Starting A New Year By Seeking A Do-Over Of The Past

10 Jan

I have long been a 1960s history junkie, and I’ve always thought the assassination of JFK was one of the most important and devastating events of that era.  So when I strolled through the Barnes & Noble store in Manhattan before Christmas, I was stunned to find that the latest Stephen King novel was entitled “11/22/63”, which was the date Kennedy was struck down by Lee Harvey Oswald.  On the book’s front cover is a newspaper containing the familiar headline: “JFK Slain In Dallas, LBJ Takes Oath,” but shockingly on the back cover, a completely different newspaper is pictured.  That headline reads: “JFK Escapes Assassination, First Lady Also OK!  Americans Breathe Sigh Of Relief.”  WOW.  I stood there completely bowled over by the whole concept, and I knew I had to have that book.  So I dropped a hint to Drew that this might be a cool Christmas present for Dad.  Drew acted upon the hint, and now I can’t wait to read it.

 

The book’s premise is that a Maine school teacher, Jake Epping,  learns from his friend, the owner of a diner, that the pantry in the back of his diner is actually a portal for time travel back to a specific date in the past,  September 9, 1958.  Step into the pantry, and you can travel back 53 years.  Jake’s friend had been using the portal to buy ground beef at 1958 prices (he must have had the most profitable diner in the country), but he offers Jake the opportunity to go back there for a deeper purpose—to stalk Oswald for five years and then prevent one of history’s most infamous events from happening.

The combination of a subject that fascinates me and the sheer concept of going back in time to prevent a senseless tragedy sent my mind into an absolute frenzy that day at Barnes & Noble.  I literally had to go sit down in the store’s Starbucks to compose myself.  You see, I have had these recurring fantasies, almost every day since Jeff died, that I actually stopped him before it was too late.  These aren’t dreams I’ve had while sleeping.  These are wide-awake, sitting at my desk with the door closed fantasies that I can’t stop visualizing. 

The Los Angeles Times review of King’s book says, “This is the conundrum of any time travel story…Every action taken in the past has an effect on the future, which means even the best intentions often have unintended consequences.  Jake learns this early in the novel, when he tries to save a man he knows from a childhood catastrophe, only to learn, upon returning to the present, that in the new world he’s created, his acquaintance was killed in Vietnam.”

I don’t buy it.   Was it better that Jake’s friend died in childhood, or 15+ years later in Vietnam?  My view is that every day of life is a blessing, and I’d have taken another 15 years with my beautiful son in a heartbeat, if that’s all I could have.  No brainer.  The future is always uncertain, but all senseless tragedies should be reversed if the power exists to do so.  I do understand the horrors that people endured serving in Vietnam, and I don’t mean to make light of those.  But to have 15 extra years with my son, almost under any circumstances, would be my choice.

I have two very distinct fantasies, one simple and one dramatic.  The simple one has me coming home early on the afternoon of November 9th, 2010, and I pull up to the house just as Jeff is backing out of the garage.  I say “hey, where are you headed, I came home early so we could grab an early dinner at Michael’s and then watch the Knicks-Bucks game at the bar afterward.”

And Jeff, not knowing what to say, kind of stammers and says, “Oh, sure, ok, great” and he pulls back into the garage.  I wonder why he says he needs to go back into the house to get his wallet, while I stare at a $1 bill and his loose driver’s license in his car’s cup holder.  There are also a few sheets of paper on the passenger’s seat.  Oh well, he must’ve forgotten the wallet before he got in the car.  He seems surprised and definitely out of sorts, but he pulls himself together, and we drive over to Michael’s.  We then have our typical great time together, talking about a plan for him to regroup and to figure out how to channel his true passions into a career that he will love.  And after a few beers, we start screaming at the TV as the Knicks proceeded to get blown out by 27 in Milwaukee.    

But in the real world on that night, Brett sat between Carey and me on our bed, none of us knowing what to do or say.  And we spent at least two hours trying to summon the courage to call Drew at college to tell him his big brother was gone forever.  Then, in the most courageous act I’ve ever witnessed in my life, Carey insisted that she would make the call.  After I walked Brett back to his room, hugged him goodnight for several minutes, and told him we would all take care of each other forever, I returned to our bedroom.  Carey took a deep breath and picked up the phone.  All I could do was sob as I listened to her explain the unexplainable.  How do you tell a 19 year old middle son that, in the blink of an eye, he had become our eldest ?

In my dramatic fantasy, I also come home early.  I don’t know how or why, but somehow I’ve been tipped off to what Jeff was on his way to do, and I speed toward the bridge.  I get there in time, and as he gets out of his car, I pull up behind him.  I get out, lunge toward him, and wrestle him to the ground, all the while telling him how much I love him and that everything will be ok.  I usher him into my car and drive him home.  I tell him that we’ll just tell the police later that his abandoned car had broken down.  The next day, I take him back to the behavioral therapist he was supposed to see on this day.  It goes well, as we expected, and the session gives Jeff the motivation to move forward in a positive way.  The meds he had been on the month before completely leave his system by the end of the year, and he feels back to himself again.  He is ready to embrace 2011.

The Associated Press’ book review says: “Revealing how ‘11/22/63’ ends would, of course, spoil the book.  But it kind of doesn’t matter, because the lesson is clarion: Don’t mess with yesterday.  It may bite.  Pulling at the threads of time’s tapestry is done at our own peril, and the conventional assumption that changing one thing about the past would make today better is simplistic.  Besides, King writes, ‘The past doesn’t want to be changed.’”

That may be true–the past may not want to be changed—but I would do anything including selling my soul if that’s what it took to bring Jeff back.  And changing that one thing absolutely WOULD make today better.  It would make the world a better place, brighten the days of many people who have been deeply hurt by losing Jeff as part of their lives , and it would erase the devastation that our family has endured and make us whole again.  I’d wager that even NBA Commissioner David Stern would welcome his arch rival back.  There would be no peril in changing the past to prevent what Jeff did.  There would only be goodness, beauty and hope.  There could be no negative repercussions to bringing back a young man who truly touched people’s lives and who had so much potential to do great things someday.  And since his death was an isolated incident that didn’t involve anyone else, reversing it would not alter the natural order of the universe.

The New York Times book review says, “There is a darker what-if. What if history is too forceful to redirect? What if jiggering the engine produces no favorable outcome — merely a postponement of the inevitable? If he had lived, Kennedy might not have escalated the war in Vietnam, and might have kept America out of a bloody mire. But we don’t know. What if we were headed there anyway? Then our tampering might only make things worse. It is not historical inevitability, but something close.”

I completely disagree with this passage.  I don’t believe there is anything inevitable about any of our fates.  We shape them through our actions and our approach to life.  If Jeff had gone to his appointment that day instead of to the bridge, he would not have simply been postponing the inevitable.  He would have been embarking on a new path, the right path, to getting his life back on track after the detour he took by leaving his job.  And every day that each of us is out there in the world battling it out is a day that brings us new hope and promise.  If our destinies were inevitable, why bother trying to shape them?  Why bother striving for anything? Of course, that is ludicrous.

I’ve had a long-time tennis league opponent named Paul Stone, who is a great player and one I have not yet been able to conquer.  All of our matches have seemed to go the same way.  I take a sizable lead, let’s say 7-2, and he always comes back to beat me by 2 or 3 games in a first-to-12 game match.  In the summer of 2010 after one such match, I went over to Paul and asked how he finds the resolve to never give up no matter how far behind he is in a match.  He said, “Rich, the way I look at it is, as long as I’m out there swinging the racquet, I always have a chance to win.  So I just play as hard as I can until the bell rings, and usually good things happen.”

I went home that day and immediately shared that story with Jeff and asked him if he agreed that this was a great metaphor for the way he should approach his own situation (he had just left his job at that time).  He listened intently and shook his head affirmatively.  He really seemed to enjoy the anecdote and to take it all in. 

Shortly after this, we left for East Hampton for what would be our final family vacation with Jeff.  The first day there, I got pretty sick, and by the time we went out for a family dinner that night, my temperature had spiked to 102.  I almost never get sick, and I guess it unnerved Jeff to see me in that state.  He asked to me to get up from the table so he could speak with me privately.  He brought me to the vestibule by the restaurant entrance and said, “Hey, I see what my whole job situation has done to you, and I don’t want you to worry.  I’m gonna step up and go to law school.”   He broke into a big smile as he said that.

He was clearly concerned about me and was making a very loving gesture, and I responded by embracing him right there and telling him how much I loved him.  But I corrected two things about what he said.  First, I told him I just happened to get sick- his leaving a job had nothing to do with it.  And second, while I appreciated the sentiment very much, I told him I only wanted him to go to law school if HE wanted to go.  I said I’d rather him step up and strive for WHATEVER he wanted to do.  Either way, it was an amazing moment.

 

Our final vacation as a family of five, in East Hampton, August 2010

 Less than three months later, though, medication-induced thoughts led Jeff to commit an irrevocable act.  Tragically, when it comes to suicide, there are no “do-overs”.

But “11/22/63” has prompted me to dream that maybe there can be a do-over after all.  Maybe there really is a time-travel portal somewhere in the world, in some abandoned warehouse, or some vacated farmhouse in the heartland, or maybe even in Atwater Commons at Middlebury for all I know.  I guarantee you this—if one exists, I will find it, even if it takes the rest of my days. 

And when I do locate it, I will travel back to the afternoon of November 9th, 2010.  If I have a choice when I get there, I will opt for the simpler fantasy of catching Jeff before he leaves our house, and then taking him to that long overdue dinner at Michael’s, so that I can eat, drink and watch basketball with my boy again.  After setting life back on its proper course, I will return to the present to find Jeff blogging away about the world of sports, getting ready for a night out with the guys, talking about his exciting new job working at ESPN.com, texting Brooke and Julie about their plans to meet in the city next week for dinner and a Knicks game, and typing a Facebook message to Thao about his plan to visit her in D.C. the weekend after that.

The realist in me understands that I may never find the portal that I seek.  But the simple lesson learned from Paul Stone is that as long as I’m out there searching hard every day, there’s always a chance that I will find it.  And while writing about Jeff in this forum has been great and therapeutic under the circumstances, I can’t wait for the day when, after fixing the past and returning to the present, I express my gratitude to Elon Rubin (this blog’s creator) for having given me the opportunity to write on the Kleinsaucer blog.  And the look of sheer befuddlement on his face, as he tells me he has no idea what I’m talking about, will be the most beautiful sight that I have ever seen.

-Rich Klein

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