A Winter Storm In October Adds To The Harsh Winds Of Autumn

30 Oct

This used to be my favorite time of year, when the temperatures cool down, the air becomes crisp, there are a few days of Indian Summer that tempt you to head back to the beach, and the colors are breathtaking in New York’s northern suburbs.

But as I walked our dogs over the weekend of October 15th, the strong, harsh winds on both those days blew in the painful memories of autumn a year ago.  Walking into the wind, it felt as if I was taking a peppering of left jabs to the face as I recalled the exact two month period to which I’ve made reference many times on this blog, from September 9th to November 9th of 2010, when Jeff’s morale took a turn for the worse and never recovered.

And as if that’s not enough, I am looking outside at close to a foot of snow on our deck, the result of the first winter storm of this magnitude in October since 1869.  The meteorologists call it a “perfect storm”, an anomalous confluence of events that may never occur together again for another 150 years.  I call it cruel.  And bitterly ironic.

My backyard-October 29, 2011

It is ironic because just one year ago, it was exactly the same type of “perfect storm” and bizarre confluence of events that led to Jeff’s tragic demise.  The combination of a brutal job that he could no longer stand, a flawed decision to try medication and a decision made too late to cease taking those meds, created the tempest that proved to be too daunting for Jeff to withstand.  I’d even include an inexplicably postponed Knick game that Jeff was scheduled to attend on November 2nd as part of the devastating mix.

Perhaps an even greater irony is that Jeff would have LOVED yesterday’s snow storm, and thus, there is no doubt in either Carey’s or my mind that his spirit had a hand in this.  He lived for snow days from school, but even more than that, he got huge thrills from highly unusual, once-in-a-lifetime events like this.  He would have been tracking this storm from the first mention of it, and he would now be telling us all the trivia facts related to it, such as the fact that nothing like this has happened since 1869.  I truly loved seeing the joy he got from unique situations and events.  For us, though, this damaging storm only contributes to the rehashing of the dark memories of last autumn.

It was October 25th of last year that Jeff completed the one week process of being weaned off the misprescribed meds that he was fed by a psychiatrist who didn’t take the proper time to understand and diagnose the problem before throwing pills at it.  We were so hopeful that this weaning process would lift the cloud that had formed around his head, but apparently this stuff takes time to completely leave your system and two weeks later, that time had run out.  Jeff apparently couldn’t wait any longer.  Suffice to say I will never again let anybody that I love or care about take such medication, to the extent I can control the situation.

Perhaps the most confounding, and in some way comforting thing about Autumn 2010 is that, despite the struggles, there were some really good times for Jeff during that period.  Here’s an example. 

Every September, on the third Tuesday of the month, one of my clients hosts a golf tournament outside of Boston.  Since I don’t play very much during the year, I usually try to make a couple of trips to a local driving range before the outing to get ready.  Last year, I asked Jeff to come with me on the two consecutive weekends before the tournament, and he readily agreed (as Brooke rightly says, if Jeff was free, he was always down for anything).

I have such great memories of those two days at the driving range.  You have to understand that Jeff probably never played a full round of golf in his life.  But the sight of this big, strong young man crushing ball after ball off the tee and watching most of them soar straight-as-an-arrow into the distance was hilarious.  Jeff didn’t really know the “proper” way to swing the club, but his instinctive swing worked just fine.  We were both laughing at the stark contrast between his great shots and my not so great ones, most of which went anywhere but straight and certainly didn’t have the distance of his.

I was both happy and flattered that Jeff agreed to go with me on that first Sunday, September 12th, because the Giants had a 1pm game against the Panthers.  To be sure, he followed the game’s progress on his phone between shots, and after we hit three buckets, he was ready to go home and catch the second half on TV, but the fact that he was willing to miss the first half to hit balls with his Dad was an awesome feeling for me.  My thoughts driving home that day were: great time, Jeff was relaxed and having fun, totally engaged and into the Giants, and he was going to be just fine.  And we repeated this scene the next Sunday, which was another terrific time.

The memory of that great time with Jeff is what made this September so difficult to handle.  Before this year’s tournament, I skipped the driving range preparation.  With Drew away at school and Brett having to focus on college applications on the weekends, it would have been too excruciating to go alone, accompanied only by memories.  In fact, I don’t think I can ever go back there again.

From golf, it was on to tennis for Jeff, as he really got into the sport again last fall at the urging of his friend Dan Reisner.  I am grateful to Dan, who encouraged Jeff to become a member of the USTA (United States Tennis Association) so they could enter tournaments together, and they did.  Jeff, a former Horace Greeley varsity tennis player, had a great time with it.  I’ll never forget that when Jeff’s Greeley tennis coach got up at the 2005 Senior Athletic Awards Dinner to talk about his team, he said “Jeff is definitely the fittest athlete on the team, and he gets to absolutely every ball !” As a periodic tennis opponent of Jeff’s, I can vouch for that being so true.  Once he turned 15, I never beat him again.

One of  the best weekends of last fall for Jeff began on Friday, October 15th, which is when Drew came home for his October break, and Jeff was scheduled to play in his first USTA tournament that night.  Jeff came home after his match all pumped up that he had won, and he was then ready to kick back with Drew and me, and watch Game 1 of the ALCS between the Yankees and Rangers.  And what a time we had.  The three of us made the house shake with our screams when the Yankees, down 5-1, roared back with 5 runs in the top of the 8th to win 6-5. 

Although Jeff lost his next match the following evening, it was close, and he enjoyed the competition.  And to close out the weekend in style, he and his wonderful friends, Ryan and Lisa, went to the Giants game on Sunday Oct. 17th.  I really thought weekends like that would significantly improve his outlook on life.

Jeff went to two Giants games during his final autumn

Two weekends later, we went as a family to the Knicks home opener on Saturday night, with Jeff decked out in his police uniform Halloween costume that he was wearing for his friends’ party after the game.  I’ll never forget that on our drive in to the city, I glanced at Jeff in the back seat of the car, and he was looking intently at something on his phone screen.  It turns out that he was checking to see if his LSAT score had been posted.  It had, and a big smile crossed his face, as he told us his score.  He did well.  Very well.  And I prayed that this was the spark he needed to turn things around and to realize he had the ability to do anything he wanted in life.  I mean, he excelled on the LSAT while in a crappy state of mind and on meds.  I thought that was pretty damn impressive.  Can you imagine what this kid could do under a more normal set of circumstances ?

As we walked toward the Garden from the parking garage, I pulled Jeff aside and said, “Now tell me the truth, don’t you feel a sense of satisfaction at achieving this kind of success?”  He flashed that great Jeff smile and he acknowledged to me that he did feel really good about it.  I told him that even if he decided not to apply to law school, the point remained that he could do anything he put his mind to.  He agreed.  But like most of his good moments last fall, this one was fleeting, and he was not able to sustain the positive momentum. 

I believe that during this period, Jeff took things that happened as signs or omens, either good or bad.  I further believe that he took what happened on November 2nd a year ago as one such ominous sign and that it may have sealed his fate in his clouded mind at the time.  He had been very much looking forward to taking Brooke and Julie to the Knicks game that night, both because he hadn’t seen them in a while and because he loved the thought of taking them to their first ever NBA game.  He was anxious to show them the ropes, as they say, and make them big Knicks fans.

I was riding Amtrak home from my business meeting in Philadelphia that afternoon when Carey called to tell me that the game had been postponed indefinitely due to a problem with asbestos falling from the roof of the Garden.  WHAT???  That can’t be right, I told her.  I mean, the last time a Knicks home game was postponed was almost 15 years ago, on January 7, 1996 due to a snowstorm. The last time a Knicks home game was postponed for a non-weather reason was in December 1965 when a game against the 76ers was rescheduled after the death of the 76ers owner, Ike Richman.

I could tell that evening that Jeff was extremely disappointed, and although I told him he could take them to any future game he wanted with our tickets, he still took this postponement very hard.  He seemed to feel that Murphy’s law was operating in full force and that anything that could go wrong was going wrong for him.

The rest of that week was rough.  I remember one night I walked into Jeff’s room to give him a hug goodnight, which I always do when my boys are home.  On this night, he gave me a particularly strong hug and said:

“I don’t know what I would do without you, Sir.”

I replied almost incredulously, “But isn’t that the beautiful thing, Jeff ?  You don’t have to do without me.  Ever.”

He KNEW that, but it bore repeating at that moment.  And he then hugged even a bit tighter, and I felt his head shaking “yes” on my shoulder.  Why it ultimately wasn’t enough that his entire family was there for him, enveloping him in our love, is something I will never comprehend.

Drew was recently home for a few days on this year’s October break from school.  His presence ushered in a breath of fresh air, helping me combat the harsh winds of autumn.  Thank God for that young man.  With his sense of humor, his incredible strength and his love of family, he is an inspiration to me every single day.  And thank God for Carey, my amazing wife who is successfully waging the fight of her life to stay the course in the face of losing her first born son.  And thank God for our “baby” Brett, who we call our “golden boy” for more reasons than just his blondish hair.  The youngest always remains the baby, even if he is a 6 foot tall bundle of muscle. 

And so we march forward through a season that can never again be my favorite time of year.  Ironically, Jeff used to love this time, and his favorite thing to do every October as a family when the boys were younger (other than watch the Yankees playoff games) was to go apple picking at a local orchard and to enjoy a hay ride and some warm apple cider and sugar donuts while we were there.  And it was there that the boys would choose which pumpkins to buy for the holiday.  This was yet another annual family tradition that Jeff looked forward to, and I think we did it every year until Jeff graduated high school.

Jeff always thoroughly enjoyed Halloween too, whether it was marching in the parade through town as a kid, trick-or-treating through the childhood years (he delighted in counting the individual pieces of candy in his bag to see just how much loot he had raked in), or donning “Scream” masks, a blind referee costume, or other costumes at parties as a young adult.

Yes, that's Jeff, but Carey doesn't seem too scared

Counting his Halloween candy, Jeff's annual ritual

Those are the memories that I pray will one day be swept in by a cool, light autumn breeze.  Right now, though, there are only cruel snow storms and unforgiving winds relentlessly blowing us with terrifying force toward November 9th, the one year anniversary of Jeff’s absurd and tragic decision.

I am unable to stop tormenting myself by wondering what Jeff was thinking that afternoon while he was en route to his final destination.  Did he think of me at all ?  Did he think about those days at the driving range, the apple orchards, amusement parks, Knicks games, Yankees games, family vacations, holiday gatherings, Sunday night family dinners out, our many long talks about life, our one-on-one baseball trip when he turned 16, any of it ?  Or how about the 2+ hours we spent together in his room just the night before, watching Monday Night Football.  Did he think about that ?  These mental ruminations breed feelings of both pain and betrayal that I cannot shake.

There is no way around the agony that surrounds me this season, because I can’t stop thinking about how on this day a year ago- as we drove to Madison Square Garden as a family and Jeff retrieved his LSAT score while wearing a policeman Halloween costume- I didn’t know that we had just 10 days left with our son.  Ten days to talk to, to hug, to love, to enjoy, and to care for the amazing young man who made my dream of fatherhood a beautiful reality for the first time.  There is some comfort in knowing that our family gave Jeff every ounce of our love until his dying day.  We have continued to shower him with love, in our own individual ways, ever since. And we always will. Not even the unfriendly winter storm and autumn winds of 2011, with all the brutal memories of a year ago riding in on their backs, can distract us from doing that.  

-Rich Klein

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One Response to “A Winter Storm In October Adds To The Harsh Winds Of Autumn”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Thanksgiving Eve & Other Reminders Of A Great Friend « Kleinsaucer - November 23, 2011

    […]  – The New York Knicks: November 2, 2010 was a Tuesday. It was election day in New York City, and I was super excited to meet up with Jeff, Brooke and Dan for a Knicks game at MSG after a day at work. By now, most everyone in our group of friends knows how this story goes. When there turned out to be asbestos scare at the Garden that day, the Knicks-Magic matchup was postponed – the first non-weather related NBA game postponement since 1965, according to Mr. Klein. […]

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