Our Gift

9 Jul

Dear Jeff, 

I haven’t written to you since the end of March, so I thought it was time, as the first half of 2011  is already over.  You know, thoughts like that are the ones that get to me the most these days.  I mean, the thought that you never saw 2011 blows me away.  And then the other day, I  was petting Dobi, this beautiful greyhound that has become an integral part of our family, and I was talking to her, and I said something like, “Dobi, don’t  you miss Jeff so much?”  And then the  devastating reality immediately hit me- she doesn’t have a clue who Jeff  is.  You two never met.  It’s just so surreal- one of our two dogs, who is now so much a part of us, never met the young man who defined us for 23  ½ years. 

Anyway, Jeff, we  continue to receive emails from people whose lives you obviously touched very  deeply.  I heard from one of your old teammates from the Rebels travel basketball team, who had wanted to contact me sooner but had to track down my email address.  I’m so glad he wrote, because his email was warm and filled with beautiful memories.  He wrote, “I  remember Jeff as being one of those rare rock-solid friends, where at the end  of the day, you knew you could always count on him.  I am very lucky to have known Jeff, and I am  honored to consider him one of my friends.”   You will also enjoy knowing that he said, “I remember how great of a shooter Jeff was.  Truly one of the  purest shooters I have ever seen.   Whenever we needed that clutch 3, he would ALWAYS come through.”  And in a tribute to the sports following you had developed, he wrote, “I would always think about his reactions to  sports.  In fact, if there was ever a  trade, upset, David Stern reading, etc., my brother and I would always say to  each other, ‘wow, I can’t wait to see what Jeff posts on his blog or on  facebook.’”   

Playing for the Rebels led to the Greeley varsity team. Jeff, #21, is third from the right in the bottom row


So many people have  told me they really looked forward to hearing your impassioned and intelligent  views on sports-related issues.  And you knew it and were so pumped up about it- on April 27th of last year,  you emailed me, “I really want to continue to work on my blog-it’s really starting to take off, and more and more people are joining my group.”  Of course they were, Jeff.  You were a gifted writer with strong and  defensible opinions.  We all miss reading  and hearing your views, and although I know what you would say on almost any  issue, I would give anything to hear it directly from you again.  

You had many shining moments as a writer, but your greatest sports call resides in the January 24, 2008  issue of The Middlebury Campus.  In your JK Rolling column, you closed your Super Bowl preview article by writing,  “While the Patriots may be the better team, as a die-hard Giants fan, I feel  compelled to take them in the rematch.   The Patriots are being labeled as ‘a team of destiny’ and one more win  would produce a storybook ending.  But in  the biggest game of his career, Eli Manning will come up huge and propel the  Giants to victory, avenging their regular season defeat and ruining the Pats’ perfect season.  Now that’s what I call a storybook ending.”   

Jeff called the upset !

Here is the link to the complete article:  http://www.middleburycampus.com/2008/01/24/j-k-rolling-11/

Most recently, one of  your friends from University College of London, which you attended during your semester abroad in the fall of 2007, posted a message on your Facebook page saying that he and one of your other friends were planning to come to New York  from London and asked if you’d be around to get together.  They had no idea.  When I heard about this message from your  brothers, I asked Drew to respond and break the horrific news.  Within a couple of hours, I received the most touching email from this distraught young man.   You apparently had a profound impact on him and his group of friends during the short 3 months you were in London, as this email was unlike anything I had ever read.  For example, he wrote, “I only found out some  hours ago about Jeff’s passing…it makes no sense to me or the balance of the  universe to lose someone as beautiful, as wonderful as Jeff.   He continued, “He was always one to spread a  warmth, a peace amongst us, without trying, and at the same time make an  evening delightful with his sense of humour and quick wit.”  He said you had “such a wonderful outlook  towards people, a true love for his friends, and an ability to develop genuine,  lasting friendships…even if his time on earth was cut short, his mark on it is  unmistakable.”  Hearing and reading these  sentiments from so many different people makes me swell with pride, Jeff.  You are a beautiful person, inside and out. 

A few days later, he posted again on your Facebook page and basically said that, without you being here, there was no reason to come to New York after all.  And as I told you before, the young lady from Istanbul who was planning a trip to come to New York to see you earlier this year, also canceled her trip when she heard the news.  Do you even realize what that says about you  that people have based their decisions on whether to come to the United States  from abroad on the fact that you are no longer here ?  As a father, it makes me so very proud, but  it also makes me wonder whether you truly understood how people felt about you.   I have been contemplating that question much more lately, because if you did, why would you ever have even thought of leaving all the people who adored you?   

This young man’s email stirred up so many memories of that fall 2007 semester in London at UCL.  It was just three months, but true to your nature, Lord knows you made the most of it.   Remember how excited we both were when we found out that the Giants were going to play the Dolphins at Wembley Stadium in the first-ever NFL game abroad?!   What an amazing coincidence that this game was scheduled during the short window you were there.  Wembley holds 88,000 people and it was sold  out, so I went on one of those ticket broker sites to get 4 tickets for you and  your friends.  There was no way on God’s  green earth I would let you miss being at that game.  I remember you telling me how great it was, even though it rained during the entire game.  As you told me, it was nothing that a few pints of beer couldn’t take care of, and in a muddy, sloppy contest, the Giants eked out a 13-10 victory for you.  You also got a kick out of the fact that, to spice up the relatively boring game, an apparently well-known streaker named Mark Roberts ran on the field in the middle of the game in his birthday suit.   

Jeff, I can’t believe this, but I just recently found a treasure trove of emails that you sent to me and Mom during your four years of college.  I am beyond thankful, because they bring your college career to vibrant life again, including that semester in London.  I had thought they were gone forever, but I have put them on a CD and they will now be saved forever.  As an example, you sent me a “classic Jeff” email on Sept. 21, 2007 which, in just a few sentences, encapsulated the way you lived and savored your times with friends.  I had casually emailed you asking how your night had gone.  Your response was,  

“Hey Dad- the night went really well.  I went over to the student union with a few guys from Ifor Evans [Jeff’s dorm] and we just basically hung out, met people, and had a few pints of beer.  When I got back I met two other people, a guy  and a girl, who are from England and just moved in today.  Right now I’m watching the Yankee game on my newly-working mlb.tv.  It was a pitchers’ duel before Wang just gave up a frustrating two runs.”  That response, Jeff, describes you to a T – hanging out with newly-made friends, drinking beer with them, meeting two other new people, and then finding a way to keep up with your beloved Yankees.  So  great and so classic Jeff Klein.   

Mom and I both vividly remember how happy we were to receive this email from you on October 20,  2007- “Today I hit up all the big sites in London- Royal Festival Hall, London Eye, Big Ben, Parliament, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace.  It’s all very awe-inspiring.  The architecture is beautiful.”  These emails, which are emblematic of the way you lived your entire life to the fullest, give us comfort.  You didn’t miss out on very much during your 23 ½ years, and your happiness over the course of your life was evident in everything you did, said and wrote.  Putting aside what went wrong in that last month of your life, at least we know that you otherwise had all the best of it.   

I have to admit that  my favorite email of all from London was the following rant, which arrived without warning on November 14th.  The subject line simply said “Sports”. 

“Wow… I feel like there’s never a lack of abundance in terms of crazy news going on in sports.  There’s always something, partly because these egotistical professional coaches and athletes are the most self-absorbed and arrogant people in the world.  So Marbury left the Knicks because Isiah was planning to start Mardy Collins in place of him.  Now Marbury’s essentially blackmailing Isiah, saying that he has “so much” on him.  Knicks 2007, this is our year.  Then Phil Jackson made a homosexual slur when he said that the Lakers-Spurs game was a ‘Brokeback Mountain’ game—lots of penetration and kick-outs.  And finally, A-Rod’s now considering signing back with the Yankees after  he realized he might not be able to get a $350 million deal like Boras was thinking.  Absolute craziness.” 


Jeff, when I first got that email 3 ½ years ago, I think I laughed for three days straight at the random nature of it.  And yes, what a wild ride it’s been for all of us as Knicks fans all these years, and as the pictures below demonstrate, we have been loyal diehards.  Having just found the email and reading it again, I laughed for three more days before crying at the thought that we could have had a lifetime of your email gems ahead of us.  Nonetheless, I will treasure the ones we do have forever. 

Jeff and I are loyal Knicks fans

Go New York, Go New York, Go

As if all that wasn’t enough, I remember how happy you were to have the opportunity to extend your basketball career in London.  Just when we thought that the Horace Greeley varsity team would be your last school-related team, you tried out for the UCL squad and made it !  For at least 3 months, you played international college basketball.  What a great experience that was, and now I have recovered the emails in which you shared that with me.  I loved the email from 11/28/07 in which you wrote: 

“Hey Dad- Just got back from the basketball game.  We lost by about 6…We were getting creamed early on, down by as many as 20 I think, before making a furious rally in the second half to get within 1.  I played the last few minutes of the first quarter, all of the second quarter, and the last half of the fourth quarter.  I’m getting some significant minutes lately !  Love, Jeff.” 

And then on December 8th: “Hey, I got my season high today in basketball- 8 points.  It was an all around good game for the team.”   

Staying on the subject of basketball, I and every other person in the world who knows you, thought about you every minute of the NBA Finals between the Mavericks, who personify teamwork, and the big-ego superstars of that make up the core of the Miami Heat.  The match-up itself was one that appeared to be choreographed by you, so that the contrast was clear between good and evil, right and wrong.  Before the series even started, I wrote an email to your friends that said,  “In the same way I told you well before it happened that UConn would win it all, I can tell you now that the Dallas Mavericks will beat the Heat to win the nba title.  I believe that Jeff willed this to be the finals match-up: the superstar-laden Heat against the less talented but team-oriented group of veterans on the Mavs.  He would be blogging away about how the Mavs will show the world how a true team can overcome greater individual talent and youth. The Mavs will be big underdogs, but that is irrelevant.  Jeff has his fingerprints all over this one.  Remember, you heard it here first.” 

I couldn’t even believe that the defining moment of the series was when Jason Terry hit a deep 3 in Lebron’s face to ice Game 5 !  Brett and I were watching together, and as soon as that shot swished through, I looked incredulously up to the heavens and shook my head in awe.  You think I didn’t know you had a little something to do with that one ?  It was beautiful. 

It is so easy now to predict these things.  It is crystal clear when your imprint is on a certain situation, particularly when it relates to sports, and knowing precisely how you think and what you want to happen, I can easily see the outcome in advance.  Another case in point- right after the Mavs won the title, Vikash emailed me, “Next question: will Boston win the Cup?”  At that moment, the Bruins were down 3-2 in the series and needed to win the next two games, including Game 7 IN VANCOUVER, to claim the championship.  I told Vikash, yes the Bruins would win the Stanley Cup.  Why did I know that with certainty?  Because I knew you wanted it that way.  The Bruins hadn’t won the Cup in 30 years, making them the consummate underdog that you love to root for.  And I know you have nothing against Boston-it’s just the Red Sox that you (and I) have an issue with.   Needless to say, as you well know, the Bruins swept the next two games, winning Game 7 in Vancouver, and the Vancouver fans rioted, looted and basically set the city on fire.  I guess I should have prepared them in advance for this great disappointment.  I’m starting to consider whether I should become a betting man after all…(Just kidding). 

The four of us just returned from a long 4th of July weekend on the beach in Rehoboth, Delaware.  For obvious reasons, we couldn’t face going to East Hampton without you, so we sought a place where you had never been.  Since Drew will be working all the way through the summer until he has to go back to school, this was the only chance for the four of us to go away together this summer.  Going away as a family unit, just as we did between Christmas and New Years shortly after you left, is a critical part of the long healing process that we are going through and will be going through for years to come.  As was the case then in Puerto Rico, this long beach weekend brought back all the many memories that we have of the dozens of beach vacations with you- East Hampton, Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard, Cape Cod, the outer banks of North Carolina, Aruba, St. Thomas, St. Maarten, Grand Cayman, and many others. 

I don’t think we are ever as happy as a family as we are when we are at the beach together.  Just as the four of us always did when you were with us, Brett, Drew and I threw the football around in the ocean while trying not to hit swimmers and people hanging out at the shore.  When we are on the beach now, I close my eyes and visualize the overt enjoyment you got from those trips.  I can clearly see you out there riding your boogie board, playing wiffleball with us, throwing the frisbee around with your unorthodox frisbee-throwing style, having baseball catches together, throwing those foam footballs around in the ocean, riding jet skis, kayaking, and of  course playing “smash ball” to see how many times you and Drew could hit the ball back and forth before it hit the sand.  It was only 10 ½ months ago that we were all in East Hampton together one last time, and the memories are so vivid.  Your brothers and I hold you so closely in our hearts and continue to imagine that you are out there on the beach with us when we throw the ball or Frisbee around.   As I say in many blog posts, I am thankful that we have all of those times captured on either camcorder tapes or in photos.   

Jeff was always a beach lover

Hold on, Jeff !

I’m sure you would agree that the most memorable beach vacation, though, was also the scariest of  all.  August 1998.  Sandbridge/Virginia Beach.  Hurricane Bonnie.  Wasn’t that classic, Jeff ?  You were 11, Drew was 7 and Brett had just turned 4.  We got to our two week rental home, which was one of those classic shingled beach houses that rested on wooden stilts.  We knew from watching the Weather Channel that Hurricane Bonnie was on her way and would be roaring through the Carolinas and up through Virginia Beach in just two short days.  Trying to be prudent and sensible parents, Mom and I devised the perfect strategy for handling this situation and still enjoying our vacation.  We decided we would abandon this rental home until the hurricane had finished passing through, and we would drive inland to Colonial Williamsburg to do some history-related sightseeing.  What a great plan, if I do say so myself.   

As you well remember, the problem was that after a day and a half with you guys in Williamsburg, Mom was getting antsy.  You guys were young and had limited tolerance for touring historic sights.  That tolerance had run out.  So when we flipped on the Weather Channel, and we heard they had downgraded the hurricane to a Category 2 from Category 3, Mom decided we were going to head back the next day.  I thought that was crazy.  A Category 2 is still one hell of a hurricane, and I couldn’t understand why we wouldn’t wait until it was completely GONE.  Mom was adamant that we get back to the beach, so I caved and acquiesced against my better judgment.   So there we were driving along, approaching Virginia Beach, when the sky turned black, the winds noticeably picked up, and our SUV started to shake.  Your mother, all of a sudden, wasn’t so brave any more, but it was too late.  We were in the eye of the storm and there was no way out.  We had to go for it, get to the house and pray for the best.  Out of all of us, you were always the one that craved adventure the most, so to you, this was the greatest adventure ever ! 

We got to the house, the winds got stronger, and the house on stilts was swaying back and forth.  And not long after darkness fell, the power went out.  Remember how we scoured the house looking for a flashlight or candles, but we could find neither ?  Then finally Brett pulled out this tiny plastic toy flashlight from his toy pile !  It wasn’t much, but at that time, we were happy to have any ray of light.  Since GPS didn’t exist in 1998, we didn’t think it was a great idea to jump in the car not having a clue as to where we were going.  So I called some police emergency number that was on the refrigerator, and when I finally got a live person on the phone, they told me they’d send help as soon as they could but that they had lots of people ahead of us who needed assistance.  The way the house was swaying, I didn’t think we had much time.  While we waited, I remember Drew and Brett went to sleep but you were wide-eyed and intent on staying by my side.  

When a police SUV finally showed up, the officers said they would escort us to a local elementary school where we could spend the night.  You thought this was the greatest thing ever, and when we got to the school, we found that the American Red Cross had set up shop there, and we were led to the red gym wrestling mats on which our family slept that night.  You were in your glory !  There were probably 100 people in that gym sleeping on mats.  As far as I was concerned, it was a 5 star hotel, because we were in a rock solid building that was not shaking and had electricity.  I don’t think I slept much, but you guys did, and in the morning they even had those mini boxes of cereal and small cartons of milk waiting for their overnight guests.  It was one of those harrowing experiences that we talked about for years to come, and getting through it bonded us even closer together as a family.  

Hangin' with my boy at the beach-2005

Back to the present, Brett took the SAT exam for the second time in June, once again wearing his Middlebury T-shirt.  We have now visited four colleges with him, and during 3 out of the 4 campus tours we went on, it absolutely poured.   We got drenched.  The weather was only sunny and dry when we visited Bucknell.  Mom and I are convinced that this is your way of telling us that Bucknell is the right choice for Brett.  Are we correct ?  If it continues to rain on every other college tour that we attend, it will be pretty clear.  You continue to make your presence known, that’s for sure. 

This morning, I played my weekly tennis league match against an excellent USTA player.  During a changeover, he asked me how many kids I have.  I paused for a brief second, glanced down at the Middlebury T-shirt I was wearing, and said ” I have 3 boys- 23, 20 and almost 17.”  I have been faced with this question from strangers before, and it has become crystal clear to me that this answer, of course, is the correct one.  I will always be your father, for the rest of my life, because I expend as much energy loving you today as I did when you were here with us.  You are my son, Jeff, always and forever.

In the match itself, I took a 6-2 lead against this guy, who on paper, would certainly have been the favorite to win.  Not surprisingly, he mounted a comeback to tie the match 6-6.  At that point, you know the drill.  I opened my racquet cover, stared intently at your gorgeous face in the picture I have with me always, and went out for the clincher.  Now keep in mind, he had won four straight games and had all the momentum.  He had no idea, though, that he had no chance in the deciding game.  Not only did I go out and win that game, I shut him out, winning four straight points.  Final score: 7-6 for Dad, continuing my unprecedented run of success in league play.  You, Drew, Brett and Mom are my inspiration always.

I pray that you saw the absolutely incredible and historic fairy tale that was today’s Yankees game.  I write a lot about the Knicks, but the Bronx Bombers were at least as big a part of your life as a sports fan.  Today was the kind of day you lived for- Derek Jeter didn’t just get his 3,000th hit.  He did it on a homerun, went 5 for 5 including the game winning single, and his buddy Mariano saved the 5-4 victory.  I felt so lucky to be watching with Brett as the clock struck 2pm, and Jeter crushed the homer to deep left field.  Brett and I jumped around the family room, locked in an embrace, like lunatics.  It was reminiscent of so many similar Yankee moments that you and I shared together.  The most recent of which was when Mariano recorded the last out of the 2009 World Series, and you and I hugged and fist pumped in the upstairs TV room.  I remember it like it was yesterday, son.

You know, I also pray that you can hear me talking to your picture every day in my office behind my closed door.  I tell you each and every day how much I love you, how I hope you are at peace and happy, and I beseech you to explain what went down so suddenly on that final day just hours after we chuckled on the phone together late that morning when the police officer elected not to give you a ticket for talking on your cell phone (to me) while driving.  And I tell you that I would give anything to have you back.  Can you hear me ? The other day Mom took out a bunch of your T-shirts and distributed them to me, Drew and Brett.  But I had already taken a bunch myself shortly after you died and have been wearing them all the time.  Wearing them makes me feel even closer to you if that’s even possible. 

I have kept your cell phone activated for a single purpose- so that I can hear your voice whenever I need to, simply by calling you and listening to your voicemail greeting.  Remember how I used to tease you when your original message was, “Hey, this is Jeff, I’m not here right now, so leave a message.”  I used to say, “Jeff, what do you mean you’re not here right now???  It’s a cell phone-you’re not where ?!”  Tired of my relentless ribbing, you finally changed it to say, “I can’t answer my phone right now…”  Either way, I’m sure I will keep this phone activated forever, because although it’s a double edged sword-knowing that you will never answer my call and remembering how I frantically tried to reach you on that fateful day and repeatedly got your voicemail- I want to be able to hear your voice on demand.  And I have left you voicemail messages that I pray somehow have made it up there to you. 

After all these months, your headstone was finally installed on your final resting place a few weeks ago.  When we placed the order just after Christmas, we struggled with what words to have engraved on it, because we knew it was not enough to just put the obligatory words “Beloved Son & Brother”(which you most certainly are) on there.  No, there had to be more, at least a couple of words that would truly capture the essence of what you are and will always be to us.   And I’m sure it is of no surprise to you that Mom was the one who, as usual, found those perfect words. 

They are so simple, yet so poignant.  And thus, below “Jeffrey Alexander”, engraved are the words “Our Gift”.  Because that, in a nutshell, Jeff, is what you are to us, and clearly what you are to so many others in your life, even to those, like the guys in London, that you knew only a short time.  The beautiful thing about a gift is that it can never be taken away, and that holds true here as well.  You took your physical presence away from us, but you knew you wouldn’t be erasing the precious memories and all the love that you gave to us for 23 ½ years.  All of that is memorialized in photographs, camcorder tapes, cards, emails, texts and even in your final notes.  And now the summation of what you mean to us is memorialized on your headstone for all eternity.  In two words. Our Gift.  You are a gift who made us laugh, made us so happy, challenged us with your intellectual curiosity, and always filled us with enormous pride.  But most of all, you are a precious gift who, because of the kindness and warmth with which you treated everyone you knew, is everlasting in everyone’s hearts and minds.  And for me, just being known as Jeff Klein’s father, is the greatest gift of all.

 All my love forever, 

Dad

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