A Father’s Day Reflection-Part 2

17 Jun

“My son turned 10 just the other day,

He said, “thanks for the ball, Dad, come on let’s play,”

“Can you teach me to throw?”

I said, “Not today, I’ve got a lot to do.”

He said, “That’s ok.”

       -“Cat’s In The Cradle”, Harry Chapin, 1974


I had just started high school when this song was released and it had an immediate and profound impact on me.  I was very close to my dad, and listening to this song made me realize how lucky I was to have such an amazing father who always had time for me, no matter what else he was doing.  One day during that year, we were in the car together when this song came on the radio.  I remember clearly how, after it was over, he looked over at me and said, “You’ll never be able to sing that song about me.” He was absolutely right.  And even though I was just a high school kid, I knew then that I wanted a son of my own someday, and I resolved to be exactly the same type of father that my dad was to me.

Me and my dad, circa 1975

We lived on the north shore of Long Island, and Dad worked in Fort Lee, NJ, which necessitated that he drive back and forth to work in brutal rush hour traffic every day.  He was so exhausted that all he ever did when he got home was eat dinner and fall asleep in his chair in our den in front of the TV.  Except during baseball season. 

Baseball was my passion and I lived to play Little League ball.  I was a pitcher and took it seriously, so during the spring, my Dad would get out of the car, get his catcher’s mitt, and without changing out of his suit, get down in his crouch at the end of our driveway to catch my blazing kid’s fastball.  I’m guessing in retrospect that it was probably the last thing he felt like doing after sitting in traffic for two hours, but he made it seem to me that it was easily the highlight of his day.  And he was totally into it, shouting encouragement as I pounded the strike zone for the next half hour.

My Little League games started at either 5 or 6pm, well before my Dad normally got home from work.  But the enduring vision I have of those evenings is standing on the mound before the start of a game, and seeing him running from the parking lot to the field, just in time to see the first pitch.  I don’t remember him ever missing a game, even though he usually cut it close.  I used to get so pumped up when I saw him there that the adrenaline probably added a little juice to my fastball.

Teaching Jeff to hit

I thought about those Little League days a lot during Jeff’s sophomore year at Greeley when he was a starter for the JV basketball team.  Those games were usually at 2:45 or 4pm, which made them a challenge for me to get to from my job in Manhattan.  But in an era of cell phones and blackberries, who needs face time at the office as long as I’d be accessible to those who might need me?  And so I would just leave at lunch time, or whenever, to make sure I got to the gym on time.  Just like my Dad got to the baseball field on time.  The past harmonizes. 

I tried to never miss a game, and I don’t think I ever did.  One time, I got to Greeley two minutes into the game, and I asked Richard Danzig, whose son played for the team, if I had missed much.  He said, “Well, other than Jeff nailing his first two threes, no, nothing at all !”  Ugh.  I made sure never to be late again.

Later that season, I debated whether I would be able to leave during a particularly busy day at work to make the 2:45 game.  Reason prevailed, fortunately, and I bolted for the train.  Thank God I did, because early in the game, a hard pass went off Jeff’s hand, and I saw him grab his fingers in obvious pain.  He ran to the bench seeking help, and Richard said to me, “I think he dislocated a finger.”

I sprinted across the gym to get to Jeff, and the trainer had plunged the finger into a bag of ice and had wrapped it up in towels.  He told me it was, in fact, dislocated and that I should get him to the hospital ASAP so they could pop it back into place easily before too much time passed and the swelling made it more difficult.  Jeff had an incredible tolerance for pain.  I could hardly watch when they did this at the hospital, but he barely winced.  More than anything, we were both thankful I was there, because while another parent would have driven him to the hospital, Jeff was scared, and you want your own parent with you at times like that.

My dad spent most of his career as a buyer of apparel for a large retail chain, and in that capacity, he had to go on buying trips to Asia twice per year, for a full month each time.  One of the most vivid memories I have of my childhood is exactly how much I hated it when he would leave my Mom and me for that long.  He called every few days but it didn’t make me feel any better about him being a world away.  He always left us a typed day-by-day itinerary, which my mother taped to their bedroom wall.  When I got up each morning, I took a pen and crossed off the previous day on the paper as my way of counting down the days until he’d be home again.  Those days never went by fast enough.

These not so fond memories have influenced how I’ve tried to manage my career over time.  I have always had my own self-imposed rule that I would never let my business keep me away from home for more than two nights.  This has been challenging over the years, as I have always had clients in San Francisco, L.A. and San Diego.  But I schedule my meetings on these trips so that I cram as many in as possible, so that I never break my rule.

If you had told me in 1974, as I listened to Cat’s In The Cradle in the car with my dad, that one of my own sons would one day take his own life, I would have burst out laughing and told you there was zero chance of that ever happening.  I mean, are you serious?  I knew the kind of father I’d be, and no kid in their right mind– with that type of parental love, devotion and support– would ever do something like that.  I guess I never thought too much about the operative words “in their right mind”.

When I did become a father at age 26, I tried to fulfill my promise.  I studied for my grad school classes in the bathroom of our 1 bedroom apartment so that Carey and screaming Jeff wouldn’t be alone.  I coached Jeff’s first T-ball team, and then four years of Rec basketball.  I tried to never miss a soccer, baseball or basketball game through the travel team and high school years. Or a school play, or a band concert. And getting home to take Jeff trick-or-treating on Halloween was always a priority. I knew how important it was to always be there, because I remember how I felt when my own father made that effort.  

I was also there to answer the phone the night it rang in January of 2005 when Jeff had totaled his car with other kids in it on an icy Mt. Kisco road, and I went to get him.  I was there when he called in the middle of the night later that spring after he got drunk for the very first time. He was at a party in Scarsdale, and neither he nor his designated driver friend could drive home. Thankfully, Jeff had enough sense to realize it.  So at 2am I rolled out of bed to go get him.  We spent the ride home talking about drinking, driving and the virtues of moderation and restraint.

However, more important than having engaged in crisis management is the fact that I was there to play, to read, to talk, to go to games, to do everything and anything, because for me, that’s what life’s all about.  But I didn’t know anything about the dangers of anxiety and the medication that gets prescribed to ease it, and that’s where it all fell apart.  I was ill-equipped to give advice on those things, and so I let him fall into the hands of a medical professional who didn’t exercise proper care in coming to a diagnosis and prescribing what turned out to be the medication that killed him.  But the question I struggle with is this: was the medication really so overwhelming that it completely took away his ability to exercise rational thought?  Or was Jeff just too willing to give up without a fight?  I have to believe it’s the former, because I am a fighter when it comes to dealing with adversity, and so was my dad.  That should have been in Jeff’s DNA too, or so I thought.

Jeff and I had many intense knock-hockey games

Picnic time

Jeff was my dad’s first grandson.  He adored Jeff, and while I wish my father could have lived forever, I must admit I am actually quite thankful that he was not here to endure this horror show with us.  I can’t even imagine him trying to make sense of this.  Whenever he thought that I, my mom or my sister was saying something that he thought was silly or that he couldn’t relate to, he’d invariably say, “What’s the matter with you people—did you take stupid pills or something?”  With no other alternative that he would have been able to fathom, I suppose Dad would have concluded that the meds Jeff was taking were “stupid pills.”

My dad and Jeff

In my first 20 years, I experienced the loss of several older relatives, including 3 grandparents.  I distinctly remember that at each of their funerals, when I was giving in to my sadness, my Dad looked at me sternly and said, “Remember, we live for the living.”  I was struck by how cold that statement seemed to me, especially coming from such a good, kind-hearted man.  Years later when I became a parent myself, I realized he was simply trying to snap me out of my funk in this way.  But I still found it harsh and unfeeling.

In the early minutes of Father’s Day 2012, however, I can relate to how a kind man can have unkind thoughts.  Today is a special and highly emotional day for our family.  Our precious son Brett is graduating from high school later this afternoon.  He will be our third and last son to do so, and in two months time, he will head to Villanova, leaving us with the famed empty nest.  This would have been emotional enough if Jeff was still here.  But given the circumstances, need I say more? 

We are so proud of the young man Brett has become, and my unkind thought is that I’ll be damned if I’m going to let Jeff ruin any part of this day for us.  It is outrageous, frankly, that he will not be here to celebrate his little brother’s graduation, especially since, just as Jeff loved Drew, he absolutely adored Brett from the minute he was born.  Brett could do no wrong in Jeff’s eyes.  Jeff loved to tease Brett, and among other things, he teased him about his red cheeks.  And he called him “baby” until the very end, often asking which of his “baby friends” were coming over that night.  Brett was so verbal and had a robust vocabulary at such an early age that Jeff dubbed him back then as “Baby Genius.” 

When Jeff moved home after college, there were numerous instances at dinner when Brett got fed up with Jeff’s teasing, and he just wound up and punched him in the arm as hard as he could.  By that time, Brett was a powerfully built 16 year old, and I felt the pain just watching it.  What was Jeff’s reaction?  He just broke into a big smile, every single time, and said without missing a beat, “I love him”!

In his Father’s Day card to me dated June 21, 2009, Jeff wrote, “You are the ideal role model for how to be a good father and I will undoubtedly look to and think of you when I become one.”

When I become one.  On June 21, 2009, Jeff had every intention of becoming a father.  A little over 16 months later, all of his plans and dreams had evaporated.  When I first read that card, I felt like I had achieved the goal I had set back in high school.  My son considered me a role model just like I considered my Dad to be one for me.  I had helped Jeff get to the point of thinking about a path that would lead him to a career and a family life which would see him become a father someday, always finding time for his kids.  I thought of Harry Chapin’s song:

“And as I hung up the phone, it occurred to me,

He’d grown up just like me.  My boy was just like me.”

But the reality is that he couldn’t have been less like me.  I just didn’t know it until the end, when he quit.  That was ultimately the biggest difference between us—how we each handled adversity–although I obviously understand that it’s not a fair comparison and that there were extenuating circumstances (i.e. meds) that caused this to happen.  My father, though, had three different types of cancer, as well as diabetes and spinal stenosis, and yet he was vocal about his desire to live forever so that he could watch our family grow and be with us on the journey.  That was my frame of reference. I’ve always tried to emulate his fighting spirit, and I assumed it would rub off on Jeff too.

I often wonder if Jeff has an itinerary for the rest of my life taped to the wall in his new home in Heaven, on which he crosses off each day and counts the days until we will be together again, just as I did when my Dad went to Asia for a month at a time. 

“When are you coming home, Dad?”

“I don’t know when.  But we’ll get together then, son.  We’re gonna have a good time then.”

It’s ultimately God’s call, but if I have any influence over my life’s course from here on out, Jeff had better have an awfully large supply of paper on hand with which to chart out my itinerary.  But regardless of how long it will be, I know that Jeff and I will be together again and that, yes, we’re definitely “gonna have a good time then”.

It’s my father’s words, though, not Chapin’s, that echo the loudest on this day: “We live for the living.” As much as I hope to rejoin Jeff someday, I have my precious memories of him to sustain me in the meantime, and my place is with my beautiful family and wonderful friends right here on earth.  And I’m going to enjoy every last moment of Brett’s graduation, with my old school camcorder and digital camera In hand to capture all the memories that will be created today. 

I just don’t understand, though, how we got to this place.  I had the same childhood anxieties and peer pressures that most kids have, but my parents made me feel like the most important thing in their lives, and with their unconditional love and support, I felt completely safe and secure in the belief that everything would always be ok.  And while I understand that Jeff’s pain was extreme, I grew up believing that with this type of 24/7 support, even the most severe problems could be solved.  Love conquers all, doesn’t it?

On or about October 21st, 2010, I visited Jeff in the hospital, where he was being weaned off the meds.  I used that visit as an opportunity to give him the mother of all pep talks.  I pride myself, though, in taking great care not to b.s. my kids when I attempt to motivate them.  Once you do that, you lose credibility.  As I always say to them, “I deal in facts.”  And with Jeff, the facts were clear–he had everything to look forward to in life.  I just needed to help him see that beautiful truth through the fog that had formed around his head and was impeding his vision.

Yet in the middle of my talk, I thought I detected a look in his eyes that said, “Enough, I’ve heard all this before,” and so I stopped in mid-sentence and called him out on it.  I said, “Jeff, would you prefer that I just stopped talking about all this?”  He looked at me straight in the eyes and replied, “Absolutely not.  I need you to talk to me like this.  It’s very motivating to me.”  Bingo.  I had him.  I thought for sure I had him.

Thus, what torments me is that I somehow couldn’t convey to Jeff, through 23 1/2 years of total devotion, the same sense of safety and security that my dad always infused me with.  I appreciate Jeff’s kind words in his 2009 Father’s Day card, but his final actions spoke much louder than those words. 

Real role models are not just people that others admire from afar–rather, they have the ability to inspire and influence behavior in a positive way.  For all my efforts, I obviously failed to do that.  I wasn’t able to convince my own son of the most basic concept–that life is always worth living and that the dawn of each day presents new hope and opportunity.  That is a failure of epic proportions.  That is why, as I begin Father’s Day and Brett’s graduation day, I have no choice but to reject Jeff’s assertion that I was an ideal role model.  Real role models don’t fail at the most crucial times.  They somehow find a way to inspire their loved ones to follow them to a better place.  I wasn’t able to, and that’s a painful truth that I will have to live with for the rest of my days.

-Rich Klein

One Response to “A Father’s Day Reflection-Part 2”

  1. Susan McClanahan August 26, 2012 at 9:55 am #

    Rich- I’m just now catching up on your beautiful posts. I learn so much about life and loss from them. You were and are an amazing role model for Jeff, Drew, and Brett and all of us who watch you parent. You’re one of the best parents (and person) I know and I remember at Jeff’s funeral, you mentioned having laid with him in his room and adjusted the basketball scores on his door the night before he took his life. I said then and I say now, very VERY few parents would take the time to nurture their young adult children the way you did and do. In my mind, Jeff’s suicide in no way reflects on your ability to inspire and influence his behavior. You did everything you possibly could and no parent has control over such actions. In a much much much less tragic way, pediatricians tell new parents they can’t force their babies to eat, sleep, or poop, we can’t control their willingness to live and embrace life- no matter what we do or how we act. I love you and Carey and your amazing family and you will continue to be amazing role models to me in both parenting and in how to “live for the living.” You are surviving one of life’s most tragic losses and I am so inspired by you. As Ed Novak said at Jeff’s funeral, I am proud to be your friend. xoxoxox, Sue

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