When A Father Is No Longer Superman (A Father’s Day Reflection)

19 Jun

When Carey and I graduated from Colgate and she was headed to Yale for her Masters, we had a plan.  We would get engaged two years later, shortly after she graduated.  Check.  We would enjoy a year of being engaged and planning our wedding, and we would get married the next summer right after my 25th birthday in August.  Check.  We would get an apartment in the city and enjoy everything that Manhattan had to offer a newlywed couple.  Check.  And we would wait three years before even thinking about having a baby.  Ooops.

As living proof of the limitations of birth control, Carey became pregnant just nine months after we got married.  We would be parents at age 26.  We actually adjusted very quickly to the drastic change from our original plan, and our initial shock gave way to excitement and euphoria.  To be honest, I was a little trepidatious, as I was working downtown on Wall Street, while also attending NYU Stern’s night program for my MBA.  When our baby was due, I would still have six months left to complete the program, and I’d be writing my final thesis paper.  But what the heck, it was an exciting, chaotic time of our youth, and isn’t that the way it was supposed to be ?  And as my friends all said to me, “how great would it be to have a boy and be young enough to play sports with him his whole life ?!”  Absolutely.

One of the most fun parts of the pregnancy period is the process of choosing the baby’s name, and once the sonogram confirmed it was, in fact, a boy, the name game was on.  I can’t tell you why, but from the outset, Jeffrey Alexander was my clear-cut favorite.  Carey was cool with that, but she also liked Jason a lot.  Jeffrey Alexander Klein.  Jason Alexander Klein.  Either way.  I knew I’d persuade her eventually, but we agreed it would be a game time decision.

On March 1, 1987 we got to Lennox Hill Hospital at around 7pm, as Carey’s labor pains had begun about an hour earlier.  After a full 13 hours of labor, on the morning of March 2nd, our little man was ready to make his grand entrance.  Having refused an epidural because she wanted a completely natural delivery, Carey was spent.   From my position at the foot of the bed, as soon as I laid eyes on our baby with his ample tuft of black hair, I blurted out without even thinking, “Hi, Jeffrey !!!!”  Realizing I had jumped the gun in deciding the name unilaterally, I went over and kissed Carey and asked, “Is that ok ?  Is Jeffrey ok with you ?”  Barely in a condition to speak, she smiled and muttered something like, “Yeah, sure, fine.”  And so it was decided.  I will never forget my dad’s exact words when I called with the news and the choice of name.  He said, “Jeffrey Alexander.  What a strong name.”  He was right.  It sure was.

Minutes after Jeff made me a father

The problem was that the kid with a strong name also had a strong set of lungs.  Jeff proceeded to scream bloody murder for three months, and by doing so, he began teaching me about fatherhood.  The first thing he taught me was the strict medical definition of the word “colic”, which is a “condition in which an otherwise healthy baby cries or screams frequently, and for extensive periods, without any discernable reason.”  Yep, that’s it.  Jeff had colic.  It was clear to us, well before he was 3 months old, that it was time to get out of Dodge, as they say, and we fled to a place so far away that we had never heard of it.  Millwood, New York.  My sister had sent us an ad in the New York Times for a new townhouse development there.  Done.  We’re out of here.  In a remote place like Millwood, we figured his screams would just disappear into the trees and the wilderness. We also heard they had a pretty good school system up there with a high school called Horace Greeley.   And so we closed on the place, I became a commuter, and I spent my very first Father’s Day, as a father, in Millwood, NY

Jeff in Millwood-18 years later, he did get into Colgate, but chose Middlebury
And so lesson number one is that fatherhood can be challenging.  During those early months in the city when I was finishing my last semester and writing my thesis, and Jeff was auditioning for the next Memorex cassette tape commercial by trying to break glass with his screams, the best thing for my GPA would have been to escape to the NYU library each evening and work there.   (For those too young to understand my Memorex tape reference, see the 30 second youtube link below with their commercial, and you’ll see what I mean)  I probably could have made a lot of money if I had brought Jeff to their advertising folks and let them record his voice for their commercials.
Anyway, as a husband and father, I knew that retreating to the library was not a viable option.  I had to be home, regardless of the challenges of working on my regular homework and final paper there.  And so I came home each night after work and classes, went into our little bathroom with my books, closed the door and worked.  I took study breaks to relieve Carey by holding and rocking Jeff in my arms, and alternately putting him in our baby swing for a change of pace.  Carey’s efforts as a mother were, and continue to be, herculean, and she has always been my greatest inspiration as a parent.  And you know what, it all worked out fine.  I graduated that summer on schedule, we moved, and Jeff gradually calmed down and became the happy, funny baby we had been waiting for.  The triumphant experience of getting through that very rough time with baby Jeff emboldened me.  As a young parent back then, I believed we could weather any storm and solve any problem.  I know it’s a funny thing to say, but in a way, it felt almost as if I was Superman.  And it was an amazing feeling. 
Jeff and I were close from the beginning

I remember another challenging moment that, like the milk-throwing incident described in one of my recent posts (Here Comes The Sun, April 29, 2011), is actually quite comical in retrospect.  In February 1994, when Jeff was almost 7 and Drew was 3, we were on a plane returning from a great vacation in St. Maarten.  Carey was about 3 months pregnant with Brett at the time.  As we were beginning our final descent, it was evident that there was very little visibility, no matter how far we were descending.  When you looked out the window, all you could see was dense fog.  I could tell by looking around that the other passengers had mostly all noticed this and were nervous.  When the pilot’s voice came on the loudspeaker to ask the flight attendants to stop their final clean-up and take their seats, it was clear that this was not going to be an easy landing.  Carey was sitting next to Drew, and I was next to Jeff.  At that moment, Jeff informed me that he was really nauseous and was definitely going to throw up.  I don’t think he had any concept of the visibility problem we were facing-something he ate just didn’t agree with him.  What timing.  The plane continued its descent, and still, there was nothing but solid whiteness outside.  Now where the hell do they keep those air sickness bags ?  There were none in the seat pockets.

I got up to ask the flight attendant for a sickness bag, and she was aghast that I had gotten out of my seat.  When I explained, she scrambled and found one and told me to get back and buckle up.  Why they make these bags so small has always been a mystery to me, but I had to work with what I had.  I implored Jeff to try to hold it until we were on the ground, though I knew that was an unreasonable request of a 6 1/2 year old kid.  The pilot said to prepare for landing, but for landing where ?  And on what ?  You still couldn’t see a damn thing.  Oblivious to all of that, Jeff’s head lurched forward and toward the aisle, and only about half the vomit made it into the bag.  The rest landed squarely in the aisle, and several passengers gasped.  Between the odor from the mess on the floor, the unsightliness of it, and the fact that people were already scared shitless about not being able to see a runway anywhere, it was not a happy situation.  As the flight attendant ran toward us with a towel, the wheels hit the ground without warning.  She grabbed onto a seat, and there was a little bounce, but not too bad.  We were down safely thanks to the wonder of instrument landing.  We couldn’t get off that plane fast enough, though, and thankfully Jeff didn’t lose it again on the car ride home.

Notwithstanding the challenges big and small, fatherhood is beautiful, rewarding and a blessing.  And I was blessed three times with the most amazing boys a father could ever ask for.  Each one is so different, yet so similar in the most important areas to me- all three have hearts of gold, a love of family and friends, and an innate kindness toward others.  As you can imagine, I have spent the last several months poring over our family photos from the past 23 1/2 years.   They have brought back all the memories of the baby years, the Halloween and little league parades through town, the band concerts, piano recitals, school and church plays, birthdays, holidays, family vacations, coaching their rec basketball and T-Ball teams, and so much more.  Thank God we were always really big on taking lots of pictures and videos.  I get immense joy from viewing them all.

I don’t need pictures or videos, however, to remember the many memorable interactions, poignant conversations and experiences that I have had with each of them individually.  For example, I’ll never forget the first dinner I had out with Jeff when we went on our famous 16th birthday baseball trip together to three different out-of-state ballparks in three days.  At dinner that first night after the afternoon game we went to at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, I made it a point to have a real father/son talk with Jeff about things that were on his mind, like girls, drinking, college and leaving home in a couple of years, etc.  It was wonderful, and I shared with him my own experiences and how I had handled those things.  As I was paying the check, I vividly remember Jeff looking at me and saying, “Wow, we really talked tonight.”  And I knew exactly what he meant- it’s always fun to talk about sports and lighter things with your dad, but he appreciated, at that tender age, talking about the deeper things that were on his mind.  I remember thinking that I had done something very meaningful with my son that night.  It was one of the most rewarding fatherhood experiences I had ever enjoyed.  And it was so basic- just talking and communicating.  Jeff and I had that sort of relationship to the very end and I am thankful for that.

One of the very best Father’s Days of all had to have been that of 2009, because out of a wonderful coincidence, Drew’s graduation from Horace Greeley was on Father’s Day- June 21st.  Unfortunately, it poured that day, so much so that the sound of the rain pelting the tent we were under made it difficult to hear any of the speakers.  But that couldn’t ruin the occasion, and what better way to spend a Father’s Day than watching your son receive his high school diploma.  As if that day wasn’t already special enough, Jeff gave me a Father’s Day card in which he wrote,

 “Dear Dad-  How funny that Father’s Day falls on the same day as Drew’s graduation !  And in a way, it’s fitting, because you have been instrumental in all of our achievements.” 

He went on to write some really beautiful things that I will always treasure.  I saved many Father’s Day, Christmas and birthday cards that my boys and Carey have given me over all these years, and I am incredibly happy that I did.  When I need a lift on any given day, I pull one out and read it, and without fail, whatever card I read always puts a smile on my face.

The best Father’s Day of all-2009 at Drew’s graduation

Lastly, in addition to being challenging and rewarding, fatherhood often brings with it some terribly frightening experiences.  My first such experience occurred in August of 1996 when we were on vacation in East Hampton.  One night, we thought it would be fun to have a little picnic-style dinner on the beach in the early evening.   We were sitting in sort of a circle, with 2 year old Brett and I next to each other with our backs to the water.  It seemed to me that we were far enough away from the ocean that we wouldn’t have to worry about any waves reaching us.  What happened next was an example of how little I knew about oceans and high tides, because before we knew it, a significant wave crashed even beyond where we were sitting.  Before one could blink, I saw tiny Brett begin to be swept by the wave toward the ocean.  He was moving fast, and I jumped up, lunged in the air in a racing dive position with my arms stretched out as far as they would go, and my torso landed between Brett and the ocean.  I wrapped my arms around him and held on tight as the wave finished its retreat back into the Atlantic.  It was easily one of the scariest moments of my life.

And then there are those terrible phone calls that come late at night.  I’ve written about the 2am phone call from Jeff after he had been attacked on the 1:53am train home that summer night in 2008.  A few years before that, on a cold January night during Jeff’s senior year of high school in 2005, Jeff called with the news that he had skidded through a stop sign on an icy Mt. Kisco road, and his car had crossed the perpendicular road before it jumped a guard rail and landed in a snow bank with the back half of the car still leaning on the rail.  The car was full with Jeff’s friends when it happened.  When I got to the scene and saw the position and condition of the car, I was amazed and thankful that nobody was hurt.  It was Jeff’s first winter driving with his senior license, and he had little experience driving in winter conditions.  Those phone calls were always terrifying, but I’d take them all again in a heartbeat.   At least his voice was on the other end of the phone.

And let’s not forget the Friday night fright of Jeff’s Middlebury graduation weekend.  Carey, Drew, Brett and I drove up that night for the big weekend.  As we turned on to Route 30 North, the final road on the way to Midd, my cell phone rang.  “Dad, I don’t want you to worry or anything, but I’m in Porter Hospital right now.”  Porter Hospital???  On the Friday night of graduation weekend ???   Jeff had driven over and checked himself in.  He felt as if his hands were swollen and he felt tingling sensations in his hands and arms.  So Carey dropped me and the boys at our hotel to check in, and she proceeded to the hospital to see Jeff.  The final diagnosis ?  I think the technical medical term was “excessive partying”.  There is a classic children’s book that I used to read to Jeff as a kid called “The Berenstain Bears and Too Much Birthday”.  Well, years later he had created his own college version-” Jeff Klein At Middlebury and Too Much Senior Week”.  Never a dull moment with my eldest son.

So now as I sit here in the early minutes of Father’s Day 2011, the first one without the young man who made me a father for the first time, my thoughts are unrelentingly focused on the moment that I realized I was no longer Superman- that I could no longer make everything right in my kids’ lives all the time.  It probably hit me in mid-October of last year, about three weeks before Jeff left us.  Prior to that I truly believed I still WAS Superman and that I had the power to always solve every problem, to get the train back on the tracks when it had temporarily derailed, or to simply lead the way down the path to happiness and self-fulfillment by providing sound advice and guidance every step of the way.  But by late October, I realized that, at least in Jeff’s case, the illusion of Superman was just that- it was a myth that, even with Carey and I expending every ounce of energy in our bodies and souls to reverse the tide, was unsustainable.  It takes two to tango, and Jeff was not in the mood to dance.  He listened attentively, however, to my and Carey’s every word of advice and encouragement during those last couple of weeks, and I thought we had him on track.  We didn’t.  My super powers had gradually diminished, and I didn’t even know it until I needed them the most. 

It is possible that I might have saved Brett’s life that summer evening in 1996, and Carey has definitely had a huge role in saving three different lives since she became an EMT.  Why we couldn’t save Jeff is a question that will torment me not only on Father’s Day but for all the rest of my days.  Maybe it was solely attributable to the misprescribed meds that had their hooks so deeply into him that he couldn’t escape.  Perhaps it is just because young adults can and often do make their own, often misguided, decisions.  And maybe it’s partially because I had lost my Superman’s cape, and with it, my ability to sufficiently influence those decisions once Jeff reached the age of adulthood.  The brutal reality is that there will never be closure on this question. 

Nonetheless, I begin this Father’s Day as an incredibly blessed father.  I will spend different portions of the day with my incredible wife with whom I have been together since we were 19 years old, and my amazing sons, Drew and Brett, with whom I have the same extremely close relationships that I have (yes, have-it’s just different now) with Jeff.  For me, Father’s Day has usually involved something related to athletics (either attending Drew or Brett’s AAU basketball games, or playing some pick-up ball with them and Jeff at the gym), and ends with an amazing family dinner that Carey lovingly cooks, with all my favorite things.

Counting my blessings is as easy as 1-2-3

This year, since Brett will miss his AAU tournament due to finals this coming week, maybe the three of us will head to the gym during a study break and play pick-up ball.  My boys have always gotten a kick out of the fact that, even at my advanced age, I was still able to touch the rim as of last year.  I’m sure I will try again today to prove that I can still do it.  It will be my first attempt since Jeff left, and I will either fail because my super powers have deserted me, or I will be so inspired by his memory that I will soar higher than ever.  I believe it will be the latter, but we’ll have to wait and see.  Either way, knowing Jeff and his love of family holidays and traditions, I don’t think he will abandon me on my day, and I believe he will be on the court with us and will find a way to connect with me. 

And then there will be our family dinner.  In recent years, it has become increasingly rare for all of us to eat dinner all together, especially once Jeff and Drew left for college.  But there are always the various holidays, and I treasure those dinners together.  I keep thinking about tonight, envisioning everyone in their customary seats at the table:  I am at the head, with Brett to my right, Carey to his right, followed by Carey’s mom and Drew going counter-clockwise around.  Sitting immediately to my left this year will be 23 ½ years of beautiful memories and a legacy of superstardom that he left behind, and I will feel surrounded by love.  

On the desk next to me as I type this is the last Father’s Day card that Jeff would ever give me, dated June 20, 2010.  The front has a black and white photo of the four feet of a father and son dangling next to each other over a dock and above the water.  The printed portion on the front of the card reads, “Somewhere between kid and adult, I realized you weren’t just my Dad…”.  The inside printed portion continues, “you were also one of the greatest guys I would ever know.”  And he began his written paragraph, “Dear Dad- This card says it all…..”.

As I stare at the card, this precious gift left to me by this extraordinary young man, the tears inevitably flow.  Receiving a card like this from your son is a father’s dream, and yet, it is of little consolation.  I want him back.  But if I couldn’t prevent him from leaving, I sure as hell won’t be able to accomplish that.  So I guess the best thing for me to do now, in the wee hours of Father’s Day, is to get some sleep.  Because in a few hours I, Drew, Brett, and in some form Jeff, will hopefully be heading to the gym for a spirited game of basketball.   And despite the swirling emotions of love, anger, frustration and heartbreak that accompany me to bed, this has the makings of a special day.  That’s because I remain an immensely proud father of three, and my boys will all be with me today, running the court together, watching me try to get rim and sharing our passion for the sport we love.  These are energizing thoughts and ones that give me hope that maybe someday, in the eyes of my kids, I can be Superman again. 

 -Rich Klein

P.S.  I just got back from 2 hours of pick-up basketball with Drew, Brett and several other kids 30 years younger than I am.  In addition to having a great time with my boys, I got rim four times.  I just pictured Jeff up on the rim with his hand up waiting for a high five, and I obliged.  Easily.  Four times.  With Jeff, Drew and Brett as my inspiration, I intend to continue getting rim for years to come.

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One Response to “When A Father Is No Longer Superman (A Father’s Day Reflection)”

  1. Nicole Sloane June 21, 2011 at 9:15 pm #

    Dear Rich,
    That was a beautiful and inspiring piece of writing that touched my heart and soul. We can take some comfort that Jeff is watching down on all of us from Heaven and will always be with us in our hearts and memories. It was an honor being his aunt — as it always will be.

    With much love in my heart,

    Nicole

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