“Does your conscience bother you?
Tell the truth.”
–Lynyrd Skynyrd, “Sweet Home Alabama”, 1974
It may be difficult to believe that after grieving in this public forum for over five years, there is still a painful slice of Jeff’s story that I haven’t yet shared. I’ve gone into agonizing detail about what happened to Jeff and how we’ve been coping since, but even the thought of writing about this last piece has been too overwhelming. And so I haven’t. But today is Father’s Day, the day that brings to me each year an odd mixture of pride and self-loathing, and the latter feeling is what led me to publish this today.
I’ve shared many times that on September 8th, 2010, eight days after Jeff took his first antidepressant tablet, he told Carey that he was having suicidal thoughts and had searched for information on the Bear Mountain Bridge. What I didn’t share was that Jeff also told her that he had drafted a suicide note that he subsequently deleted. I was in San Francisco on a business trip when all this was happening, and you can imagine how frantic I was to get home, hug him, and talk to him.
When I returned home, I asked Jeff to send me the suicide note he had written. He replied with the following email to both Carey and me:
My heart shattered at the very notion that MY SON actually drafted a suicide note, but it then soared with my misguided belief that we had dodged a bullet. It was ok, I told myself. Jeff had just had a brain cramp in reaction to taking an antidepressant for the first time, and he had freaked out. Now he was back to his senses and wrote of a new beginning full of hope and determination to not give up. Here is the end of his revised note, a document beautifully titled “The Beginning”.
“I WILL NOT GIVE UP”.
Jeff’s resolute pledge was comforting, because in my heart, I didn’t believe that a son of mine could feel so depressed and desperate that he would seriously consider taking his own life. Nonetheless, Carey took Jeff back to the man who I began to call, in my own mind, “Dr. Meds”, and he took Jeff down a path of adding more drugs to the mix. This course of action ultimately led to his demise.
Carey and I felt it was crucial for Jeff to get back to normal routines, namely working in a less stressful job and starting to blog again. He had not written a post since July 8th, as shortly after that he was assigned to a high profile bankruptcy case that took over his life.
Jeff agreed that he needed to get back into the workforce, and he wasted no time working on a new blog post that would target his longtime nemesis, NBA commissioner David Stern. I prayed that this suicidal episode was some bizarre bump in the road and would be fleeting. What I failed to understand is that once someone seriously considers the possibility of suicide, that person must be considered “high risk” from then on.
Two weeks later, on September 24th, our whole family received an email from Jeff with his new blog post attached. The subject line alone brought me to tears:
“After a long hiatus…”
Oh God, it had been way too long. But when I read the post and felt that vintage Jeff Klein passion again, I was fired up. David Stern probably didn’t miss Jeff’s critical words, but I sure did. My boy was back. I had no idea that it would be the last post of his life, and it remains at the top of Jeff’s website (www.jeffkleinsports.blogspot.com).
Three weeks later, on October 13th, Jeff took another step forward when he accepted a job offer, even though it was a job for which he was way overqualified. But the point was for Jeff to become active and productive again, and to get out of the house. He was to start on Monday, October 18th.
Before going to sleep on Sunday, October 17th, I went to Jeff’s room to wish him luck with the new job. When I got to his doorway, I saw him kneeling over the printer on his floor, removing a few sheets of paper. Instead of asking him what he was printing, I instead blurted out my own wishful thinking and didn’t even wait for him to answer:
“What are you doing, Jeff, printing out stuff on the company to read before tomorrow? That’s a great idea.”
Jeff froze. I had caught him red-handed, and I didn’t even know it. With an awkward smile, he mumbled something like, “Yeah, yeah, right, just want to read up on them.”
For someone who considers himself to be an experienced and savvy guy, I’m often shocked and embarrassed by what a naïve imbecile I can sometimes be. I accepted Jeff’s awkward answer without question or concern. Had I taken just two steps forward to confirm what Jeff was saying, the jig would have been up, because I would have seen instantly that he was not holding information on his new employer. He was holding the document that was originally entitled “The End”, then became “The Beginning” and had now come full circle to become “The End” again. And the second sheet of paper was a goodbye note addressing each of his closest friends.
Jeff knew exactly how he would spend his lunch break on his first and last day of work. I, however, simply said goodnight, wished him luck again, and with blissful ignorance, climbed into bed. I had been two strides and some common sense away from derailing Jeff’s plan right there in his bedroom. But an experienced father of three grown boys was completely incapable of reading the most obvious warning signs in the awkwardness of his firstborn son.
At 12:45pm the next day, October 18th, I was at my desk at work when my cell phone rang. The caller ID displayed a number with an 845 area code. The only person I knew in this area code was my sister, and that wasn’t her number. With that possibility eliminated, I knew there was only one other. I suddenly became Mr. Savvy again and realized that from our home in Westchester, the Bear Mountain Bridge begins in the 914 area code and ends in the 845 area code. I was certain that I was about to be told that Jeff’s life ended in the 845 zone. I screamed “Hello” in a terrified, pleading voice.
“Hello, Mr. Klein? This is Officer Lugo of the Bear Mountain Police.”
Of course it was.
My next words were spit out on pure impulse.
“Is my son alive?”
I didn’t even have a chance to brace myself, as Officer Lugo answered quickly in a rather chipper voice.
“Yep, we’ve got him. He’s standing right next to me. He was standing on the bridge, looking out. A trucker saw him and pulled over, and asked him if he was ok. Your son told him he wasn’t feeling very well, and the driver called us immediately.”
At that moment, the horror of the fact that my son had driven to a bridge and stood at its edge contemplating whether to jump was a mere side note. The only thing that mattered was that he was alive and that we all, by the grace of God, had a second chance to help him get better. How many people in life actually get a second chance?
Officer Lugo explained that they were required to take Jeff to a hospital for evaluation, and I wouldn’t be permitted to visit him until the next morning. I’ve written many times that Jeff spent the week from October 18th – 25th being weaned from all the meds under medical supervision. But I had not told you that he was forced to spend that week in a hospital until it was determined that he was not a suicide risk.
When a nurse brought Jeff out to meet with me in a private waiting area the next morning, I stared at my handsome, brilliant, funny, kind and loving son and thought about the absurdity of this situation. Finally, Jeff looked me in the eye and said:
“I was so calm while I was driving there.”
I’m not often at a loss for words, but I didn’t have a clue how to respond to that. But Jeff didn’t wait for a response:
“Dad, I’m really glad I’m still here.”
I somehow controlled my body’s impulse to literally jump for joy. “YES!” my mind screamed. Jeff didn’t want to die. He had to do this to realize that. He now knew that life is always the right choice. Our eyes locked, I maintained my poker face, and I answered as forcefully as I could:
“Of course you are. Sometimes in life, people need to be pushed to the brink to realize that they’re never going to go over the edge. You were there, and you consciously chose not to go any farther. And now that it’s behind you, you never will.”
He nodded in agreement.
Later that afternoon, Jeff texted Carey with a heartfelt apology and yet another message of hope and resolve. He seemed almost embarrassed that it had come to this, which made me even more certain that he was going to be fine.
But I needed to get him back home and out of the environment that we thought was destructive to his well-being. It took a full week to wean him off the meds and another 24 hours after that for Jeff to pass exit interviews. He came home on October 26th. Jeff had prepared for his suicide right in front of my clueless face on the night of October 17th, but that was history now. He was home, alive, and we were all blessed with a second chance.
Exactly two weeks later, Jeff drove right back to the bridge, and this time, he didn’t hesitate.
Many kind and well-meaning people have told me that there was nothing I could have done to prevent Jeff’s death. Unfortunately, that’s just not true. The closeness of our relationship combined with the love and respect he had for me provided a significant opportunity for me to impact his thought process and outlook. But he needed to be taken away from home for some one-on-one time and attention from his father. I wrote in thorough detail in my 2013 Father’s Day post about exactly what I should have done, so I won’t repeat it here.
Whether you agree with me or not, the bottom line is that doing nothing was not an acceptable option, and that’s exactly what I did.
Sure, we talked plenty over his last two weeks, but my daily routines never changed. I went to work like it was any normal time. Hell, as my Outlook calendar painfully reminds me, I even flew to Kansas City on October 28th for a “celebratory closing dinner” with a client.