house whose walls shook when Jeff bellowed about buzzer beating upsets in March Madness, egregious calls that favored superstars in the NBA playoffs, the ineptitude of NBA commissioner David Stern, and the critical importance of Barack Obama winning the 2008 election.

 

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But this house was also where the darkest tragedy of our lives was planned, in the room in which Jeff typed and penned his final notes. It is where dozens of friends and relatives came to console us in the ensuing days and where Father Elias held a private service in Jeff’s memory.

A month ago, we started the process of moving into the next phase of our journey when we closed on a weekend/summer home. It should be a beautiful time of our lives with so much to look forward to, and to a significant degree, it is.

But as much as anything, this new home represents a much needed escape. We still love Chappaqua, but since Jeff died, it has often felt claustrophobic. We frequently choose restaurants miles away so that we can go to places where we can be anonymous, not the parents of the kid who jumped off a bridge. And in the first few years after Jeff died, we intentionally took family vacations over New Year’s, in order to be away from the forced gaiety in our local area. It was all about trying to flee from the darkness.

We now have the option to escape at any time, just by getting in the car and driving two hours away to a new beginning. We hope to build amazing new memories there, with our friends and family, with our boys and their girlfriends, and God willing, with grandchildren someday.

After eight years, the bitterness and cutting pain have naturally diminished, but this beautiful new step our family is taking is not without emotional complications. We are taking this step WITHOUT JEFFREY, to a place he would have adored. Jeff absolutely loved the beach and the ocean. There was no wave too big for him to challenge, no water temperature too cold, and no limit to how long he could play smash ball and dig enormous holes in the sand with his brothers.

 

Jeff in sand hole 2005

 

And now we have the perfect spot at which to meet for family weekends over the summer.

And we will. Without Jeffrey.

———————————————————————————————————————————

“A compromise would surely help the situation

Agree to disagree, but disagree to part

When after all it’s just a compromise

Of the things we do for love.”

— 10 CC,  “The Things We Do For Love”, 1976

____________________________________________________________________________________________

Walking through our basement storage room is like navigating a minefield of memories. Boxes, bins, and milk crates full of hundreds of old photos, camcorder tapes, and every school notebook and folder that each of our boys ever had at seemingly every grade level all the way through college. Dear God, we had saved it all.

 

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But nothing got to me like the art projects. Boxes upon boxes of art projects. So many precious creations from simpler days.

 

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It is emotional enough finding Drew’s and Brett’s, but finding Jeff’s was different. In his case, these memories are all we have left. If I get emotional about something Drew or Brett created, I can thankfully just grab my phone and text or call them. With Jeff, I still call him but it always goes to his voicemail greeting.

Moving deeper into the storage room, I literally stumbled upon all of Jeff’s college folders, with his application essays, decision letters and welcome packets. More painful reminders of a beautiful, successful life that somehow turned dark.

Finding all the old photos and all of Jeff’s creations has literally ripped open every raw wound that had started to heal and made them bleed again. And as if that isn’t enough, the whole point of going into this room was to start to throw things out.

I had brought a large trash bag into the storage room to begin the decluttering process, but I couldn’t do it. When I picked up a cornucopia and a snowman and moved my hand toward the bag, it started to shake and I dropped them back in the box from which they came. These were Jeff’s creations. I couldn’t trash them.

 

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Carey’s guiding principle has always been that when you’re torn between alternatives, compromising is always the right answer. She came down, saw how upset I was, and immediately proposed one. Let’s allocate two bins, she said, for art projects, school essays, college acceptance letters, etc. that for whatever reason, you think are “must keeps”.

And the rest?

It’s 2018 and we’re in the digital age, she reminded me. Use that 256 GB of storage you bought on your new iPhone and snap a photo of everything else. Back it up on iCloud and you’re done. You can then view any penguin drawing, Ben Franklin poster board project, or snowman painting that the boys ever made, any time you want, forevermore.

It was the perfect compromise. An elegant solution from the most elegant of women.

Carey’s love, supportiveness, and her ability and willingness to always help us find a common middle ground are among the reasons why November 9th, 2010, a day that would have broken many marriages, couldn’t put a dent in ours.

________________________________________________________________________________________________

The new phase of our journey takes us right into another November 9th.

It’s mind-numbing to realize that the last time any of us saw Jeff was eight years ago today. We’ve learned so much through the years, all of it leading to the painful conclusion that Jeff’s death was completely unnecessary and avoidable – the result of a temporary, awful job situation that, together with a catastrophic reaction to misprescribed meds, led Jeff to the misguided belief that he would never be able to cut it in the “real world” and that his future was therefore bleak.

In the early days after Jeff died, I wondered how the devastation we felt then would evolve and feel years later. Eight years out, it still hurts so badly. Aside from knowing how unnecessary it was, I just flat out miss him. Every day. Today’s sports and political happenings still have such a strong connection to Jeff that I constantly want to text him and say “Did you see that?”, or “Can you believe what he just tweeted??”

And sometimes I do. But there is no response.

I’m so blessed, though, to have Drew and Brett, and there is no lack of texting between us.

 

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We have come so far, but finding so many of Jeff’s writings and creations has set us back a notch. Old wounds have been reopened.

Maybe spending weekends at a new home over a hundred miles away will help us heal again, or maybe it will exacerbate the problem, knowing that it is a place Jeff would have loved to visit.

I don’t know.

But I won’t dwell on that.

Instead, I’ll have faith that in the same way the dots connected over eight years to finally lead us to Prague for a very belated 25th anniversary trip (instead, it was our 33rd), they will connect again in the coming years to take us to a place of long-term peace.

— Rich Klein

Was Jeff’s Suicide The Ultimate Rebuke? – A Father’s Day Reflection, Part 8

17 Jun

“Beyond all the grief and helplessness that other parents feel, your child’s suicide confronts you with particular problems, complications of your grief that are unique to survivors of a suicide.

You feel a profound sense of failure, that you could not prevent his death. Closely tied to your sense of failure is the implied rebuke: You could not make his life worth living, you could not offer him enough of…of whatever he needed so that he would want to live. You feel a terribly personal abandonment, that he preferred to die rather than be alive with you.”

Barbara D. Rosof, “The Worst Loss: How Families Heal from the Death of a Child”, 1994

___________________________________________________________________________________________

I handed Carey the note that Jeff gave to me on Christmas Day 2005, another precious gem that he had left behind, but one that I had only recently found. It was classic Jeff, expressing gratitude and thanks, as well as regrets over his role in a terrible mishap that had occurred that August when Carey and I were away in Hawaii for our 20th wedding anniversary.

Suffice to say that a party broke out at our house while we were gone, and the house was trashed. Jeff had passed out on a couch in our basement, rendering him incapable of defending the home front. He was devastated, and never being one to deflect responsibility, his year-end note expressed his heartfelt regret and gratitude for my support of him.

 

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Carey read the note, shook her head, and handed it back to me.

”Always loving, always grateful, always apologetic,” she said. “But he still left us.”

I knew exactly what she meant. Despite all the beautiful words, Jeff jumped off a bridge. It felt like the ultimate rebuke of everything we did for him over his 23 1/2 years. A rebuke of our parenting, in essence. And for me, it hurts to the core, because I didn’t do enough at the end, and it feels like it was a rebuke of that too—my lack of decisive action when he was on the brink.

That’s why it seems like I’m literally waging a tug of war in my heart and mind every year at this time. I have more beauty in my life than I could ever have prayed for, yet there’s a hole in my heart that can never be repaired. The demons that frequently remind me of what I didn’t do know exactly how to pour salt in that wound.

With the support of my family, I yank my mind back to focus on all that I have and on the knowledge that I’m a good father who made terrible mistakes.

So it wasn’t really a rebuke. Or was it?

It’s a bona fide tug of war.

_____________________________________________________________________________________________

“Gazing at people, some hand in hand,

Just what I’m going through, they can’t understand.

Some try to tell me thoughts they cannot defend,

Just what you want to be, you will be in the end.”

—The Moody Blues, “Nights In White Satin”, 1967

_____________________________________________________________________________________________

The clock had already crossed midnight when the Monday Night Football game between the Colts and the Texans ended. We had watched the entire game, as one-sided as it was, because we needed to be together and we both knew it. I turned and took the measure of my deeply troubled son who, with the calendar having now advanced to November 2nd, had exactly one week to live.

I’m fairly certain that he didn’t know that at the time, because for Jeff in the fall of 2010, suicide was a viable option that he kept in his back pocket, something he could pull out of that pocket on a moment’s notice if things became unbearable. At that moment, though, his point of no return hadn’t yet arrived.

From an unusually young age, I had thought about and had become excited about being a father. It was just what I wanted to be, and I knew I could be a good one. My own wonderful father had shown the way, and I had tried to take his parenting to a whole other level. Yet for all of that, I now sat beside a suicidal son.

I knew that the moment called for me to say something impactful, as I stared straight into his eyes, but all I could muster was a question:

“Jeff, do you trust me?”

He didn’t miss a beat:

“I trust you more than anyone in the world.”

“Then let me lead you out of this. Trust that I can help get you to a better place,” I said.

”Ok, I will,” he answered.

One week later, on the afternoon of November 9th, Carey told Jeff she was going to pick up Brett at the bus stop, and he replied that he was going to work on his law school applications.

But that was a lie. Soon after she left the house, Jeff got in his car and drove to the Bear Mountain Bridge.

A week earlier, he had looked me in the eye and told me he trusted me and would let me lead him. But he clearly didn’t trust me at all.

That was a lie too. And it felt like a complete and utter rebuke of me as a father. He didn’t think I could offer him what he needed to get better.

________________________________________________________________________________________________

“Are you gonna wait for a sign, your miracle?

Stand up and fight.”

Kenny Loggins, This Is It”, 1979

________________________________________________________________________________________________

It’s Father’s Day 2018, and the tug of war is on. I grip the rope firmly and dig in with my feet.

It’s time to fight.

I clearly see not only the white line five yards in front of me but also the demons five yards beyond it on the other side. They are sneering as they make the first tug. My feet start to slide, but in an instant, I feel a counter tug from behind.

I look over my right shoulder and see that Drew has anchored himself behind me. With his forearm muscles bulging from gripping the rope, he steadies me. As always, he is the steadying force in our family, the calm one in the storm.

My Drew. He was only 19 and away at college when Jeff jumped. He had been texting with Jeff every day during his last week and couldn’t possibly make sense of what happened. But in the ensuing years, he was there for me every step of the way, and we did everything together. And he always reinforced my worth as a father and let me know what I meant to him.

 

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And now he had come to support me in my greatest fight. Of course he did. I love Drew so much.

But the demons didn’t come here to go down easily. Their ugly voices just grew louder as they pulled harder.

“You spent his entire last night together watching football, you spoke with him the morning of November 9th when he got pulled over by the cop, you laughed over the phone together when she let him go without giving him a ticket, and five hours later, he still jumped. A complete rebuke.”

They are relentless, and I’m getting weary. But then, out of the corner of my left eye, I see him coming. With his customary swagger, he sidles up to the rope behind Drew and takes hold. Brett is a mountain of muscle, and with one yank, he has the demons on the brink of crossing the line.

My Brett. He was just 16 when it happened, and he knew how much Jeff loved him. So how could he have left us, left him?  One look at Brett on the rope gave me another infusion of strength and reminded me how critical it is to regularly let both of my sons know how much strength I derive from them. I remembered the email he sent me on September 29th, 2012, right after he started at Villanova. I love Brett so much.

 

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We had these suckers on the ropes now.

And then, out of nowhere, an unmistakable figure in his Middlebury t-shirt crystallized out in the distance. Though we hadn’t seen him in nearly eight years, Jeff looked exactly the same, young and fit. As he approached, we saw he was not smiling. Instead, his look was one of focus and resolve. I couldn’t let go of the rope to hug him, so he stopped next to me and said,

”Read my final note, Dad. It wasn’t a rebuke. I came to help you remember that.”

I’ve read the note about a million times, and it’s not that I’ve doubted that his words were heartfelt. He is the one who made me a father at 26, and I know how much he loves me. I’m a bottom line kind of guy, though, and to me, his final action spoke so much louder than his words.

 

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His smile broke out when he saw Drew and Brett. He playfully punched each in the arm as he walked by, and then he clenched the rope. I now had all three of my sons backing me up. Father’s Day, my day with my boys, was now here in earnest.

This tug of war was as good as over. The demons knew it, so they went for broke. They know exactly where my greatest vulnerability lies, and the dirty bastards went for it.

“What did you do during Jeff’s last month? Did you take him away to a beach to clear his head? No, you didn’t. You didn’t even think of it. You went to work. You went to work. You went to work. You went to work.”

Some might call that a low blow, but I just call it the truth. I didn’t even think of doing that until he was long gone. If there’s one thing that takes the wind out of my sails every time, it’s that – the knowledge that I went to work when Jeff was depressed and floundering at home.  

I started to lose my grip on the rope, and my feet started to slide forward.

But thanks to my incredible sons who literally had my back, I regained my footing and found a toehold just inches from the line.

________________________________________________________________________________________________

 “And she believes in me,

I’ll never know just what she sees in me,

I told her someday if she was my girl, I could change the world,

With my little songs, I was wrong,

But she has faith in me, and so I go on trying faithfully…”

         Kenny Rogers, “She Believes In Me”, 1979

______________________________________________________________________________________________

It always comes down to Carey, and at the end of the day, even on Father’s Day, how could it not?

We’ve been married 32 ½ years and together for 38 ½.

We’ve been to the top of the mountain and to the bottom of the darkest valley. But the only thing that matters is that we’ve been to those places, and everywhere in between, hand in hand, arms locked.

It is no surprise that she has come to join the fight. Having just gone through her own version of this on Mother’s Day a month ago, she understands exactly what this is all about.

Before heading to the back of the rope behind Jeff, she leans in to me and whispers in my ear,

“It’s time to put an end to this.”

Carey is my inspirational soulmate, the one that I reach out to when I’m down and need a boost, and now was such a time. Just a month ago, I was getting my ass kicked, 5-0, in my tennis league match by a younger, better player.  I was really upset, and I texted Carey between games. She replied immediately and knew exactly how to pump me up.

 

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I immediately won three straight games, and though I ultimately lost 8-5, I went down fighting, and it was far from a shutout. With Carey set now in the anchor position at the end of the rope, I actually did feel like Atlas.

I looked back at this beautiful, petite woman who, as an EMT, helps lift patients who are sometimes triple her weight. The demons were about to be obliterated.

She grabbed the rope and with one coordinated pull, the five of us sent the demons sprawling across the line.

And just like that, it was over.  

Together, as a team, we had won. Family bonds that are borne out of true love are unbreakable. We all suffered a devastating loss 7 1/2 years ago, but the fact that we have each other and have become closer than ever as a family is a blessing that will always inspire us to victory in our own individual battles.

 

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In our jubilation, we hugged and then frantically looked all around for Jeff.

But after having accomplished what he had come here to do, Jeff was gone.

______________________________________________________________________________________

Today’s tug of war for my peace of mind has become an annual ritual that has taken place in the couple of weeks before every Father’s Day since 2011, my first Father’s Day without Jeff.  I would be naïve to think that I won’t have to fight again next year and for many years after that. 

I’m not fighting to make the truth go away, because that’s not possible or realistic. My failures and missed opportunities in Jeff’s final month are real and must not be sugarcoated. They must instead be treated as mistakes to learn from so that I can be a better father to Drew and Brett.

My fight is to not let the truth overwhelm me to the point of creating debilitating self-doubt in my mind as to my worth as a parent. Because if the Moody Blues band was correct that just what you want to be, you will be in the end, then I will be remembered as a devoted and loving father. That is what I want to be in the end. There is nothing more important.

After intense reflection, I understand now that Jeff’s decision to end his life was not a rebuke of me, Carey or anyone else. I may have missed my opportunity to save him, but misprescribed medication robbed him of his ability to save himself. His expressions of love and gratitude to me are everywhere in the cards, text messages, and emails that he sent over so many years. And I read them frequently.

Drew and Brett are home today, and a wonderful Father’s Day awaits. It would be the ultimate rebuke of their love and support of me if I let the demons take one ounce of enjoyment away from me.

And since I treasure every minute with my boys and would never let that happen, the voices that seek to torment me have no chance of pulling me over the line.

— Rich Klein

Eight Years Too Late

30 Apr

“For those of you who read my column a few weeks ago, you will not be surprised that I am utterly disappointed at the lack of upsets in this year’s March Sadness…

What does this lack of upsets mean? For one, it makes you appreciate even more when significant upsets do occur. After last year’s upset-heavy tournament, some people—myself  included—started assuming that that would become the norm, when in fact it is the rare exception…

In any case, all this simply elucidates the significance and beauty of upsets. Monumental upsets do not occur every March Madness—as painfully indicated by this year’s tourney—so when they do, it is all the more reason to celebrate.

Oh, and one last thing: a 16 seed will knock off a 1 seed in my lifetime. It’s gonna happen.”

— Jeff Klein, The Middlebury Campus, April 11, 2007

________________________________________________________________________________________

 

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Andrew Becker (Jeff’s oldest friend):

 

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From my blog post, “Let It Be”, on November 9, 2013:

 

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It has finally happened, my son –  the historic upset that you not only predicted but waited your entire life to see.

#16 UMBC destroyed #1 Virginia on March 16, 2018.

With one horrific and impulsive decision, you ensured that it would not happen in your lifetime.

I know you were watching but still…

It was eight years too late.

— Rich Klein